Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Joint Committee On Children, Equality, Disability, Integration And Youth
General Scheme of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2021: Discussion (Resumed)
We are in public session. We have not received any apologies. Before we begin, I need to go through a few housekeeping matters. If any member or witness participating remotely experiences any sound or technical issue, will he or she let us know? Otherwise, we will proceed.
I advise everybody that as this is a public meeting the chat function on MS Teams should be used only to advise participants of any technical issue or urgent matter and should not be used to make general comments or statements. I remind members participating remotely to keep their devices on mute until they are invited to speak, and when they are speaking I ask that, where possible, they have their cameras switched on and be mindful that we are in public session.
In addition, I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place in which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate in the meeting from outside the precincts will be refused.
Members participating in the meeting from the committee room are asked to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of Covid-19. They should always maintain an appropriate level of social distance during and after the meeting. Masks, preferably of medical grade, should be worn at all times during the meeting except, obviously, when people are speaking. I ask for co-operation in this matter. It would be appreciated if committee members who are participating remotely put their location into the chat function so I know who is in Leinster House for the questions and answers.
Our first session is with representatives from the Collaborative Forum and Adoption Loss-the Natural Parents Network of Ireland. I offer a very sincere welcome to Ms Terri Harrison and Ms Alice Coughlan who are members of the Collaborative Forum and to Ms Muriel Thornton and Ms Rhoda Mac Manus who are members of Adoption Loss-the Natural Parents Network of Ireland. The purpose of our meeting today is to engage with them on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the birth information and tracing Bill. I want to say to all of the witnesses appearing before the committee that their assistance to us as a committee in scrutinising the general scheme of the Bill is invaluable and very much appreciated. We all recognise that it is not an easy task to appear before a parliamentary committee to discuss such sensitive issues. For this we are very grateful. We genuinely mean this and we are delighted the witnesses are able to join us today.
I need to go through parliamentary privilege before the witnesses make their opening statements. As all of the witnesses are appearing before the committee virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty if parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if the witnesses are directed by me to cease giving evidence about a particular matter, it is imperative they comply with any such direction. Following the delivery of the opening statements we will have questions and answers with the members. The speaking rota has been circulated to all members in advance of the meeting. Each member is allocated five minutes, which includes the time for answers. I now invite Ms Harrison to make her opening statement.
Ms Terri Harrison:
I thank the committee for this opportunity. I will go straight to early care information. I would like an amendment made to the Bill regarding the early care of our children. We were locked away in institutions. Even though our babies were in the same institutions, they were locked away in nurseries. The very early care of a child reflects its entirety of care. People were given permission to access the locked nurseries in between feeding times, which was the only time we were allowed to care for our newborn babies. It is essential that the early care information is accurate and that it reflects the truth of what really happened in these institutions. The mother should have the right to know to what extent people had access to her newborn baby. Many things transpired and we had no authority. We were not seen as the child's mother and, therefore, we did not give the entire early care.
With regard to access to records, I want to know by whom these scribbled notes were recorded and how they reflect the truth and transparency of what really happened in these places. It is imperative that the mother of the child is allowed to proofread such records. Who is deemed qualified to describe us, our well-being, mental well-being and emotional state? To give an example, the records I have witnessed from the so-called qualified authority state every pregnancy was healthy and normal and every delivery was healthy and normal. We now have proven facts that this is untrue. These facts are being withheld. For all the girls who were imprisoned, the only real test on record is that they had to be seen if they had syphilis. This was an essential test when entering these places. Nobody ever came in to inspect the well-being of the expectant mother. In the terminology of the Government for the past 70 years we are never described as expectant mothers or new mothers. The early care information has to reflect on the unborn child. It affects them also. It has been scientifically proven that the well-being of the mother as the child lives inside of her is essential to the future of that unborn child.
I would like to see an amendment on access to counselling. It is crucial the councillors are accredited. The Bill states Tusla social workers will provide vital support to those who wish to avail of it. I would definitely like to see a qualified medical practitioner put in place such as a psychologist. We have a living bereavement brought on by an unnatural separation of mother and child. It affects both equally for different reasons. This is why it is vital that it is a qualified practitioner who is involved.
The contact register and the family of origin are entirely separate issues. Every person has the birthright to know from whom they came, their culture, their heritage and their gene pool. We have only one birth certificate and everybody is entitled to it.
I will end on a human note. The Bill will have a profound effect on thousands in the years to come. It is all down to legalised human trafficking and false imprisonment of mothers and their children.
For the sake of Irish society, I implore the committee to consider this Bill from a very deep and considered human perspective.
Ms Muriel Thornton:
I am grateful for the opportunity to give the committee our views on the forthcoming legislation on adoption information and tracing. This Bill has been a long time coming, and we have made submissions on previous information and tracing Bills over the past 20 years, none of which was enacted.
Our first observation is that the very Title of the Bill betrays its presumptions upfront. The suggestion is that it is primarily adopted people who are the seekers. The heads of the Bill, when closely examined, show that it is of very little relevance to the many thousands of mothers, fathers and other relatives who have phoned our helpline throughout the past decades or attended our support meetings seeking our advice and assistance in contacting their adult children.
We are familiar with the complexities involved, having sat on the advisory committee appointed by the then Minister of State, Brian Lenihan, which led to the setting up of the National Information and Tracing Service by the Adoption Board in 2007. The information leaflet about this service, containing our helpline number, was sent to every address in the State. The calls over the following years have uncovered the harsh treatment, illegal practices and social pressures which led to the separation of mothers from their children. We have provided the committee with one of our previous submissions which illustrates this well.
Specific to the proposed Bill, we ask the committee to consider the following. A referendum should be held on the primacy of information rights over privacy where adoption, fostering or residential care settings have separated mothers, fathers and other relatives from their children. The Bill should be renamed as the "Family Information and Tracing Bill". Many people were not legally adopted but still require a tracing and information service. This is about families after all - not about birth.
The legislation should grant equality to mothers and fathers in the service. Adoption certificates should be provided to the mothers and the birth certificates to their adult children. We understand that the names and address of the adopting parents would be redacted. A comprehensive information leaflet should be provided to all regarding the laws on adoption and what papers may be contained within the file. The present Tusla leaflet is a lesson in obfuscation.
As most of the social workers will have retired, the only true witness to the circumstances surrounding the separation of the child from the mother is the mother. She should be facilitated to read her file in the presence of a social worker, who should explain the significance of particular documents. The mother should be helped to write a statement to correct or add to the information before it is given to her adult child. She would not be allowed to remove anything from the file.
Provision should be made for counselling assistance to the mother if the adopted person refuses to provide information to her.
The Adoption Authority of Ireland should immediately trace and write to all people registered as adopted to inform them of the fact of their adoption. At present, the laws on privacy are interpreted in such a way that apparently prevents this.
My colleague, Rhoda Mac Manus, would be happy to answer any questions.
I thank the witnesses for their submissions and for taking the time to appear before the committee today. I ask Ms Coughlan to clarify why she believes the term "accredited counsellor" should be replaced with "psychologist". If the committee were to propose an amendment, should we try to capture several different professions? As some people might prefer a psychologist, rather than replacing "accredited counsellors" perhaps we should include psychologists and accredited counsellors for those who might want access to a different type of counsellor.
Ms Alice Coughlan:
When I came out of Cork, on my way home, I made four promises. I would trust no one. I would let no one control me ever again. I would block everything that had happened from my mind. If I ended up being the opposite of the nuns who dealt with me, I would be a good person. I blocked everything out for 40 years. I never married. I worked hard. I bought my own house. I had one more daughter and I educated her. I worked very hard.
