By 2015, the department was being told by adopted people, campaigners, and even by its own regulatory body that a full-scale audit was needed, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.
Since news broke in May that 126 cases of illegal birth registrations were found by Tusla in the files of the former adoption agency St Patrick’s Guild, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has been sticking rigidly to a certain line on the matter.
The line is a very simple one — while it knew there were suspicions about illegal registrations, the 126 found in May “represent the first time this threshold of a high level of certainty has been reached”.
The department said when these 126 cases came to light, they were confirmed as illegal birth registrations “once a rigorous process was completed”.
However, the department has failed to answer a simple question.
If such a rigorous process was set in motion after Tusla stumbled upon the cases in 2018, why was a similar course of action not taken in 2015 when the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) sent a detailed spreadsheet of 90 cases it felt were illegal registrations?
If the word of Tusla was good enough to launch an investigation into illegal adoptions in 2018, why wasn’t the word of its regulatory body for adoption good enough in 2015?
Or in 2011 and 2013 when it also raised the issue?
These 90 cases, which have subsequently risen to more than 130, are the very cases Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone referenced in June when she said “a validation exercise is under way” with respect to illegal registrations reported to her department by the AAI.
She declined to state that the vast majority of these cases were reported to her department years ago.
Why was nothing done at the time?
This newspaper has reported about St Patrick’s Guild going back to 2010 and specifically about its involvement in illegal birth registrations when it broke the story of Tressa Reeves, who had evidence of her son’s illegal registration since 1997.
The AAI, in its previous incarnation as the Adoption Board, knew of her case as far back as 2001, as did no fewer than three ministers for children.
Tressa even had evidence in writing from the agency itself.
On November 22, 2001, a letter from Sr Francis Fahy admitted that illegal registration arrangements had been made for numerous children.
“As I explained to you previously, I do not know the reasons for the particular arrangement that was made in regard of André. In the course of my work here I have found that there were a number of babies for whom this arrangement was made,” wrote Sr Fahy.
Despite this, the department continues to insist that the 126 cases from May are the first time the State has obtained evidence “of a high level of certainty”.
The AAI committed to the first-ever audit of its records in 2010 on foot of Ms Reeves’ case appearing in the Irish Examiner.
It uncovered approximately 99 cases. A further 20 were identified in the following years. This has subsequently risen to 131.
The regulatory body for adoption has notified the department about the issue on multiple occasions ever since.
Yet the department is determined to say that everything it was told about illegal registrations before May of this year were “suspicions”.
It is worth examining just how much information about these illegal practices was reported to the department prior to the Tusla discovery this year.
In a report prepared for the department in June 2011, the AAI said it considered carrying out a more comprehensive audit of the cases it uncovered, but because of the transfer of senior personnel and the “pressure on resources of the imminent establishment of the Adoption Authority no further action was taken”.
Clearly, the regulatory body for adoption in this country felt the number of cases it uncovered in its own files warranted further investigation and “a more comprehensive audit”, and it had notified the department of its opinion.
This wouldn’t be the first time it would stress the need for further investigation into the matter.
In April 2015, the Irish Examiner revealed an AAI delegation told the department in a June 2013 meeting that there were “at least 120 [confirmed] cases” of illegal registrations.
It specifically named St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin as being “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”, stating that the agency “are not seeking the people involved” but were, rather, “waiting for people to contact them”.
The AAI delegation also named a well-known former private nursing home — St Rita’s in Dublin — where women went to give birth to their children before having to place them for adoption, as a “huge source of illegal registrations”.
The AAI went further, stating its belief that this could well be the tip of the iceberg and that there “may be thousands” more.
In short, the AAI was admitting there might be thousands of Irish adults with no idea that their birth certs are fraudulent and that the people they believe to be their natural parents are, in fact, their adoptive parents.
Of note from the record of the meeting was an acknowledgement that none of these people had been informed of the circumstances of their births.
However, no audit or investigation was announced on foot of this meeting.
Five months later, then children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil she “had no plans to initiate an audit of all [adoption] files” and also claimed that all adoptions “which the Irish State has been involved in since 1952 have been in line with this [Adoption Act 1952] and subsequent adoption legislation”.
This claim was repeated on two separate occasions by her successor, Charlie Flanagan.
Both made the claim despite the fact that no State agency ever examined all the records.
Now, the department may feel the warnings from the AAI in 2011 and 2013 were not sufficient to launch an investigation, but the staggering level of detail supplied to the department by the regulatory body in 2015 seems hard to ignore.
This third notification from the AAI contained not only two reports on illegal birth registrations but also included a detailed spreadsheet outlining some 90 specific cases.
The names of the individuals affected were redacted.
In the cover letter attached to the reports, which were sent to the principal officer of the department’s Adoption Policy Unit on June 4, 2015, AAI chief executive Patricia Carey reiterates that the only way to get a handle on the scale of illegal adoptions is to fully audit all adoption records.
“As previously discussed, without a full review of each and every file related adoptions/placements, it is not possible to quantify what the actual number of illegal registrations may be,” she said.
The AAI provided the Irish Examiner with a summary of the information that is contained in the reports it sent to the department in 2015.
The first report, entitled ‘Illegal Registrations’, pointed out that “doctors, nursing homes, midwives, priests, and some adoption agencies” carried out the practice and that, in many cases, no records were available to the AAI.
As a result, the scale of illegal registrations and the numbers involved “are not possible to quantify”.
The second report, entitled ‘Report to CEO in respect of “illegal birth registrations” 1 May 2015’ is an analysis of information the AAI holds on illegal birth registrations and an overview of the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, which has been in operation since 2005.
“The report states that a list was compiled by the Information and Tracing Unit of cases where there were no adoption records and it appeared that the ‘person’s birth’ had been illegally registered,” states the AAI summary.
This phrase was found marked on the 126 cases discovered by Tusla earlier this year.
Indeed, the Irish Examiner revealed in May that Tusla had been recording illegal adoptions and birth registrations in 2016.
The agency had previously denied the existence of keeping a register of illegal adoptions and registrations in 2017.
As well as the spreadsheet of some 90 specific cases, the AAI also sent the department a summary of a small number of cases with names redacted, including correspondence to and from the person who was the victim of a suspected illegal birth registration.
Yet, no investigation was launched at that time.
In short, by 2015, the department was being told by adopted people, campaigners, and even by its own regulatory body that there was a need for a full-scale audit of adoption records to see how widespread the practice of illegal registrations and illegal adoptions was and how many agencies and individuals were involved.
Yet, it kept saying such an audit was not necessary.
It told this newspaper repeatedly that such an exercise would “yield little useful information” and was “of very limited benefit”.
Even now, the department response has been to launch a “scoping exercise” of a sample of records to see if a full audit is worthwhile.
It won’t say what the sample size or the methodology is.
However, we know a full audit is a worthwhile exercise.
The State’s own regulatory body for adoption has said so — repeatedly. Campaigners have said so — repeatedly.
Even the department itself has admitted privately the practice is across multiple agencies but would be an “onerous” exercise requiring “massive resources”.
One thing is for sure, without a full inquiry this issue will not go away.