Mother and Baby Homes Commission stymied by own remit

An ‘Irish Examiner’ investigation published last month revealed that three grave plots in St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork City contain the remains of at least 21 children — some of which were buried as late as 1990. Conall Ó Fátharta argues that the failure by state agents to investigate the deaths raises wider questions about the terms of reference of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission

WHEN the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was set up in 2013, the limitations of its terms of reference were well flagged but quickly dismissed.

An Irish Examiner investigation last month revealed infant burials as late as 1990 in unmarked graves in a Cork City cemetery — and has laid these limitations bare.

As a result, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is unable to answer a very straightforward question in relation to these burials namely: Will all of the burials discovered in the three plots be investigated?

On the face of it, it seems the obvious answer is yes. All of these children are representative of the cohort of infant deaths that the commission is charged with investigating. They were all born to unmarried mothers, were destined for adoption, died, and were buried in unmarked graves.

All but one of the deaths are in plots owned by a formerly State-accredited adoption agency — St Anne’s Adoption Society, which closed in 2003 — and by the St Patrick’s Orphanage, which operated as a nursery for St Anne’s Adoption Society. Neither institution is listed as institutions under the commission’s remit.

However, of the 21 infant deaths uncovered during the Irish Examiner investigation, just five of those children were linked to an institution which falls under the remit of the commission: Bessborough Mother and Baby Home.

While all of the deaths are indicative of the same issue, involve the same cohort of women and their children, the same lived experience, only the five that are linked to a mother and baby home which is under investigation can be examined.

The Irish Examiner raised this point with the department and asked if it would seek to extend the commission’s terms of reference to include St Anne’s Adoption Society.

In response, the department simply restated the commission’s terms of reference, pointing out that it is “required to investigate the relationships between mother and baby homes and other key institutions and organisations — these include children’s homes; orphanages; and adoption societies”.

It stated that it was, therefore, “not accurate” to suggest that St Anne’s Adoption Society was outside the terms of reference. However, in the next breath it stated that the deaths can be examined “in so far as they relate to the children who were resident for a time in the named institutions”.

As a result, the department said it had “no plans” to further extend the terms of reference of the commission.

Of course, this is the very point that was put to the department in the first place.

Outside of the five burials linked to Bessborough, none of the other children in these plots were resident in a named institution. Yet they are part of the very same system and the very same cohort of people that the commission is investigating.

However, according to the terms of reference as stated by the department, they are excluded as they do not relate to a listed mother and baby home.

The Irish Examiner then put a direct follow-up question to the Department of Children: Will the commission investigate all of the burials in the St Anne’s Adoption Society and St Patrick’s Orphanage society plots?

It responded by stating it was “not in a position to address the question raised” as it does not hold the records of the specific adoption society or burial plot.

The Irish Examiner then offered to provide the information confirming the accuracy of its investigation — and confirmed via Cork City Council, Tusla, and through accessing birth and death certificates in the General Registration Office.

The department replied within eight minutes advising to “contact the commission directly”.

The same question had already been put to the commission.

A response was issued eight days later: “The commission has advertised for people to come forward to provide any information about burials from Bessboro. We are following all possible leads. We do not announce our intentions in advance in respect of any aspect of the investigation.”

In preparation for the investigation, the Irish Examiner sought to confirm a number of details pertaining to the deaths with Tusla — which holds the records for St Anne’s Adoption Society. After examining the relevant records, it responded to these queries the following month.

However, the Tusla press office also advised that, in future, it would be “most appropriate for further queries of this nature to be submitted via the FoI process which is more suitable for queries as extensive as this”.

However, when the Irish Examiner sought the relevant material under FoI following publication, Tusla refused the requests, stating that the material predates the commencement of the FoI Act, known as the “effective date”.

This reasoning had been used to refuse a previous request by this newspaper and failed on appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner. It had never previously been used by Tusla in relation to requests by this reporter for information on mother and baby homes.

All of this serves to highlight the wider problem with the commission and its terms of reference and goes right to the very heart of the Government’s deliberate or wilful ignorance of the issue.