About six years ago I decided I was done. I started getting these flashbacks. I had another operation. I got shingles. For the first time in about 40 years I was locked in a house on my own where I had to face my life. I went to counselling, which I paid for. To be totally honest, it was fine. It helped me. It opened up the start of what happened to me. I went to the commission and asked for counselling from the commission. A year to the day after I appeared before the commission, I was offered counselling, but only if I gave up my own counsellor. I said, "No, I'm not going to have this."
Then it got to the stage where counselling was not doing anything for me. I was getting flashbacks and other things. After appearing before the commission, for three months I would remember something that happened to me in the convent and I would say, "Oh God, I should have said that at the meeting."
Then I turned around and I went to my doctor and I went to the community mental health centre where I saw a psychologist. This was a totally different experience for me. First, this lady was not saying to me, "Yes, Alice. No, Alice. Right, Alice." I do not mean this in a wrong way; I am just saying this is what I was getting from counselling. The psychologist was kind of hearing me or guiding me through certain things and pulling me back when I went all over the place.
To put it bluntly, for the two years I went to counselling there was not one week when I did not cry through the counselling session. It was like a release for me if I am honest. It is not that it did me that much good but it did give me a release. That is the only way I can describe it.
If I was asked now what I think people need, I can honestly say they need trauma counselling with somebody who actually knows what they have gone through - a loss, this feeling that somebody has taken their soul and just thrown it into the dust, and that they are of no importance to anybody or anything. They need somebody who is able to look at them. They need to feel they can actually talk to someone who understands what they are saying. That person should be able to turn around and guide them.
I believe this of every person who has gone through an institution or any form of trauma as a result of this, be it adoptees or especially survivors of mother and baby homes and other institutions. A woman bringing children into this world afterwards is destroyed because of this and obviously it will greatly affect her children or her partner.
The other thing is that it actually helped me realise that I did not have a choice.
Well, I had a choice - either give my child up for adoption or that child goes into an institution until 17 years of age. Either way, I would not be getting that child back. That was my choice, but is that a choice? I knew what happened in institutions. Even in those days, people were not that silly. We knew what happened in those places. I have met my daughter, but there are many adopted people who actually believe that their mothers went into a convent, had them and then decided to give them away for adoption.
Something else I feel strongly about is the nuns writing these reports. The nun that did this to me wrote up my information, but I am supposed to sit back and say that that was grand and she was going to be fair. This nun walked in and gave me a new name, a new number and that advice. That was my choice - keep my mouth shut and get on with it. She did not say, "Keep your mouth shut". She just said, "You are not getting your child" and that it would go for adoption and have a privileged and good upbringing. Unfortunately, I had had a privileged upbringing, in that I had a Catholic private education, so I was twice as bad as the rest of them. At least they had some excuse because they were not educated by the nuns, etc.
The main point is that they be offered advice. I spent two years sitting in the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society of Ireland listening to a social worker before I even met my daughter. We had to go out of our way to do that. I turned around and said, "Hold on a minute". I had blocked everything out because I had been so innocent, so I spoke at my daughter. I did not get anyone who talked to me about what to expect when meeting my daughter. I did not get any of that, so I actually spoke at my daughter for the first year and a half, not to her, and she spoke at me. All she could think of was that it had been the worst time of my life and she was bringing it back to me. The last time we met, we both cried. We decided to leave it for a few weeks and then get back together. We are looking forward to meeting each other.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before us. I will keep my questions brief. I am seeking elaboration on the points the witnesses have made. The Collaborative Forum outlined the need for the Bill's definition of "care information" to include information on deprived care, as a mother has a right to know what happened to her child when in any care outside her presence. Will the witnesses elaborate on the importance of this?
Adoption Loss-the Natural Parents Network of Ireland referred to the need to grant equal status to mothers and fathers under all heads of the Bill. Will the witnesses elaborate on the importance of this so that everyone present might understand better? Ms Thornton referred to the Tusla leaflet "regarding the laws on adoption and what papers may be contained within the file" as "a lesson in obfuscation." Will she elaborate?
Ms Terri Harrison:
I will respond to the question on the language used. Our submission refers to "deprived care" because, from what I read in the Bill, no explanation of "early care information" in respect of our children was being sought. My son would not know that I was not totally allowed to provide any such care. That is the reason I included "deprived care". It is essential that people know that my son was locked away in a nursery that was only unlocked four hours every day, that I was to be supervised while feeding him and that, after he was taken from his cot, it took me 22 years to find out if he was alive. All of this reflects on the attitude towards early care information. He was my son and I did not sign an adoption paper. I tried for several years to get information from the Eastern Health Board and Tusla about where the nun took my son to from St. Patrick's on the Navan Road. I know now that she took him back to Bessborough where I had escaped from. How long was he in that locked nursery in Bessborough? Given that information on the care of many of our babies is questionable, why would a Bill say that we had care of them when we did not? I hope that has clarified for the Deputy. For me as a human being and as Niall's mother, I would love to know what happened to my son inside and outside the institution, for example, the strangers who frequented the nursery and the pharmaceutical companies' cluster groups. I know his record after the age of 18 years, but if I looked for information about him or where he was before that age, I was threatened with the Garda. This is all relevant to my son, who has no idea and who has never accessed his records. As his mother of the time and as his mother now, I wish to know legally what they did to my baby boy when they had him in the same institution as me and when they took him from one institution to another before he went out to the people they chose to be his parents.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
Regarding the question on early care, I agree with Ms Harrison. I will give some of my personal story. I went back to school after my daughter was born. I remember how, when she was a few weeks old, I went back to the adoption agency and asked to see her at Temple Hill where she had been taken. The agency simply refused; it just said "No". At that age and in that situation, one just accepts what she is told to do as an obedient girl obeying the rules of society. Subsequently, letters that I wrote to the agency inquiring about how she was went unanswered. This continued for years and years.
Our solution to this problem, which is reflected in the Bill, is that mothers, because they were the only witnesses to what happened, should be allowed to read the whole file and write a statement, with the help of a social worker, to fill in the gaps, including how hard it was to make contact with them and find out how they were. As Ms Harrison and Ms Coughlan said, to simply know your child is alive is a fundamental thing, and even that was denied to us.
That is the nightmare we live until the time we can meet children again. Writing this statement would also remove another fear we have which is, in some cases, adopted people are looking for pieces of paper and bits of information to fill in missing gaps. For us, the search is about contact. It is about an emotional need to reunite with the child to whom we gave birth and about whom we have been wondering all our lives. Where is the child on his or her communion or confirmation? What is the child doing on his or her birthday? We live with this all of our lives and our fear is when we, eventually, it is hoped, get to meet the child again, this will lead to a relationship. However, the trouble is we have had no control over what was put into that file; what was written or said about us or even things such as whether cards we wrote were put into the file. The statement gives us a chance to reflect the reality; tell the truth; name the father, if he has not been named, and to paint our personalities, illustrate our need and, it is hoped, persuade that person to want to have a relationship with us. That is why this statement is so important.
Timing is crucial and this Bill will be crucial. Ms Thornton has requested the Bill head be changed, which we need to address. It is worrying this is going on more than 20 years. Everybody is getting older and children are growing up. For me and the committee, the timing of this Bill will be crucial, as will how we make sure we get this Bill right, because, we need to do it right this time. We have an opportunity to change things and that will happen this time. I also want to address the comprehensive leaflet. That is really important. Communication and access will be absolutely vital and a comprehensive leaflet will be so important to access information. What more can we do on that or what do the witnesses feel we should do to address that urgently? That is one of the tools going forward.
