No appetite to uncover scale of illegal adoption scandal

Monday, April 13, 2015

By Conall Ó Fátharta
Irish Examiner Reporter
Calls for an audit of all the files held by accredited adoption agencies and by the State, so that the full scale of illegal adoptions and birth registrations can be uncovered, have always fallen on deaf ears, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

You really have to wonder how big a scandal needs to be before an Irish government decides to do the right thing and investigate the matter.

The latest revelations — that the Government was informed by the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) almost two years ago that there “may be thousands” of cases where people had their birth history falsified so they could be illegally adopted — poses a very simple question: Why was this not investigated?

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs was told by an AAI delegation in June 2013 — more than a year before the mother-and-baby home scandal — that there were “at least 120 [confirmed] cases” of illegal registrations. Not an insignificant number from the sample examined.

However, the AAI went further, stating its belief that this could well be the tip of the iceberg and that there “may be thousands” more. It named a well-known former private nursing home — St Rita’s in Dublin — where women went to give birth to their children before having to place them for adoption, as a “huge source of illegal registrations”.

It specifically named one religious-run former adoption agency — St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin — as being “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”, stating that the agency “are not seeking the people involved” but were, rather, “waiting for people to contact them”. The agency holds 13,500 adoption files — one quarter of all adoption files in the country

In a statement to this newspaper, AAI chief executive Patricia Carey said that the “may be thousands” comment made at the meeting was “a throwaway remark” and was “not based on verifiable facts”.

However, the fact that the department had called for a meeting on the subject and that an AAI delegation was willing to speculate at all on such a large number, indicates the issue was firmly on the radar of the adoption regulator.

With all of this information, you would imagine that someone in Government would think that this warranted investigation. Instead, five months later, then children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil she “had no plans to initiate an audit of all [adoption] files”.

She also claimed that all adoptions “which the Irish State has been involved in since 1952 have been in line with this [Adoption Act 1952] and subsequent adoption legislation”. This claim was repeated on two separate occasions by her successor, Charlie Flanagan.

Both made the claim despite the fact the full-scale audit of adoption records held by the State and accredited adoption agencies which could prove the claim has ever been carried out.

To adoption campaigners, this came as no surprise. They have long called for an audit of all adoption files held by accredited adoption agencies and the State so that the full scale of illegal adoptions and birth registrations can be uncovered. These calls to both the department and the AAI have always fallen on deaf ears.

However, it has now emerged that the decision not to order such an audit was made in the knowledge that the department was informed by the very body charged with regulating adoption in Ireland — the AAI — that it believed there “may be thousands” of cases of illegal birth registrations.

Why? The Irish Examiner put a series of questions to the department asking why it had not acted on this information and launched an investigation. Did it not feel that the AAI’s belief that thousands of people in the country had their identities falsely registered — a criminal offence — warranted investigation?

The department declined to respond to the specific questions asked, but said a full audit of adoption records would be “of very limited benefit”.

“It is important to note that the only way information generally becomes available is when someone with knowledge about the event comes forward… There is little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements… Accordingly, an audit of all adoption records would be of very limited benefit in establishing the number of illegal registrations that took place,” said the statement.

However, the very body regulating adoption seems to think differently. The 120 cases mentioned by the AAI in the June 2013 note refer to a 2010 audit it carried out of its records on foot of an Irish Examiner story on the case of Tressa Reeves, whose son was illegally adopted and falsely registered as the natural child of the adoptive parents without her consent. This was facilitated by St Patrick’s Guild who allowed the couple to take the child without a formal adoption order being made.

The audit uncovered approximately 99 cases, while a further 20 were identified in the following years. In a report prepared for the department in June 2011, the AAI said it considered carrying out a more comprehensive audit of the cases it uncovered, but because of the transfer of senior personnel and the “pressure on resources of the imminent establishment of the Adoption Authority no further action was taken”.

So clearly, the AAI felt the number of cases it uncovered in its own files warranted further investigation and “a more comprehensive audit”.

The statement by the department that there is “little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements” is also contradicted by a record of a meeting between two nuns from St Patrick’s Guild and representatives from Tusla, the Child And Family Agency, which states that the agency’s records contained “some illegal registrations” and, crucially, that “full details are available on the majority of cases”.

The agency is in the process of transferring its records to Tusla.

Why was none of this immediately investigated by the State?

Despite being aware of this almost two years ago, no full audit has been carried out of adoption records nor is one planned. Despite loud and repeated calls from a range of adoption groups, St Patrick’s Guild was also excluded from the mother-and-baby home inquiry.

The agency has been making headlines for decades. In 1997, former justice minister Alan Shatter said the behaviour of the agency in relation to how it dealt with adopted people and natural mothers looking for information about their identity was “almost beyond belief”.

“It is unacceptable that an adoption society such as St Patrick’s Guild has deliberately misled people by giving grossly inaccurate information, both to adopted persons and to birth mothers, with regard to the background to their adoption,” he said. “It is almost beyond belief that an adoption society deliberately set out to tell adopted persons the wrong names, wrong dates of birth and the wrong ages of the birth mothers.”

Adoption, specifically forced and illegal adoption, has always been the elephant in the room for the State in relation to the mother-and-baby home inquiry. Adopted people and birth mothers are waiting decades for tracing and information legislation to grant them basic identity rights. They get told it is very “complex” but work is “progressing”. One wonders if offering tracing rights and opening up adoption files may open up another can of worms the State would rather stay firmly closed.