This is a scandal that cannot be limited to examining simply mother and baby homes and issues “in so far as they relate to” mother and baby homes.

You cannot limit the experience of unmarried mothers and their children simply to those women who went through the mother and baby homes system.

The issue is not one of individual institutions but rather one of how unmarried women and children were treated in a sprawling network of interlinking institutions, which included registered adoption agencies, private agencies, industrial schools, maternity hospitals, and in many cases private citizens.

Under the current commission, these other institutions are only examined in terms of specific links to mother and baby homes.

That ignores a whole swathe of people and severely limits the inquiry’s capability to investigate the real elephant in the room — that of illegal adoption.

Take the case of Tressa Reeves, for example. The Irish Examiner first wrote about Tressa in 2010.

She was an English woman born to Irish parents. In 1960, at the age of 20, she became pregnant. Unmarried at the time, she was sent to Ireland to stay in a private nursing home in Dublin along with other young women in the same predicament.

She gave birth to her son in 1961 and baptised him alone in her room.

She called her son André because she felt the name would be unusual enough that she would be able to find him again. Just hours after giving birth, he was placed in the care of a religious-run adoption agency, St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin.

In its offices, she signed consent forms which, she presumed, would allow for her son to be legally adopted.

However, in 1997, more than 30 years later, she discovered the agency had allowed for her son to be illegally adopted. In short, a couple seeking a child was given the baby boy by the agency to register as if he was born to them. No formal adoption order was ever made.

It took another four years for St Patrick’s Guild to inform Tressa that André’s birth was falsely and illegally registered through the nursing home where she gave birth.

This had the effect of removing all legal evidence that Tressa ever had a child and was done without her knowledge or consent. Her son would have no idea that he was even adopted.

Even though the Adoption Act of 1952 was introduced to ensure such activity did not occur, St Patrick’s Guild

admitted to Tressa that it allowed other children to be placed in the same way, including another boy to the same family that took André.

Despite this, St Patrick’s Guild remained a fully accredited adoption agency through the Adoption Authority of Ireland until it closed in 2014.

Tressa’s experience mirrors that of thousands of other women, many of whom went through Ireland’s mother and baby homes. However, because she was not in one of these institutions, her cases and others like hers will not be examined by the commission. The illegal adoption of her son will also not be examined. Both will have to wait for their apology.

Adoption and the scale of illegal adoption is one of the key areas being examined by the commission, but only adoptions linked to the 15 listed mother and baby homes under the terms of reference for the inquiry.

Remarkably, St Patrick’s Guild, which has been making headlines in this regard for decades, is not a listed institution under the terms of reference.

Campaigners have repeatedly called for the agency to be included in the inquiry, but these calls fell on deaf ears in Government.

This was all the more remarkable a decision when the Irish Examiner revealed in April 2015, just two months after the commission was set up, that the Department of Children was informed by the Adoption Authority of Ireland in 2013 that St Patrick’s Guild had knowledge of “several hundred” illegal birth registrations.

The revelation was contained in a note of a meeting between the Adoption Authority and representatives with the department and the General Register Office. “St Patrick’s Guild is aware of several hundred illegal registrations but are waiting for people to contact them; they are not seeking the people involved,” read the note.

“Must consider how revelations of this sort would affect a family unit.”

Given that the department was to set up an inquiry tasked with examining these very arrangements two years later, it seems extraordinary that it would exclude St Patrick’s Guild.

The Government has repeatedly resisted calls by adoption campaigners for an audit of all adoption files held in the State so that the full scale of illegal adoptions and birth registrations can be uncovered.

It has said an audit of adoption records “would yield little useful information”, as there would be “little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements” on the files.

However, a note of a meeting between two nuns from St Patrick’s Guild and representatives of Tusla, also obtained by the Irish Examiner, revealed that with regard to records on illegal birth registrations that the agency held, “full details are available on the majority of cases”.