I was going to ask about the social workers and counsellors. That has been addressed in that there needs to be a qualified counsellor on this. We are dealing with people who have been heartbroken and have gone through so much. We have to make sure the counselling they receive is the proper counselling they need. It is all about finding the right ways to make sure we address the witnesses' concerns. I thank them and ask them to come back to me on the comprehensive leaflet and what we should be looking at in that. All the witnesses spoke about how one gets the proper information. We need to make sure that when the information is given, it is all the information, and people can access it themselves; we must ensure it is not pieces of paper. I again thank them very much.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
The reason the leaflet is so important is, from our experience, we know how necessary this is. We have sat with quite a number of mothers who received photocopies of the information in the file. Many of them did not realise the significance of some of that information. There was a woman who received her son's birth certificate, but she did not see straight off that his birth was not registered until he was six. She had signed an adoption consent form, or so she thought, and then discovered it was a permission for her son to be boarded out, which was devastating news for her. There needs to be somebody who is prepared to tell the truth about those documents, which these social workers do not tell. They send out photocopies of the information, but they do not even tell you if this indicates an illegal adoption. We have sat with a woman we were able to tell that there were signs of an illegal adoption. The State organisation - I have to be careful here - that sent this to her, did not say in the covering letter that her son had been illegally adopted, but that was a fact. They are not prepared to own up to the illegalities. The reason the information needs to be so detailed is not even we, as mothers, know what might be in the file. We do not know if anyone did write about us or wrote a report. We do not know whether our children wrote in looking for information about us. We know none of these things and unless there is a detailed list of what might be in the file in order that we can ask that question when we go to meet with a social worker and go through the file with her or him, it is pretty useless. I apologise, I may be going off the point.
Ms Alice Coughlan:
I met my daughter and found out things I saw on the list back from the Government through freedom of information. So much stuff was not included. My daughter's adoptive mother had written to the agency for five years, giving details of how my daughter was doing. I never have received that and even in the information I got from them, none of that was included. My daughter went in when she was 19 and was going to Australia. The Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland told her it was useless and there was no way she would ever be meeting me and that was it. It told her it did not matter, she would not be meeting me and it did not make a difference. There were so many things.
When I got my papers, or some of my papers, from the Catholic protection society, I was 18 on one page; 19 on another and 21 on the other. My baby was born in St. Finbarr's Hospital, which she was, but my baby was also born in Bessborough. It was said the social worker who was in charge of the adoption came down to Cork to meet me - which never happened. I met her one day, when the adoption papers were being signed. One can be terribly naive. I genuinely believed this was my choice. My daughter, at this stage, would be brought up in an institution, rented or boarded out, or whatever you like to call it and would have a horrendous life for her first 17 years, or I could give her some form of life. I had to believe the person who wanted to adopt really wanted a child to love and cherish.
This social worker signed her name to say she knew me very well, had met me on more than one occasion and happened to be very well known to me. I never met the woman until five minutes before I walked from South Anne Street to Dawson Street to sign a paper. Yet, I am expected to believe the truth and everything else is in these papers which my daughter might read or receive. These nuns, and I am sorry to call them that, are writing out details and without being rude, there are three downright lies by social workers.
I was in hospital because they left half the afterbirth in me. I am not going to go into all of that but they actually wrote in one of my letters that they knew I was in hospital with a kidney infection. Everything that was on the page - this is a better way of saying it - was half-truths, if that makes sense. They were half-truths. And that is what I got.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee today and for their opening statements and submissions. We all share a wish to address issues raised in the current general scheme of the birth information and tracing Bill in the interests of those who are most affected.
In my experience of this committee's engagement with the mother and baby home survivors, it is clearly stated that the right to truth is of the utmost importance and that "free and unfettered access to their own personal information and records is essential for survivors."
I will start with a question for Ms Coughlan. From her own experience, how important is the full release of information for adopted persons? In their opening statements, both our witnesses made reference to counselling assistance. Could Ms Harrison perhaps elaborate on how these supports could be availed of if they wished to access them? In her conclusion, Ms Thornton noted that fathers were also denied the right to be named on birth certificates. Perhaps she can give us an example of this.
Ms Terri Harrison:
I thank the Chairman. I want to reiterate the aspect of truth in records. My abduction in the UK and being brought back here by the Catholic Crusade of Rescue is not reflected in my records, in many ways. It would not be reflected to my son. There was also rubber-stamping of adoption by judges where the clergy would present it.
I got my records and got access to quite a few items of correspondence in which the truth that is written is that I was a very difficult young girl. My difficulty is not explained. The explanation is that I would not sign any papers. When I received a copy of my son's adoption, the person who signed my name had spelled it wrong. What is also not on record is the fact that after returning from England, I went back to collect my son. I informed them that I was taking him. He had already been adopted and they threatened me with the High Court, the police - everything. I would like my son to know these very important details.
Ms Mac Manus said and I totally 100% agree that I would like to proceed without the help of any social worker. As Ms Coughlan said, I have no trust whatsoever in authority. I believe this belongs to the mother and the adult son or daughter and, therefore, given the choice, I would like to write a full, in-depth statement of journey of where we began when he began to grow inside me and the circumstances of living in London and being brought back to this country against my will. Furthermore, I would like my son to know the complete journey of the lack of care while he was growing inside me, the lack of medical care after he was born and the lack of care in that I was denied to know, every night of the last 48 years, how my son is. How is he? Nobody can answer that question for me and I am his mother until the last breath has left my body.
Ms Alice Coughlan:
To me, the main thing is that if a child wishes to meet a parent, there should be respect on both sides. If a child grows up - most of our children would be adults - and decides he or she does not wish to see his or her parent, that is his or her choice. If a mother decides or she has not told her family or whatever the case may be and does not wish to have contact, both sides should be respected. Both sides should have to see a psychologist regardless and actually sit down with somebody to try to go through what is going around in their heads. There is nobody in a mother and baby institution who was not affected emotionally - in other words, destroyed emotionally. It genuinely needs somebody who is able to get through to the mother or to the child. The child maybe has this thing in his or her head. Basically, we do not know how many children were told lies that their mother did this or did not want them. We do not know how many children grew up thinking their parents or mother did not want them. How many were a case of rape? How many were a case of incest? There are so many angles and so many issues, therefore, respect is needed on both sides, that is, respect for the adopted person and respect for the mothers of the babies.
Again, this idea of somebody writing one's letter is just incomprehensible. It is just unbelievable that anyone would actually believe that somebody like a nun could actually write what happened to a person or about what way they were in those circumstances. As I said, the big thing that gets me more than anything are half-truths. They can just put something in that is a half-truth and, therefore, it can be made somewhat believable. I will go back to Yvonne Murphy, the judge who turned around and asked one nun about the 38 babies. That nun did not remember one death that occurred in her first year in the convent and yet Judge Murphy could tell her there were 38 deaths that year, and those were registered deaths. We got this from the commission. That is proof. There were 38 registered deaths.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
I have my own personal experience with regard to inaccurate information that is in the files. It was not until I got a copy of the consent form that I signed, which I never got a copy of at the time and which I was not aware I was entitled to, that I found they had increased my age from 16 to 18 years old on the consent form. Now, if my daughter had access to the documents before she met me, she would think I was 18 years old when I gave birth to her and not 16 years old. That is just an example of the kind of thing we need to correct.
I will also expand on something I said about when the social worker would help somebody to write a statement to be added to the file. It is something we have looked at and have been talking about for 20 years. I did not mean that the social worker would have any part in actually phrasing it but simply that he or she would act as a secretary and, maybe, because the women would be very emotional and nervous, remind her of particular aspects of her life that she might want to include or might have forgotten. That is all. It is not that he or she would have control over the statement but would simply be there to hold the woman's hand while she is doing it. That is all.
I thank the witnesses for coming today. I know it is really difficult for them to appear before this or, indeed, any committee to talk about how badly they have been repeatedly treated.
Many questions have already been asked about the counselling and that type of thing. Ms Harrison spoke about the lack of trust she has. Ms Mac Manus, and Ms Coughlan as well, mentioned the lies that were written. We have all these records now which we cannot trust. Hopefully, the groups represented here can advocate, rewrite this and talk about the truth that happened to them and not a nun's truth that was convenient to these institutions at the time. They got what they wanted, put the people here on the conveyer belt and it was boxed off. Clearly that was done.
