Thursday, 16 September 2021
Adoption (Information) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
This is incredibly important legislation for adopted people. It provides them with unconditional access to their birth certificates, a right which has been denied to them by successive Governments and civil servants for decades. I thank Deputies Connolly and Pringle and their teams for putting forward this legislation and prioritising it.
Birth registrations have been public records in Ireland since 1864. For more than 150 years, it has always been possible for any member of the public to view the register of births and obtain copies of birth certificates. However, outrageously, this right has been denied to adopted people by State services and private interests in defence of a system that continues to marginalise and stigmatise them. Not only is the State's stance morally wrong, it is a contravention of our obligations under international human rights law. Adopted people and many others rightly point out that access to a birth certificate is the bare minimum in terms of the right to identity. That this document, fundamental to who they are as individuals, continues to be denied to them is absolutely disgraceful.
This Bill provides a very clear and humane response that will enable a cohort of people who have been treated with hostility and disdain by government agencies for seeking the most basic information about themselves. As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Government’s birth information and tracing Bill, the joint committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has had numerous submissions from individuals and groups deeply impacted by this denial of the right to access their own birth certificate.
Susan Lohan and Mari Steed of the Adoption Rights Alliance explained that:
Many of our cohort have died in the decades of inaction on the State’s part to recognize their rights as Irish citizens and as adopted people. This inaction has led to serious human rights abuses and ongoing discrimination.
Maree Ryan-O’Brien of Aitheantas - Adoptee Identity Rights said that the current system "treats adoptees as if we are guilty of some wrongdoing" and that she is being forced to "liaise with agencies who simply did not care". She went on to outline that "most adoptees' concerns are very practical ones regarding medical information and access to identity information". Sinéad Gibney, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also warned that any denial of free and unfettered access to personal information and records in this context could be in itself re-traumatising.
The urgency of this Bill cannot be underestimated given the age of the many of the people concerned and the continuing harm done by the State's refusal to grant them access to their birth certificates.
The foundational principle of this Bill is to provide unconditional access to birth certificates for adopted people. This is such an incredibly important point, one which the Minister unfortunately is still not willing to acknowledge. Earlier today the Minister said that the Government's birth information and tracing Bill will "provide for access to birth, early life, and care information for adopted persons". His Bill does not provide unconditional access to birth certificates and other information. Instead, the Government is imposing a mandatory information session for adopted people - and adopted people only - whose natural parents have registered a no contact preference. Rather than ensuring adoptees, if they desire, have supports, such as counselling or medical assistance, they have a compulsory information session with a social worker, and potentially social workers associated with either Tusla or the Adoption Authority of Ireland, two bodies that understandably many adoptees have no faith in. The adoptee groups and advocacy bodies which made submissions to the joint committee have all objected to the imposition of this barrier.
The Government’s birth information and tracing Bill has a broader scope than this Bill, but it is still loaded with restrictions, including limitations to personal information and records, the absence of mechanisms for siblings to get information about each other, and significant level of discretion assigned to relevant bodies. All of these will be discussed at the committee and I will do everything I can to remove any and all barriers to early life information for adopted people and ensure the law is representative of a transitional justice approach. I hope the Minister and the rest of the committee, especially the Government party members, will be willing to work with me on these issues.
However, the birth information and tracing Bill in its current form demonstrates that the Department is still trying to limit the information available to adoptees and is still trying to control and direct their lives. The disgraceful treatment of adopted persons and survivors of mother and baby homes was demonstrated again this week, as reported in the TheJournal.ie.Survivors seeking access to their personal information from the Minister as the data controller for the Mother and Baby Homes Commission archive were informed that they could not be given access until they nominated a GP who would receive the records first and then decide whether or not it was appropriate to pass them on. Survivors have rightly pointed out that this infantilises them and is a new bureaucratic barrier for people who have been seeking basic information about themselves for decades. Noelle Brown, the adoption rights campaigner, who was born in Bessborough and who received one of these letters has rightly described it as despicable and ridiculous. She also noted that it seems to be the first time the State has been concerned about adoptees and survivors of mother and baby institutions mental health.
In some cases, the Department has advised survivors to file FOI requests - another delaying tactic. This cannot be disregarded as an historic practice or a legacy issue. This is happening now and on the Minister’s watch. It is at odds with GDPR as European legislation and the Minister must immediately rectify the situation.
While this latest issue concerns survivors of mother and baby homes, which does not include many adopted people, it is important to note it as being indicative of how the Department treats people looking for their personal information. Unfortunately, this Bill and others like it from other Opposition Deputies are the only means we can guarantee that the Government and State agencies will do the right thing and follow European and international law.
Successive Governments have got away with disregarding survivors and their rights. Deputy Connolly already highlighted the more recent cascade of events in the same vein, which I will not go into because she did a perfect job. There were the statements from the Minister's Department and the blanket sealing of archives in October, the commission's report being leaked to the media before it was released to survivors, the Minister's statement that survivors had a copy of that report when none of them did, the deleting of the tapes by the commission and their miraculous recovery, the refusal to extend the commission, the commission members' refusal to come before the committee but then one of its members speaking to an Oxford seminar - the list goes on. However, one thing that was not mentioned was the State apology and the blame put on society. The Minister's speech mentioned the stigma and shame put on those people by the church and State but that was not the nature of the State apology. Before coming here this evening, I called to my grandmother's place. We did not talk about it, but when I was coming in here I thought of the assertion that all society thought that women should be incarcerated into these institutions for the so-called crime of getting pregnant. Back then, my grandmother looked after pregnant women and girls in her home so that they did not have to go into those institutions. She went on to help to set up Cherish. I was thinking in the car on my way in here that it was not all of society, as the Government said when the commission's report was published, and that has still not been corrected. That is not to mention that the commission only investigated 18 mother and baby institutions in this country, when there are more than another 100 that have not been examined. Deputy Funchion rightly called out how there is a huge distrust in the State around these issues, and understandably so based on everything Deputy Connolly said.
As a member of the joint committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and I want to thank the Chair for being a stand-out Chair - I really appreciate it - that I am developing those same feelings. We are looking at the burials Bill now, which is related to this Bill because it relates to the mother and baby institutions. I understand that was initially called the dignified exhumations Bill. I do not know when the language changed to the burials Bill. It is very clear from the first draft of the legislation that we did a report on that the Bill only seeks to intervene where the burial is manifestly inappropriate. No matter where your relative is buried, you have a right to find out their fate, whether they are in one of those unmarked graves or potentially anywhere else. I want to highlight that because it is relevant legislation and creates a distrust in the State.