And year after year, this newspaper has revealed more and more aspects of this scandal — coming directly from these files which have “little useful information” in them.

So whether it is infant deaths or illegal adoption, the mother and baby homes inquiry will only scratch the surface of a scandal.


St Patrick’s Guild sought €50k from Tusla for adoption records

St Patrick’s Guild adoption agency requested a payment of “at least €50,000” from Tusla before it would transfer the more than 13,000 adoption records it holds.

The agency made the request on numerous occasions throughout 2015 and 2016. It was excluded from the current Mother and Baby Homes Commission despite the Government being told by the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) that the agency was aware of “several hundred” illegal birth registrations.

It ceased operating at the end of 2014 but, due to lengthy negotiations to ensure Tusla were indemnified against any legal action taken by people seeking their records, the files were not transferred until May 2016.

However, it has emerged that the agency had contacted Tusla a number of times throughout 2015 and 2016 seeking a payment of €50,000 before it would agree to transfer any records.

Documents released under Freedom of Information show that Sr Francis Fahy, director of services with St Patrick’s Guild (SPG), wrote to Tusla national manager for adoption Siobhán Mugan in October 2015 requesting an “immediate payment” in regard to almost €48,000 in expenses.

She had previously made a request in April of that year and stated that SPG had not been funded by Tusla since it closed in December 2014, but had continued offering a service to adopted people and natural parents “albeit in a more limited way”.

“It is now a matter of some urgency,” said Sr Fahy.

“At this time I am enclosing an account of the actual expenses to date for 2015 and would be glad to receive an immediate payment in regard of these expenses. If further details are required please let me know. A further sum will be required later as often payments fall due from October until such time as the service and the records are transferred to Tusla.”

The attached expenses from January to September 2015 included almost €10,000 on gas and electricity and phone bills of more than €2,000.

Ms Mugan responded to Sr Fahy stating that when the agency ceased operating there was no agreement with Tusla to continue funding into 2015.

She pointed out that, “in fact, it was agreed that the records would be in the possession of Tusla by late January, early February 2015 at the latest”.

However, Sr Fahy wrote to Tusla again in February of this year stating that it would need a payment of “at least 50,000” before it could transfer anything of the 13,000 adoption files. She pointed out that the agency was preserving and maintaining the records and offering a service on the understanding that its costs would be covered by the State.

“We were given to understand that upon submission of the necessary documentation and accounts funding would be made available to cover the costs incurred during this period,” said Sr Fahy. It was with this understanding that the work was carried out in good faith.

“While every effort has been made to bring the negotiations to a conclusion this has not yet been possible. Therefore, at this time, and as a matter of urgency, it is necessary to request that a payment of at least €50,000 be made prior to the transfer of the records.”

In April, principal officer in the Adoption Policy Unit at Tusla wrote to chief executive of the AAI Patricia Carey expressing concern about the request and fact that the agency had planned to retain copies of index cards containing birth information of adoptees and their natural families.

The AAI agreed to allow the agency hold the cards for three months post transfer of the files to allow it “to complete reports for the Authority”.

In April of this year Tusla agreed to a one of payment of €30,000 to support the storage of the files while the transfer was being negotiated and to assist the agency with its closure.

St Patrick’s finally hands over 13,500 adoption files to Tusla

More than 13,000 files from St Patrick’s Guild adoption agency have transferred to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency — almost three years after the agency ceased to operate.

The agency held approximately 13,500 adoption files — one quarter of all adoption files in the country. It closed in 2013, with the transfer expected to take between 12 to 18 months.

The Irish Examiner understands that issues around indemnity against any legal action taken by people seeking their records was a significant factor in the transfer delay.

Tusla declined to confirm it had been indemnified in respect of the records but it had “obtained the appropriate protection in respect of known potential issues”.

St Patrick’s Guild has been excluded from the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, despite the Irish Examiner revealing that the government was in 2013 informed that the agency had knowledge of “several hundred” illegal birth registrations.