I am only asking for the witnesses' opinions on this because I feel absolutely useless. I feel completely at a loss because of the lies that were written about the witnesses and the others in this situation and how badly they have all been treated. How can we as a committee advocate for the witnesses, for people like them, for people who do not have the skills and for people who are not here, like the babies who are not alive? How can we do our very best, in the witnesses' opinion to get the truth and to help get the truth, because the truth is not written down? The truth is in people like the witnesses. It is not really a question, I am just looking for opinions on that.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
Members will have noticed we included in our opening statement something pretty mind-blowing, even in our opinion, which was that there should be a referendum on the right to information. This has been talked about for decades. The right to privacy has been used as a shield to prevent information getting out to the public. It was really to protect the State. That is what it was really about because if people got their information they would realise the wrongs that had been done to them. We feel the present Attorney General has not properly explained why he now holds a different position to previous Attorneys General, in that he is saying it is possible for people to get their birth certificates. He has never addressed the issue of our right to our child's adoption certificate but we have always felt as an organisation that there should be parity of esteem.
The way we have seen adoption is that there is a hierarchy of power and the powerless person in this was always the adopted person. The person with less power and less agency was the natural mother and the people who had more choice were the adoptive parents. We feel that hierarchy of rights should follow. As we were constrained for so long and silenced for so long we think the least that can be done is for the right to information to be extended to us as mothers as well. At the point a person reaches 18 years of age and is entitled to the birth certificate which will give them information on their original name then we should be entitled to our child's adoption certificate which will give us their new name. When you think of it, for all those years we think of our children by the name we gave them. It is very hard, when we find out the new name, to get used to that. The earlier we can find out the new name the easier it will be for us to get used it. It is also an emotional thing. It is a preparation. It is a preparation for the fact we will be meeting someone who has grown up into adulthood under other people's influence and it will help us with accepting that fact.
Ms Muriel Thornton:
I will quickly add to that if the Chair does not mind. Like we said in our statement, we have been 20 years attending these meetings and I feel that strangers, all those years ago, made decisions that affected our lives for generations. It is a basic human right to know where you come from so hopefully this Bill is going to do what it needs to do. I agree wholeheartedly with what Ms Mac Manus says about a referendum being the right way to go also.
Ms Terri Harrison:
The Senator asked what she can do to help and mentioned my mistrust of authority. They took that out of me. I make no apology for that. To trust in your own society and to lose that is somewhat horrifying. I wish they would acknowledge what happened in the agreement of legalising everything they did and getting paid for our care, which did not happen, and the imprisonment of being an expectant mum outside the licence of marriage. I agree with Ms Mac Manus that it is essential more truth is acknowledged. The more that is acknowledged, the more we can heal as a society. Trans-generational trauma is very real and we are only a little island. It is going to affect our society and culture for years to come.
I had three children after my firstborn son, Niall. Niall John Kiernan only exists on paper. Niall John Kiernan only exists for me. The man he is today at 48 years of age goes by a different name and that was never my choice. Our journey, good, bad or indifferent was supposed to be ours and ours alone, including his daddy. DNA testing was not out back then. Most fathers would never have been allowed on the birth certificate because the clergy registered your child. On my son's birth certificate it says the residence is 384, Navan Road. There is not a whisper of St. Patrick's, not a whisper of the nun who signed it Elizabeth, not Sister Elizabeth. All of these institutions all around Ireland and all these same agencies, not one of them adhered to the Adoption Act 1952, which I only found out about eight years ago. My son was 40 years of age when I found out the legal rights I had to keeping my son, even in 1973. Therefore it must be exposed and must be acknowledged. It must be allowed to be open and transparent and communicated to all. Our children may suffer as adults, as fathers, as grandfathers or grandmothers. Even today it is a third generation it is going to spill out on to, this huge void, this awfulness of not knowing anything. It is barbaric actually.
We are 50 years behind Australia. We are so many years behind so many countries in the same world. Why is that? I ask why we are so afraid to expose a church, I think it is called the Roman Catholic Church. I am not a Catholic by the way. I know it ran our State for years. Is this what is wrong? Are our leaders today so profoundly Catholic before they are Irish? I often wonder about that myself because I am an Irish woman, very badly wronged, and my son is an Irish man but I am not Catholic Irish. I am just Irish per se. I wish to God - that is just a figure of speech - I wish for somebody somewhere who has access, who has the authority, who has the right, to stand up and say do you know what, this has been going on for 70 years. I have run support groups for women for 22 years. One of the women, Helen, is 87 years of age. Her son is 70 years of age. She is still waiting on somebody to do something. It just has to stop. If we want a future in this country of a healthy culture, an open society and to really reclaim our Irishness we need to go forward with truth and transparency for all.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
Yes. This is following on from what Ms Harrison said there when she was talking about ages and the age her son is and so on.
The most satisfying reunion we ever had was a mother of 100 years of age reuniting with her daughter of 60 years of age. It was wonderful. Her daughter moved in with her for the last three years of her life and looked after her until she died at 103 years old.
What Ms Mac Manus said shows that it is a lifelong need that has to be fulfilled. I will leave this meeting impacted by that. When this Bill was presented and as we have gone through it, we have seen it and hoped to report on it as being the right of adults and children to know who they are and to be able to trace who they are. To be honest, I was very pleased with where we were going with that, but today abruptly stops me in my tracks with the thought that we have missed a big step here. Let me try to reflect what I have heard. The step is, first and foremost, that there is basic information that the witnesses, as mothers, have a right to know about the care of their children. That is perhaps the least of the justified demands that I am hearing the witnesses share.
The second is the consent given. I am a privacy lawyer by trade and consent must be fully informed and freely given for it to be truthful. If girls did not understand the form they were filling out and could mistake an adoption form for a boarding out form, it is not consent. If the opportunity is absolutely not even offered, then there is no consent. That context of deliberate misleading and deliberate misinformation has to be borne in mind when we consider the right to information and who has that right to information.
I heard the witnesses articulate very movingly that they remember birthdays and Christmas and that they wonder about major events. I can only imagine what that must be like and how difficult and challenging it is. I am also hearing an anxiety about the files. Clearly, there is access to the files to some degree, given that the witnesses can know the difference between them. I am assuming that is the general data protection regulation, GDPR. On what basis are the witnesses seeing the files? I know also from the GDPR that they have a right to amend and correct where there is wrongful content in the files. Perhaps an information piece has to happen about people's entitlement to that. What I am hearing is that the files are not accurate. There is a concern that the notes in them are jaundiced because they were written by people with an agenda and a context. Perhaps they were nearly reckless as to the content. It may have been human error for a small minority, or perhaps deliberate misleading and cover-up statements. The witnesses have a right to know about their babies, what happened to their babies and the content of the file. There is also an anxiety that when the grown-up baby gets that information, the information accurately portrays the mother and that the mother has a right to put a context on that.
I was struck by the words that the witnesses have a right to paint their personalities. That is very powerful. They are anxious to communicate who they are to the child. The information leaflet needs to be more comprehensive. I am very taken by having somebody sit with the witness to go through the file and to provide her with assistance and context. Perhaps the accumulation of knowledge from that person after seeing lots of different files would mean the person could say, "That is what that means", so the witnesses would get the benefit of that advice. I hear that very strongly.
I have been contacted anonymously and there are mothers who do not want contact because of their current circumstances. It is not because of the child, but they want to keep it secret due to their current circumstances. It may be difficult for them to come forward and seek the file to make sure about the file. Do we need an information campaign to say these files are here and a sensitivity from the State that there may be gross inaccuracies here?
I ask the witnesses to reflect their thoughts back. Is that it? That is what I think I am hearing the witnesses say.
