TRESSA REEVES was born Teresa Mary Donnelly in England to an Irish father and an English mother.
In 1960, at the age of 20 and unmarried, she became pregnant. She had been involved in a relationship with an older man which did not last.
Given the stigma which surrounded unmarried mothers and so-called “illegitimate” children at the time, Tressa’s mother made arrangements with nuns in their local convent in England and she was sent to Dublin to enable the birth to be hidden from neighbours and relatives and be placed for adoption.
Many years later in her home in Penzance in England, Tressa, now married and with other children and grandchildren, acknowledges that once she had left for Ireland, the topic of her son was never spoken of by her parents ever again.
“I never spoke to them about it, ever. I could have been gone shopping for four months. It was never talked about,” she says.
To understand the stigma around births outside marriage at the time, one statistic is enlightening. In 1967, 97% of all children born outside of marriage in Ireland were placed for adoption.
Tressa had presumed her child was to be legally adopted like so many others. However, that was not the case.
When she arrived in Dublin, Tressa was told her child was to be adopted through an adoption agency called St Patrick’s Guild, then based in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin.
For the first while, she stayed in a private house in Howth along with some other unmarried pregnant girls. This house was run by Marie Norman, who also ran a nursing home called The Marie Clinic on the Howth Road in Clontarf in Dublin.
It was in this nursing home that Tressa gave birth to a baby boy on March 13, 1961. She called him André and baptised him herself, alone in her room.
Innocently, she thought that by giving him an exotic sounding name, he would be easier to find when she came looking for him.
“Yeah, I gave him an exotic sounding name because I thought that when I came to look for him, he would be easier to find that way. Of course, that wasn’t to be the case,” she recalls.
The morning after his birth André was taken away. She hasn’t seen him since.
Nine days later, a 21-year-old Tressa was brought by a Fr Moloney, who used to visit the girls in the house in Howth, to St Patrick’s Guild to sign the adoption consent forms. There she was told to sign the documents and never contact her son again. These forms also contained an address in Dublin where she had never stayed.
These documents, Tressa presumed, were signed in order to carry out a legal adoption. However, as became clear many years later, this was not what happened and Tressa, in essence, signed fraudulent documents.
In fact, her son was not going to be adopted but merely given by St Patrick’s Guild to a couple seeking a baby. This couple then took the boy and pretended it was their own child. To this day, Tressa’s son, now aged 49, has no idea he was adopted.
Mrs Norman, who ran the nursing home, then allowed the birth to be registered in the names of this couple, enabling André to appear as the natural child of the “adoptive” parents.
It would be more than 30 years before Tressa would discover all of this. However, her memories of the day she signed the so-called consent forms are vivid.
“I signed an address in Northumberland Road and I questioned it at the time. I was told something like: ‘Oh we always have to do that, it’s part of the form’. And I said: ‘Oh alright’. There was no solicitor there to my knowledge and the form when it was sent to me 30 years later was signed by a solicitor,” she explains.
Tressa first went back looking for the son she presumed had been adopted in June of 1977. She was met with silence, obfuscation and a generally dismissive attitude by the very agency that allowed for her child to be illegally adopted.
Upon visiting St Patrick’s Guild, she was told by a nun that no file existed on her or her son and that she “must have imagined” she had given birth to a son. It would be a further 20 years before the agency finally admitted it had her file.
Upset by her treatment by the nun at St Patrick’s Guild, Tressa went to the nursing home where she gave birth, looking for answers. There she met the midwife who had delivered her son and with whom she was friendly with at the time she gave birth.
“She knew me when I came back all those years later and even told me that she knew I would come back. She said there was traffic from Ireland to America in those days and that was where he probably went and, because I was quite shocked, I didn’t say that I remembered her telling me he was going down the country to a family. She said that I wouldn’t be able to trace him as you couldn’t trace them when they went to America,” recalls Tressa.
Indeed, “traffic” was the right word as, many years later, it was uncovered that St Patrick’s Guild, along with many other religious run agencies, was to the forefront of exporting Irish babies to America.
Done with full official sanction and facilitated by the state, by 1967, when the practice finally ended, the agency to which Tressa entrusted her son, had dispatched a total of 572 children across the Atlantic, more than any other adoption society.
After hitting brick walls with the nuns in St Patrick’s Guild and with the midwife in the nursing home, a devastated Tressa resigned herself to putting her search on hold.
By this time she had married and went on to have four other children, all of whom were told about their older brother, who they hoped they would meet in the future.
Tressa next tried to contact St Patrick’s Guild by letter throughout 1995 and 1996 but received no reply. She finally received a response when she phoned then director of agency Sr Gabriel directly. The nun suggested her file might have been “lost in a fire”.
The following year, after St Patrick’s Guild had hit the headlines for giving adopted people false and misleading information about their natural parents, Tressa decided to try the agency yet again for information about her son.
It was at this point that new director Sr Francis Fahy finally admitted to Tressa, over the phone, that it indeed had a file on Andre and that he was adopted through the agency.
LATER that June, Tressa received her first letter from Sr Fahy at St Patrick’s Guild which stated that the family with which André was placed “appears to have taken him as their own and there was no formal adoption order made. The family had another child adopted in the same way”.
Tressa did not realise the significance of this statement at the time but gradually the murky affair was to come to the surface.
Sr Fahy eventually made contact with the “adoptive mother” who told her that neither of the two boys she had obtained through the agency had ever been told they were adopted and she was not about to tell them now.
