Dáil Éireann - Volume 463 - 14 March, 1996

Adjournment Debate. - Adoption Files Discovery.

Ms F. Fitzgerald: I thank the Chair for the opportunity of raising the question of the recent finding of 1,500 adoption files in the National Archives. Society is being confronted with its past in the last few weeks through the discovery of these files, the revelations [485] about residential care, the west of Ireland farmer case, the Kelly Fitzgerald case, the Kilkenny incest case and the Madonna House scenario.

We have to acknowledge that there is huge sadness and many of these scandals reveals the hidden side of Irish women's lives particularly. They also reveal a society where people who did not fit into rigid roles were hidden away, a society of high moral standards and abysmally low concern for the needs of individuals, particularly the most marginalised. We must acknowledge also when discussing this issue, that many of the religious orders tried to provide what the civil authorities did not provide at the time — care and attention for many of the people who ended up in their care.

The women of religious orders gave their lives and committed their every moment to this task and without them Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s would have looked very like Victorian England. They provided shelter, education and the possibility of a future to many individuals shunned by society. They provided love, too, but not always. The experiences of people have been mixed, some have had very good experiences in difficult situations.

In the past we had idealisation and denial rather than equality. This idealisation affected women particularly and created rigid roles outside of which women risked their reputation, sanity and, often, freedom. In many ways, we are seeing the dark hidden side of the idealisation of women. This has been exposed time and again by women in recent times.

The country was shocked to hear of the files on 1,500 babies and small children who had been sent to the United States; that they were found, it would appear almost by chance by an archivist, Caitriona Crowe. The country was shocked at their loss and discovery and that files with sensitive information could be found almost by chance. I congratulate Caitriona Crowe on her sensitive response and the action she took in urging that the files should be looked at. [486] I also congratulate the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Health for being so open about the existence of these files.

The procedures for adoption have obviously changed greatly. This change means we must be extremely sensitive to those about whom these files were written in the first place. We must ensure that this issue is dealt with with the greatest delicacy. We must not revictimise people by hamfisted openness.

These 1,500 files will lead to mixed reactions for those most directly involved. There will be relief for many that more information may be available to them. For others there may be a fear that long held secrets and a life carefully constructed could fall apart. Given the huge consequences that could arise from the finding of these files, it is important that we offer reassurance to all about the manner in which this information will be dealt with. Adoption practices have changed greatly.

Will the Minister clarify whether there are other adoption files similar to the 1,500 files located in the National Archives in any Department or health board, for example, the Department of Education? What form will the inquiry take into the finding of the 1,500 files? What is the status of the guardians who applied for the passports in respect of the 1,500 adoption files? What was the role of the intermediary bodies and organisations which handled adoptions? Will he outline the circumstances under which the birth parents made their declarations and indicate whether any criminal acts were committed? Although we may not be able to answer all the questions, it is important they are asked.

The most important question relates to the future management of these files. When will it be possible to establish a voluntary contact register and a statutory based contact register? What were the people attempting to make inquiries told? Did they just come up against a blank wall?

We are being forced to confront as [487] never before some of the hypocrisies and denials of society. How we handle this information will, in many ways, determine our future health as a society.

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Stagg): I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. We are discussing a deeply sensitive issue which is broad in scope in both human and administrative terms.

In recent times the question of society's attitude to children has dominated public debate to an unprecedented degree. The issues raised in that debate go to the core of our values and raise questions about our sense of community. We have measured ourselves by reference to our treatment of the most vulnerable among us and found that our attitudes have fallen far short of our ideals.

Our treatment of children born outside of what was the conventional relationship is difficult to reconcile with a State founded on the principle of cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. It is also hard to reconcile it with our image of ourselves as a caring and compassionate society.

In relation to adoptions abroad the role of the then Department of External Affairs was to provide passport facilities to those who it was hoped were going to a better life abroad. For many — I hope for most — of these children a welcoming society awaited them in another country. There will always be adopted people who want to know more about who they are, about their early days, who want perhaps to reach out to a parent. There will be birth parents who may wish to re-establish contact with children for whom they have long grieved. In providing passports the Department opened files on individual cases and each file contains an important element of each individual's story.

As the Tánaiste said in his reply today to the Deputy, when he became aware last week that the Department's [488] archival material contained information on individual adoptions and that this information appeared to comprehend the majority, if not all, cases of adoption by US-based parents, he instituted an inquiry to determine the scope of the information available to us.

What has been established is that a series of files dealing with social and legal issues was opened by the consular section of the Department in 1945. This included the question of adoption. The series eventually evolved into a list of files dealing with individual cases. The file series continues until 1983 but the last adoption recorded of an Irish child by adoptive parents based outside Ireland appears to be in 1972. It will be appreciated that until the material, which covers about 1,800 files in all, is researched in detail it will not be possible to give definitive statistical information on the number of cases involved.