They are not to anybody. It is me taking notes from everybody, to be honest. I apologise as it is not even a question. It is more that I am summing up for myself and for the purposes of our pre-legislative scrutiny report to make sure we capture what is being said here because it appears that there is a missing step.
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
The Senator is correct in what she says about missing a step. As we said in our opening statement, this Bill has been constructed as if we never want or need information or contact with our children, and that is so wrong. We have been fighting for this for many decades. I will make a plea. We made a submission as well, not just an opening statement. The submission the committee has, which I hope the members have read, is very detailed. We have presented it twice before, unamended and with exactly the same words. We have been saying the same thing to the same civil servants for decades, and none of that has ever made its way into any legislation. We do not know the reason for that. We do not know why there seems to be some type of constructed wall against us as mothers and fathers. We have a father on our committee as well whose child was adopted. He is happily reunited with her. We do not understand why we have not been listened to. We hope this is a new generation of Deputies and Senators who will have open minds about this, but so far it is like we have been written out of history.
In the opening to our submission, we provided a series of quotations which I accessed in the National Archives. It provides a walk through history and the changing attitudes towards adoption over the years. Members will see that there is even a quote from a previous Minister for Justice, the late Mr. Paddy Cooney, who championed adoption as being better for the illegitimate baby than to be cared for by the baby's mother. That was a Minister for Justice addressing the adoption social workers conference. One can see the type of mindset we were working against and possibly the reason that people want to keep us silenced and want to keep the files closed.
Ms Alice Coughlan:
I would love to see that unmarried mothers are called "mothers", and that they are given some dignity for the first time in the history of Ireland. That is it, full stop - that they are actually given dignity, not illegitimate, not even still like trash or a piece of something or whatever, as they are seen even to this day by some Catholics. I would love to see this Bill give dignity to the mothers who gave birth. That is it, full stop, if that is possible.
I agree with Ms Coughlan.
Ms Mac Manus referred to the paternalistic attitude of knowing better and telling someone she would be better to forget. I was struck by the fact that if Ms Mac Manus's group has submitted the same submission three times, there must still be some remnant of that inherent bias. I am being generous and calling it a "remnant".
Ms Rhoda Mac Manus:
I do not know. I have assumed over the years that it is the fault of the system of the Civil Service. When the civil servants have finished their work on helping with the drafting of a Bill, the information goes into a filing cabinet. Those civil servants get promoted or are moved sideways, and then totally new civil servants come to the job. They start from scratch and do not look back at the history of anything, just as the Senator, as a member of this committee, is hearing for the first time what we said to other politicians previously. I assume that is the reason; I just do not know.
I invite each of the groups to make concluding remarks before we proceed to our next session. We will start with either Ms Thornton or Ms Mac Manus, followed by either Ms Harrison or Ms Coughlan.
We genuinely appreciate not only the delegates’ being here but also their honesty, openness and speaking from the heart. I am aware it is not easy. The delegates have no idea how valuable this session is to our work and, I hope, our ability to get this legislation across the line. I hope it will be the right legislation for everybody involved. The delegates’ contribution is very much appreciated. I realise it can seem a little impersonal when conducting the meeting online.
I invite Ms Harrison to say something.
Ms Terri Harrison:
I would like to reach out to every single person involved in this process. I have gone to four Ministers to date begging, asking and hoping but, as Ms Mac Manus said, each Minister starts off anew. Former Minister, James Reilly, had two terms, and I began again with the current Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, recently. All we are asking for is humanity and for everyone concerned to rise above political and religious views and make our children and their mothers and fathers real. We are real humans. I would love to not die before my son knows it is okay for him to come forward and that he does not have to be afraid to do so and hear anything I have to say to him or about what I have left him in my will. My eldest daughter has made sure she will find him and give him every single thing I have put aside for him so he will know his gene pool and about the love I had for him for the nine months he lived beside my heart and in the precious moment I came face to face with him. That is what I want everybody to know. Our children were taken and never ever given. I ask anybody listening to please help us and stop this – how can I put it? – process that just goes on and on and on. Think of Helen living alone at 87 years of age. Her son is 70. Think of her if you can, but make it human thinking, not political or religious, or even related to society. Make us human first.
Thank you so much. It is difficult to know what words to use to say thanks; they seem so empty. All I can say is that we have been on this committee together for about a year and three months and we are all genuinely motivated to work together to try to ensure this legislation and some of the other legislation we have dealt with, including the burials Bill, will be prioritised and dealt with. We do appreciate, sincerely and from the heart, the statements and the really human, honest and passionate way in which the witnesses have answered questions. They have given us an insight we absolutely would not have had otherwise.
I do not know but can imagine how frustrating it is for the witnesses. I am not sure how many committees and Ministers they have dealt with but we will do our utmost to ensure it stops this time around and that the legislation is enacted and is fair, bringing in the human part, which is ultimately what it is all about. We genuinely thank the delegates very much. I thank the groups they represent, and also the mothers and fathers they represent.
Again, we are engaging on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the birth information and tracing Bill 2021. I sincerely welcome Ms Lisa Kiernan and Ms Chris Wallace, members of In It Together-Who Am I?, and also Ms Alice McEvoy and Ms Joan McDermott, members of Solace for Mothers. As we said to the previous witnesses, we are sincerely grateful that they have agreed to appear before the committee to tell their stories, make their statements and answer some questions on this Bill. We are aware it is not an easy process. It is extremely emotive but invaluable for us in our work on trying to ensure we get this right for everybody. We very much appreciate it.
I need to go through parliamentary privilege before the witnesses make their opening statements. As all the witnesses are appearing before the committee virtually, I need to point out that there is uncertainty as to whether parliamentary privilege will apply to their evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House. Therefore, if the witnesses are directed by me to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
Following the delivery of the opening statements, we will have questions and answers with the members. Each member will have five minutes. We will start with Ms McEvoy. I thank her for being with us. I invite her to deliver her opening statement.
Ms Alice McEvoy:
I am grateful for the invitation to speak to the committee as a mother who was forced to give up a child for adoption. I am here as a natural mother and part of a group called Solace for Mothers. I am also a member of the Collaborative Forum and the steering group project on language and terminology representing mothers along with other members of the Collaborative Forum. While we fully support the right of adopted adults to know their origins and identity, which we believe is their human right, we have concerns about the proposed adoption information Bill 2021 in its current draft.
The language with regard to mothers must be changed as we find the term "birth mother" offensive as it reduces mothers to the role of incubators. We also object to other terms such as "given up". We were forced to give up our children for adoption.
I will turn to birth parents’ privacy rights. We are particularly concerned with regard to any medical information on our files which may be given to adopted people and their relatives. Every citizen's medical files are covered by the general data protection regulation, GDPR. I am also concerned by our medical files being treated as historical medical information and not our current medical information. Is there a difference? It appears that our historical medical information held by State agencies, for example, Tusla, should be handed over to our adopted children but not our current medical files, which are regarded as private. We are also concerned about the Bill's contention that it is necessary for reasons of substantial public interest that the applicant be provided with this information. Our medical information should be given out only with our consent, which many of us have already given.
Head 13 concerns requests for information from agencies and authorities. Our concern in this regard is about relatives of natural parents and adoptive relatives. In some cases, mothers have not informed their families of the existence of their adopted child. Can relatives of natural parents and adoptive relatives be contacted by State agencies having secured their names, addresses, etc., from other agencies without the natural parents’ consent?
Page 34 of the Bill, at Part 5, refers to a contact preference register and states that a significant minority of birth mothers gave up more than one child for adoption and may have different preferences as regards each child. This statement is deeply offensive and derogatory to us as natural mothers in terms of the language used. It is judgmental and its relevancy is questionable at best.
I thank the committee for listening to our concerns and I and my colleague, Ms McDermott, will try to answer any questions as best we can.