Since then, and despite numerous correspondence, St Patrick’s Guild has refused to tell André the truth about his identity, nor about the fact that his natural mother would like to meet with him, subject to his agreement.
Sr Fahy did mention attempts could be made to bypass the ‘adoptive’ mother but nothing was ever forthcoming on that front.
By this time Tressa had been in contact with the Adopted Peoples Association and the Natural Parent’s Network of Ireland, the latter of which continue to assist her with her case.
Representing natural parents, the group advised her to seek André’s birth certificate from the General Register Office (GRO), as well as to seek out the original consent and surrender forms from St Patrick’s Guild, and which she should have been given copies of at the time.
When the GRO responded to Tressa, it was with the news that they did not have a birth certificate for her son André on the register.
Shocked by this revelation, and how it could have occurred, a letter from St Patrick’s Guild on November 22, 2001 shed light on the story.
In the letter, which also included the original surrender and consent forms Tressa signed, and which she should have been given at the time, Sr Fahy admitted the birth registration had been falsified and also that the agency was involved in placing numerous other children in the same way.
“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.
“Generally speaking, in these cases, the birth of the child is registered under the name of the ‘adoptive parents’ and this was usually done from the Nursing Home, Sr Fahy wrote.
Later in the letter she admitted: “André was placed with a married couple in March 1961. His birth was registered by Mrs Norman from the nursing home in their names.”
Such activity occurred routinely prior to 1952. However, the very reason for Adoption Act of 1952 was to regulate adoption so as to prevent such murky activity from occurring.
Even more troubling, Sr Fahy admits in her letter that there were numerous other cases on file at St Patrick’s Guild, with the tone of the letter suggesting the practice was not out of the ordinary.
Despite this, the Adoption Board has said it is only aware of one such case as ever having occurred post 1952. Given that the Board refuses to discuss specific cases, it is safe to assume that the one case it is aware of is Tressa’s.
Although St Patrick’s Guild has admitted its involvement in such practices and the Adoption Board’s awareness Tressa’s case, the agency nonetheless remains fully accredited by the Adoption Board.
Following this letter, the Adoption Board wrote to Tressa in December 2001 noting it “had no record of an adoption application or order having been made in respect of your son”.
The Adoption Board also then requested the consent and surrender forms Tressa had already received from St Patrick’s Guild and also advised her to take legal advice if she believed her son had been “directly registered”.
THE obvious question in all of this is why St Patrick’s Guild allowed such an illegal adoption to be carried out when legislation providing for legal adoption was in place for almost a decade?
Such a scheme had many benefits. By falsely registering the birth, the couple could have obtained a child without having formally adopting them.
By having the birth registered in their names, a serious offence in itself, the couple could maintain the child was born to them and the child would never know he or she had been adopted.
Through this pretence, any stigma they may have faced as a result of being infertile would have also been removed as far as friends and neighbours were concerned.
Such a system was also perfect for those who may have been refused permission to adopt a child by a social worker for whatever reason.
Throughout 2002, Tressa received correspondence from the Adoption Board informing her it was “actively pursuing” the matter with the agency.
However, in May 2002, the board wrote to inform her it had received and considered legal advice in relation to her case and apologised for delays in dealing with the matter.
On March 20, 2002, Tressa also received a letter from St Patrick’s Guild informing her it had sent the contents of her file to the Adoption Board “with the exception of the name and address of the adoptive mother”.
Despite this admission, chief executive of the Adoption Board John Collins assured Tressa by letter in 2004 that the Adoption Board was also given the name and address of Andre’s “adoptive parents” on the same date.
In July of 2003, Tressa took a legal case against St Patrick’s Guild, The Registrar General and Ireland and the Attorney General. Her Senior Counsel (SC) outlined she has an “arguable case” in seeking information relating to her son.
Any hope of a solution to her case being offered by the law was dashed however. Despite battling for five years, Tressa was eventually forced to withdraw her case. Her SC, while initially confident in 2003, put forward a far more pessimistic opinion in 2008.
In the five years she had battling her case, St Patrick’s Guild failed to file a defence of any kind.
On advice that she would lose her case and possibly her home if she had to pay costs, Tressa reluctantly withdrew the case.
However, her battle was not fruitless. On her wall now in her home in Penzance in England is a small framed piece of paper. It is André’s birth certificate. Denied to her in 1961 through the actions of others, André’s birth was correctly registered for the first time on October 14, 2009. She admits being given the piece of paper that day overwhelmed her.
“I was very moved actually. I didn’t think I was going to be. It was a piece of paper I had been trying to get for a long time. We went into this office and we talked to this very nice lady and I signed something. She went out and brought this piece of paper in and I burst into tears.
“It was amazing. It actually hit me then that the whole thing wasn’t just something that is going on over there in Ireland but that this is my life. It’s difficult to explain. I was very shocked and disturbed by it, that all this really happened,” she explains.
Tressa’s sense of grievance over what was done to both her and her child without their consent is palpable. Her anger towards the legal system which offered her no sense of justice is also raw and close to the surface. However, despite all this, she has refused to lose hope.
She feels by telling her story, more women who have lost children to adoption might come out and start to ask questions about the manner in which it was done.
There may be many other cases like hers languishing in adoption agency files, gathering dust due to the lack of legislation surrounding tracing and information.
“I remember when he was coming up to 40 and being sad that he would never see me with red hair because I used to have red hair. I remember thinking that he would never know he had a red headed Mum. Now he’s nearly 50. I hope I live long enough to see the end of this. I never really lost hope. I did a bit when the court case ended and I didn’t think I could fight anymore but I am fired up again.”