An Adoption Authority of Ireland delegation told representatives of the Department of Children and the General Register Office in June 2013 that the agency was aware of several hundred cases of illegal birth registrations.

“St Patrick’s Guild are aware of several hundred illegal registrations, but are waiting for people to contact them; they are not seeking the people involved. Must consider how revelations of this sort would affect a family unit,” states a department note of the meeting.

St Patrick’s Guild has hit the headlines on numerous occasions — most notably when this newspaper revealed its role in the illegal adoption of Tressa Reeves’ son.

The agency was criticised by Alan Shatter in the Dáil as far back as 1997, when he hit out at it for having “deliberately misled” people by giving “grossly inaccurate information” to both adopted persons and birth mothers. He said such behaviour by an adoption agency was “almost beyond belief”.

The Government has repeatedly resisted calls by campaigners for an audit of all adoption files held in the State so that the full scale of illegal adoptions and birth registrations can be uncovered.

Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance said the fact the transfer of files overran significantly showed the “complete indifference” of the Adoption Authority of Ireland and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs towards the rights of adopted people and natural mothers.

“Both bodies are fully aware of the very significant numbers of illegal registrations on the files and, on the back of other scandals around child trafficking to the US, high mortality rates, mass graves, etc, are fearful of the potential scale of this operation becoming known,” she said.

Paul Redmond, chairman of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes Survivors, said the agency had been “exposed on numerous occasions” and called on Tusla to carry out a full audit of the files.

“If the HSE or Tulsa find suspicious issues in the files, the gardaí should be called in immediately and no one should be immune, including the nuns,” he said.

Kathy McMahon of the Irish First Mothers group said it was imperative that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission seek Government sanction to include St Patrick’s Guild in its investigation so it can fully audit all the files.

St Patrick’s Guild accredited under 2010 Adoption Act

The very first agency accredited by the Adoption Authority of Ireland under the much heralded Adoption Act 2010 was was St Patrick’s Guild – despite all that is known about its actions. Since this story ran in 2010, it has closed but adopted people are left waiting years for it to transfer its 13,500 files to Tusla. They are being offered no tracing service while they wait. It told the AAI in 2012 (see blog for more on this) it had “several hundred” illegal birth registrations on its books but was not telling the people involved. Guess what? Nobody decided to do anything on

It told the AAI in 2012 (see blog for more on this) it had “several hundred” illegal birth registrations on its books but was not telling the people involved. Guess what? Nobody decided to do anything on foot of this revelation and St Patrick’s Guild was kept out of the Mother and Baby Home inquiry. No reason was given for this exclusion, which beggars belief.


A RELIGIOUS-run adoption agency which facilitated a number of illegal adoptions and which exported over 500 “illegitimate” children to the US has been re-accredited by the Adoption Authority.

St Patrick’s Guild was last month accredited to assist adopted people and natural parents through tracing, counselling and mediating.

This is despite the fact that St Patrick’s Guild facilitated the illegal adoption and false birth registration of the son of Tressa Reeves — a case exposed by the Irish Examiner last year.

The agency allowed a couple to take the child without a formal adoption order being made. The couple then falsely registered the child as their own.

In letters to Ms Reeves, the agency admitted it had placed at least one other child in the same way.

Between 1947 and 1967, St Patrick’s Guild also arranged for the export of 572 “illegitimate” children to the US for adoption.

The agency dealt with more than 10,000 adoptions here and holds more than 13,000 files on children who were fostered or adopted.

Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance said she was “astounded” St Patrick’s Guild had been re-accredited given the volume of complaints levelled at it over a period of decades.

“In our experience, it is one of the most unhelpful adoption agencies to deal with, whether the adoption was illegal or not… We sincerely hope that now St Patrick’s Guild is accredited, they will be submitted to rigorous inspection by the new Adoption Authority.”

In a statement, the Adoption Authority said the decision to accredit St Patrick’s Guild came after “a detailed examination of the body’s current policies, procedures and practices in terms of compliance with the 2010 Act and the Adoption Act 2010 (Accredited Bodies) Regulations 2010”.