Ms Chris Wallace:
I thank the committee for the invitation to express our group's views of the proposed Bill. We are representatives of a group, called relevant persons in the proposed Bill, and share one thing: each of our birth certificates contains false information making them illegal, not just incorrect. We are not, as claimed by some groups, illegal adoptees but the victims of kidnap, child trafficking and identity theft. We fall into three distinct but related groups. The first group, Tusla file discoveries, currently stands at a membership of 151, with an assortment of records being held by Tusla. We classify the second group as other or DNA discoveries. This group currently accounts for 10% of our total with no paperwork to be found but incontrovertible proof of identity through DNA. The third group comprises descendants of groups 1 and 2. This is the largest group as it covers the descendants of both preceding groups. The impact of this group will continue ad infinitum until this Bill is enacted and implemented.
False registrations are still occurring now. The State’s inability to provide a solution is now causing each of us to continually break the law while knowingly using false identities. The number of acknowledged cases of false birth registrations is 151 but that does not take into account groups 2 and 3. Based on our estimates, that number is actually 1,544 false birth records known to date. If the suspected cases identified in the Shadow Cast Long report are used, this equates to a potential 178,000 false birth records. If the marriage and death records are then added, close to 500,000 false records are being held at the General Register Office, GRO. The Bill only deals with false birth registrations, when, in fact, the GRO must also hold false marriage and death certificates.
The State has maintained that the GRO records must be corrected. Alterations without the immediate issue of a certificate of identity, coupled with a cut-off date for births at 31 December 1970, creates the potential for even more family trauma with potential multiple identities in use. In an ideal world, all the records would be held by one easily accessible organisation but until that is possible, a detailed service level agreement must be put in place with any organisations involved to include key performance indicators to be regularly monitored by the Departments of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and Justice.
The use of DNA is critical in both verifying the information held in files and vital in proving identity. Most of the record files held by the State are either incomplete, or partially or totally false, and some cannot be found. In addition to making counselling available, the State needs to provide access to qualified genealogists to work with us to enable us to find our true identities. Without DNA, the Act is of no use to us. These amendments must be made now.
There is nothing in the current Bill to allow the members of this group to access their family data, even when their ancestors are deceased, nor to rectify those false entries. This is leading to a continuation of false certification as the false information is carried forward by each new generation. Despite declaring at the start of the Bill that we would be all included, the addition of clause C in head 29, entitled "Interpretation", you are excluding a very large cohort from their right to rectify their false records. If this is not changed, you are merely continuing the conspiracy of silence that has brought the Government's predecessors into such disrepute. Shame on you.
Justice has been excluded from this Bill while putting a heavy burden on the Irish taxpayer to provide resources. Why not seize the assets of the organisations that committed the crimes and use that to properly resource and fully implement the Bill? I am sure the Irish taxpayers would approve. As Aldous Huxley once said, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.
I thank the committee. My colleague, Ms Kiernan, will be taking the lead in answering questions.
I thank our guests for being here today. I appreciate their testimony. I will ask my first question of the representatives of In It Together - Who Am I? False records have been already spoken about a lot. The current provisions of the Bill refer to affected persons as those whose entry in the register of births was made before 31 December 1970, and that cut-off mark is obviously problematic in itself. I am wondering what problems the falsified records pose for those who have had false data recorded for them. What about someone who would come up as born before the cut-off date but will be excluded because of falsified records? Will someone comment on that?
Ms Lisa Kiernan:
It is good to see some friendly faces who I remember from my time working in Leinster House. I was born post 1970. The best example I can offer relates to when I went in to get my pass to allow me to enter Leinster House. I provided a form of identification on the basis of which I was Garda vetted. That identification was false because my mother's birth surname I now know not to be correct. It is not what is on her birth certificate. For evermore, or until the records are changed, every time I go to renew my driver's licence or do anything else that requires a mother's birth surname or maiden name, for which one is often asked on the phone, through computers or wherever else, I will be passing on information which I now know to be untrue.
For a time before we were alerted to this, I was giving information that I knew was possibly untrue but I did not have an alternative to the information. Now I am doing that constantly. I can only really speak on behalf of our group and personally can only really speak for my mum and me. When my mum got married, her marriage certificate had her birth surname as it is on her birth certificate. Everything else can go with this, whether it is a mortgage application or anything else. It is very important to people.
My mum does not want to have everything changed. She has lived for 72 years as she thought she was or is. We want acknowledgement of what is the truth. These people are entitled to it and I am entitled to it. We want it to be legal when we hand over legal documents.
Ms Chris Wallace:
I am one of the pre-1970 people and my birth records are in the submission document. I flew from England to Ireland and when I walked through the gate and was asked for a passport, I said to myself that it was false and asked myself what would happen if I got caught. It is not something I have ever given thought to before but since this happened, every time I go through the airport I am asked for a passport or driving licence. What am I supposed to say? I might get away with telling the truth in Ireland but in England, Australia or America, I would have no chance. Can members imagine having to explain it in a foreign language as well? I have also got a female father, according to records. How about that? That is the immaculate conception with a vengeance. That is as much as I will say on the subject.
I thank Ms Wallace. I have a quick question for Ms McEvoy. The submission speaks very much to terminology and language. Will the witness speak to how the language in the legislation has framed a particular narrative with the Bill? She mentioned that the term "birth mother" could be seen as offensive. We can see it now and that should not have to be pointed out. When it is, we can see it. Will Ms McEvoy speak a little about why the language is so problematic and if that has any implications for the narrative attached to the Bill?
Ms Alice McEvoy:
Language stigmatises people and if somebody is called a "birth mother" or "first mother", it defines those people. We are always our children's mothers. The language may state "given up for adoption" but we did not give them up. We were forced to sign these papers. I feel the language could influence the whole narrative of the Bill. I have found in the past with other changes of terminology, especially with LGBT groups, it changed people's thinking towards those groups. That is how I see the narrative going. It is so important to get the terminology of the Bill right. Once it is entered into legislation, it will be there forever. That is why if members might think we are going on about something minor, it is not minor to us.
There are phrases like "given up", "taken" and terms like "first offenders". Mothers have been called every name under the sun but we are just mothers. That is our preference. If the language of the Bill is right, it will influence society in general to look at us as we are, just as mothers. We are the same as everyone and all mothers in Ireland. The labelling we see is not for our good.
Senator Ruane has just covered the two questions I was going to ask. I thank the Solas for Mothers group for focusing our attention on language and its impact. Language should be accurate and considered. The witnesses point out the term "birth mothers" as being offensive, along with phrases like "given up", and we all agree with that. In other meetings the question of the language to be used has come up. To clarify, was the suggestion that a reference to mothers should simply be the term "mother" with nothing before or after it?
Brilliant. Is there other language outside terms like "given up", which has just been mentioned, and "first offenders"? Is there other language like that we must look out for and ensure is not present in legislation?
Ms Alice McEvoy:
Going through the Bill there are many such terms, including "homes" or "institutions", to which we are probably sensitive. There are many such terms and whoever is writing the legislation should check each one, especially when it relates to adopted adults. The term "adoptees" should not be used. I cannot even remember the entire list of terms but the legislation should be scrutinised thoroughly. Everybody involved in the different groups should be consulted on what they would like to be called.
I agree with the Deputy that the term should be just "mothers". That is how I look at myself. I have two children and I am supposedly a birth mother to one and a mother to another. That is ridiculous. I am the same mother to all of them, whether I see one of them or not. People's children do not put labels on us. The members might think I am focusing too much on this but they could ask adopted adults what they think as well. It is very complicated language and what is being used in the current draft is very outdated. I am aware that group is taking notice of this draft and the terms. Just because people use them in the world does not mean they are right. Members know that people used to use all sorts of racist and discriminatory language, especially to LGBT groups. Miraculously, that attitude has changed with the language used being changed.