In so far as can be ascertained at present each file relating to an individual adoption contains the name of the birth mother, the name and date of birth of her child, the name of the adoption agency and its representative and the name and details of the adoptive parents. Of birth mother and child there is little detail apart from the birth mother's declaration of “surrender” of the child to the adoption agency. The files do not contain copies of the children's birth or baptismal certificates. It appears the mothers were generally young and from different parts of the country and the children were adopted at age one or two. Some mothers seemed to have remained with their children until or near the time of adoption.

The files contain little or no correspondence with the adoption societies. The representative to whom the child was surrendered in turn made a declaration surrendering the child to his or her adoptive parents. In some instances the correspondence refers to arrangements made to have the children travel safely by air with reliable people. Some contain details of arrangements made at the other side of the Atlantic to meet the [489] children on arrival. Almost all contain detailed reports on the adoptive parents which establish their bona fides as parents, their financial situation and a guarantee of the religious upbringing of their adopted children. It should also be acknowledged that the files in some instances also demonstrate the adoptive parents' longing to adopt and their joy at being able to do so.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister appears to have a rather lengthy speech, but Standing Orders provide for only five minutes for each Deputy and Minister. The Minister's time is almost exhausted.

Mr. N. Treacy: We will concede time.

Mr. Stagg: I ask the House's indulgence on this matter, if possible.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I emphasise this point for future Adjournment debates.

Mr. Stagg: About 1,500 files up to and including 1963 have been deposited in the National Archives. The remainder are held by the Department. The Passport Office has records of passports issued in the original names of the adoptees which tally with the information held on file. Separate files on individual passport applications would have been destroyed with most other pre-1979 passport application files. However, the basic details have been retained on micro-fiche.

Pending a closer review of the files themselves the Tánaiste has had the central file index and a small but representative sample of the files examined. I feel confident in stating that the information contained on the files appears to comprehend the great majority of cases of foreign adoptions where passports were required since 1950, most of them undertaken by US-based parents. Some files relate to other countries such as Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. A small number of files relate to the adoption by Irish [490] people living in Ireland of foreign children. Another category of files, particularly those occurring in later years, relate to unsuccessful adoption inquiries. Most adoptions recorded appear to have taken place in the 1950s.

Before issuing a passport to a prospective adoptee the role of the consular section of the Department was to satisfy itself that the mothers and guardians had given their consent to adoption abroad. The consular section also satisfied itself as to the suitability of the prospective adoptive parents. The documentation required in respect of the latter — if Catholic — was specified by the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau which liaised with the Catholic Charities' Organisation in the US. The latter had branches throughout the US and was required to be approved as a child-placing agency under the law of the State in which each adoptive couple resided. There was no standard format for “statements of surrender” by either the birth mother or the guardian. When the documentation was in order the consular section informed the Passport Office which then issued the passports.

All the files in the adoption series are restricted under section 8 (4) of the National Archives Act, 1985, which permits restriction of information on the ground that files “contain information supplied in confidence” or information which “might cause distress ... to living persons on the ground that they contain information about individuals”. Access to this information is a core issue. On the one hand, access is regarded as a right by many adoptees and birth-adoptive parents. On the other hand, many of the parties involved consider the right to confidentiality as absolute.

At the Ursuline Convent in Waterford on Thursday last the Tánaiste said: “I hope that we can quickly arrive at a point where it will be possible to make information available to people who want help in being reconciled and reunited with each other”. The Department is in contact with the Department of Health which, as the Department responsible for the Adoption Board, [491] plays a central role in this area. Officials from both Departments will meet next week and hope to clarify the issues involved and the general lines of their resolution. The Department of Health has appointed a co-ordinator whose first task will be to identify the extent of documentary material in existence on adoptions in general.

The Tánaiste is seeking legal advice on the question of access to information. I understand the Minister for Health will seek similar advice. Preliminary legal advice available indicates that there are impediments at present to making information on specific cases available to voluntary agencies. However, the possibility of releasing information to the individuals concerned, with the permission of the persons to whom it directly relates, is being explored. Members will be aware that access to information about adoptions in Ireland is regulated by the Adoption Acts, 1952 to 1991. Where adoption boards or the courts are asked to make information available the interests of all parties have to be very carefully weighed. I am sure Members are aware that the general principle is not to release information without the consent of the individuals concerned.

I hope that the knowledge that these files exist will be a source of comfort to adoptees, particularly those adopted abroad. It is the Tánaiste's wish to be as helpful as possible in relation to the provision of information. He is also very conscious of the need to respect the privacy of all interested parties and to protect the confidentiality of communications between the Department and the interested parties. There is no clear-cut answer to the dilemma posed by the competing interests relative to information on adoptions. It is a dilemma posed by the sad circumstances surrounding the reality of adoption.