Ms Lisa Kiernan:
There are some issues with language from our side too. As indicated in the opening statement, our group is not comprised of illegal adoptees. I am not sure my mum would look to be referred to as an "adopted adult" as for her that would probably be as much of an insult as when Tusla representatives came to meet us and offered to see if they could have her adopted at 70 years old. That would have been an official adoption. My mum is my mum and she is who she is. She does not know who she is but she is who she is. She is not adopted. She was bought, she was sold, she was trafficked; it can be whatever word people want to use. It was the same with most of our group.
I take issue with the language. The term "illegal adoptions" seems to be used regularly for the group, particularly with what was originally the 126 of the St. Patrick's Guild group. We now know the number to be far bigger than that. I ask sincerely that the practice of referring to these people as "adoptees" is stopped as they were never adopted. I know it hurts my mum to use the words but they were bought, they were sold and they were trafficked. That is what it is. It must be acknowledged for anything to work with this Bill.
I thank the witnesses for their statements. We really appreciate them appearing before the committee because today's sessions are really important for the Bill. It is brilliant they are here.
The following question is for Ms Kiernan. In the opening statement, there was mention of DNA. There was also mention in the previous session of a DNA database and having accurate information. In the previous session, we also continuously heard about not being able to trust the so-called records and the information that is in those files. I want to ask Ms Kiernan her opinion on getting a DNA database that the State would recognise so that one would be able to know who one's family are legally.
Ms Kiernan mentioned the small group of 441. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, stated last month, in the context of illegal birth registrations, that it was a small group of 441. Ms Kiernan used 151 as her base number. What is the impact of those numbers for Ms Kiernan's group?
I thank Ms McEvoy for the clarification in respect of the mothers. That cuts out all other labels because, after all, a mammy is a mammy, and Ms McEvoy is a mother. My children call me some things, but I am also their mother. I thank Ms McEvoy for that clarification as well.
Ms Lisa Kiernan:
On Senator McGreehan's first question regarding DNA, many of our group have only discovered that they are not who they thought they were. We all have seen the advertisements on television, social media and radio for the likes of Ancestry and My Heritage. People are buying family members DNA tests as Christmas presents, birthday presents and Mother's Day presents. You innocently spit into a tube, you think you will find your whole family tree and then you suddenly discover there is not a single person on the family tree that you have ever heard of, let alone know. It is imperative, as far as we are concerned, that there is some kind of database and that DNA is acknowledged to be proof of who you are. We can use it in the criminal law system. We can use it when mother and fathers are arguing over who the parent of the child is. We can use it for all those, but why cannot we use it to know who we are? From that point of view, DNA has to be involved in this Bill. There is no way around it. There is no other answer.
It has to be acknowledged that DNA services are not affordable for many people. My understanding is that they costs approximately €500 per test. In order to test your DNA against somebody else's, you need at least two people. That is not on. It has to be a part of the final Bill. We would beg for that one to be part of it.
The second question the Senator asked was about the 441 versus the 151. We were shocked when, at the committee's meeting last month, the Minister described the illegal birth registrants as a very small group of 441. We have been informed that it has always been 151. It seems that there has been a giant leap in the month of September, but nobody alerted us to that fact. Regardless of whether it was an error or a typo in the Minister's speech to the committee, it is a huge leap. We would like to know where that number is coming from. When we look at our numbers between all three different groups, we are looking at close to 180,000. When you add all the others group together that are being considered for different parts of this Bill, such as the survivors of the Magdalen laundries and the mother and baby homes, the number of those who actually have adoption orders does not even add up to 178,000. We are a huge group. We are not insignificant. We have to be listened to.
I really hope we are heard. There is a line at the end of the book Banished Babieswhich reads, "Deny until they die." There are many who are getting on in life. Many of the mothers in our group - I use the word "mothers" quite easily, actually - such as my grandmother have passed, unfortunately. We are running out of time and we need to give these women some kind of justice.
Ms Alice McEvoy:
I want to clarify something there with the language. I had always used the word "mothers" but, in the context of adoption, we want to use the term "natural". When it comes to the adoption, "natural mother" is our preferred term. In the 1952 Act, that was the term legally used. I just want to clarify that.
Ms Chris Wallace:
I call the lady who gave birth to me my birth mother, and now mother in that context. I have had two in my life: the one who gave birth to me and the one who I lived with most of my life. They are both equally loved. It is not derogatory towards birth mothers. To me, they are one and the same. I was given up for whatever reason but I had a good life. I am not blaming anybody for it. I loved both. The birth mother was, sadly, dead by the time I knew of her and I could not possibly have met her. From what I have heard, I am the spitting image of her and similar in personality and character as well. She is living on. One of my cousins on her side said, "Oh, Christ", and that she had got up out of her grave to come back and haunt us. There you go. There is nothing derogatory about calling someone a birth mother. To me, it is an expression to differentiate between the two mothers I had.
Ms Joan McDermott:
I will clarify why the terminology in the context of "natural mother", as opposed to "birth mother", is so important. When I was in Bessborough, prior to giving birth we were known as first offenders. Then, after we gave birth, we were known as birth mothers. It has connotations for us because when the term "birth mothers" is mentioned, it brings many of us back to the time when we were in the homes. It actually diminishes our babies' connection to us. That is the reason we feel that we have suffered enough trauma and endured being labelled and referred to as birth mothers. We find it unacceptable but that is because we have lived through it. That is all I have to say on that.
I thank Ms McDermott for that clarification. It is powerful for us to understand why the term "birth mother" is problematic for some people. My own preference would be to use the word "mother" for everybody because the term "natural" is difficult for those women who lived with their children and had the opportunity to rear them. Some have come before the committee and talked about the difficulty of being referred to as unnatural and of that being seen as opposite of natural.
Finding the right formula of words here is certainly going to be a challenge but after hearing why, it is the best explanation for why being referred to as "birth mother" is such a sensitive term. I really get that and hear that.
When Ms Kiernan and I last met, she quoted the line "deny until they die" from Banished Babies. I wrote it down then and had it ready to come back to her today because I thought it was really powerful. It is important that we are all very much upfront in what is going on here and about what needs to be articulated and, hence, that is why we wanted to make sure our guests came before the committee to speak to us.
The Bill has a portion that is supposed to address having a bespoke solution to ensure the legality of the identities people believe they had and believe they are and with which they have lived all of their lives. Some people are content to continue with that identity or name and others are not. Allowing for the fact that the official register of births needs to now be corrected, where possible, and allowing for the fact that there was such unlawful activity going on with some of the information that was given, I am not sure some of the information is going to be able to be sorted out. There is, therefore, an issue that we need to perhaps explore a little bit. That is where DNA is a really good solution. I heard Ms Kiernan speak about that previously. I know places like Ormond Quay Paternity Services carry out DNA testing for the courts' purposes but it is very expensive. It comes in just shy of €1,800 to €2,000. That is phenomenally expensive for people.
Could Ms Kiernan perhaps talk about that if she does not mind? Could she outline her views of the bespoke solution that is within the Bill and how appropriate that is or how that needs to be amended? I will hand over to her.
Ms Lisa Kiernan:
I thank the Senator. I am glad she noted that line from Mike Milotte's book because I think it really does say a lot.
When I think of it, the legalities of the Act are not taken into account for anyone other than the single person who is, if you like, I would also nearly go back to saying illegally adopted, which frustrates me because it has been consistently used for somebody who has been falsely registered. It does not take into account the descendants, however, and, as Chris so very correctly said, that will continue ad infinitumuntil we all have no more descendants. That is a big issue.
Therefore, like that, my identification is never going to be corrected as per the Bill as it stands. The Bill in its current format does not include allowing anybody other than the individual affected or the relevant person to have access to that information or to have access to have the information changed. This was clarified to me not only by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, but also by Tusla. It was actually very shocked when I brought up the fact that I would not be entitled to get the information if anything happened to my mum. It does not, therefore, go far enough with the legalities.
I know the Senator has a superb legal background and we have other Senators and Deputies on this committee with legal backgrounds, particularly, for example, around constitutional rights. We have the constitutional right to be who we are and to know who we are. That is not taken into account in this Bill at all.
Ms Joan McDermott:
I will come in with regard to head 30 of the proposed Bill, that is, Entitlement of Registrar General to Request and Receive Information. In the explanatory note, the provisions in the head are to "ensure that information on an incorrect birth can be sought and shared with the General Register Office ... for the purpose of enabling correction of an entry in the Birth Register".
Recently, I was waiting in anticipation for files under a subject access request and thought that I would sit down for the afternoon and read right through them. Unfortunately, I was informed that the files for my era in Bessborough were probably burnt and that there were no files. To my shock, however, I had in that envelope three registered papers relating to my son's adoption. All contained my signature but none of these signatures were pertaining to me.
As I just quoted, head 30 of the Bill states, "for the purpose of enabling correction of an entry in the Birth Register". Nowhere in the Bill could I find any reference regarding the correction of registrations on the adoption register. I would like some answers on that, please. I have three documents which led my son to think that he was legally adopted when he was not, and an incorrect birth certificate, of which he is now in possession since he met me in 2015. He obviously had no access to his birth certificate but when he did receive information from the State agency, the birth information - the dates of birth - were incorrect. It is one hell of a mess.
My question is a very pertinent one. He said to me very recently that he kind of wonders where he fits in. He asked, "Am I stateless?" Could someone expand on that a bit? He was born in this jurisdiction. He has an incorrect date of birth. As happened to many people in the 1960s, he has an inappropriate adoption. The criterion in the late 1960s was that if a person was of good standing in his or her community, he or she could go to Bessborough and say, "I want one". He or she went down along the row of cots and said, "I will have that one" like one would pick apples in the supermarket. It is not a funny analogy but that really happened.
Ms Joan McDermott:
Yes. Therefore, here you have a man who is now in his 50s, with a name given to him that is not his at all, and an inappropriate - like the previous speaker, I do not know what word to use . What do I say he is? Is he illegally adopted? I do not know.
Getting back to my original question, while there is provision in the Bill for the correction of the birth registration at the General Register Office, GRO, will the committee look favourably or speak with the Minister in the future about this? Under subject access requests, more and more people are receiving files and they are shocking. The information in them is shocking. It is a very big issue in a person's life to ask, "Am I adopted or am I not if I am on the register as I am but my mother did not sign the signature?" I will tell the Senator that my signatures were forged.
My goodness. I think that goes to the heart of it. So much of the information is false, fraudulently forged and made to appear correct when it is not and from others I have spoken to, it is patent lies and deliberate misleading. Unpacking all that, I do not know that any Bill will ever address that.
We have got to at least put the issues on the table for some consideration of some solution to it.
Ms Alice McEvoy:
Ms Kiernan and Ms McDermott were talking about illegal adoptions or not being adopted. There needs to be an inquiry into illegal adoptions. Looking at my own files, while my signature was not forged, there were irregularities. There was no commissioner of oaths. None of them is perfectly legal, to be honest. That gives a worry to adopted people. If they are not properly adopted, what are they? Most people I have talked to have irregularities in the adoption process, including my own. I only discovered very recently when studying my own files that there were incorrect procedures. There was also incorrect vetting of adoptive parents. I am slow to bring that up but there was a lot of rules broken in the past and it is high time the whole thing was looked into from that angle. There should be a public inquiry into the whole area of illegal adoption.
I think there is a delay, I feel I am talking over people. Are there any other questions from the committee members? Do Senator Ruane or Seery Kearney want to add or ask anything else? No. Then I will hand over to Ms Wallace, Ms Kiernan, Ms McEvoy and Ms McDermott if there is anything they want to add or to say on the Bill while they have the opportunity.
Ms Chris Wallace:
I want to thank the committee for hearing us. Hopefully we will see changes in the Bill. We put a lot more information in the submission relating to certain parts that would help. It would also help if my name was spelled right. I have had enough problems with spellings of my surname. It is my name, it is the one I use, and it is spelled "ace".
To the birth mothers I say I agree with much of what the birth mothers have said. My birth mother did not sign the adoption form. It was forged. I have never met her, she is dead, but I have proof that it was fake. We do not take the birth mothers as being the wronged parties, we are all in the wrong. It is the State and the religious orders that have caused it. I thank you all for the work you are doing and I hope that we do not have to come back again because I may not be around next time.
Ms Lisa Kiernan:
Ms Wallace stole my thunder there because I believe my name was also spelled incorrectly which I am getting a little bit used to. When we received the Tusla file I was referred to as Lisa with my incorrectly registered surname, so I am getting used to that at the moment. I found this meeting exceptionally powerful. I had not thought about some of the terminology. The terminology that I always got annoyed about was the illegal adoptees. I had thought about my grandmother an awful lot. I would have loved to have met her. She sounds like she was as wild as I am, or was, but I had never thought of how to think of her as anything other than my grandmother.
I want to return to GDPR. Some people will be exceptionally disappointed if I do not mention it. GDPR has been the best thing that ever happened to this State because it has been able to hide behind it. I will say something that I had not prepared myself to say. My mother finally received her file from Tusla a month ago, or maybe less. I thought that the Minister, Deputy Zappone, had made an announcement regarding the St. Patrick's Guild and the 126 children in or around 30 May 2018. GDPR came into effect four or five days before that. Tusla searched for my mum and found my mum on 18 March 2018. Tusla held on and did not contact my mum until 9 August 2018. Stop hiding behind everything. Just stop doing it. It is wrong. It is unjust. People need to get the truth and the State is continually hiding behind these things. I am not saying that to any of the members directly but I am saying that in general the State is hiding behind excuses like GDPR. My mum is entitled to know who I am. Chris is entitled to know who she is. I am entitled to know my history. Just, please, do it.
Ms Alice McEvoy:
I want to raise our medical information files, which is very important. Some mothers have very sensitive information on their files. It relates to causes of pregnancy such as rape and incest. If this information in their files was released without their consent, the distress and harm that would be done is immeasurable. I am very mindful that our medical information past is called "historical" yet my current medical information is way more interesting than the past one when I was 20 years of age, which was very little. I am very concerned about medical information which is covered by GDPR for every citizen in the State, yet the Bill proposes that adopted people and their relatives could have access to our private medial files. That is a very worrying concern and I hope the committee takes it on board when it writes the report.
Ms Joan McDermott:
I consider it an honour to be able to be able to speak at this meeting this afternoon, having spoken in the past as a natural mother and having the strength to do so. However, I am mindful that many mothers are still sitting at home today carrying the burden of shame of having a baby and still retain their secret. Some of them are suffering immensely both mentally and physically as a result of the circumstances surrounding their pregnancy, rape and incest. This is where the Bill has to be clear as to how the rights and freedoms of the natural mothers are not adversely affected. Any information the mother chooses to divulge has to be done with consent which must be honoured.
On behalf of the committee, we genuinely appreciate everybody taking the time. It is not an easy topic at times for people to discuss. As I said in the earlier part of the meeting, it really is invaluable for the committee in its prelegislative report of the Bill and it is fantastic that everyone was able to join us and speak with such passion, from the heart and with such honesty. We know that it is not easy and we really do appreciate it. We want to sincerely thank everyone for taking the time. We will take all their suggestions on board.
I know that the groups have made submissions and it is not just what we heard today. We have appreciated this really informative debate and it has been really good to have the back and forth of questions and answers. I thank the witnesses and the committee members.
Is it agreed to publish the opening statement to the Oireachtas website? Agreed. Again, I thank members and all of the witnesses.