Finally there will be a sample audit of all records held by the State, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.
The announcement by children’s minister Katherine Zappone that 126 cases of illegal birth registrations have been found in the records of the St Patrick’s Guild adoption agency should surprise no one.
The involvement of this agency in such practices has been known for years.
However, the fact that Ms Zappone has announced a sampling exercise to see if an audit of all adoption records held by the State is needed to ascertain the scale of the illegal adoptions scandal is welcome.
It’s also a complete U-turn by her department who for years have said such an audit would be a wasted exercise.
Ms Zappone deserves credit for finally committing to such a process. None of her predecessors had the courage to do so.
However, the irony of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) announcing a sampling exercise of these records should not be lost on anyone.
It has spent years telling this newspaper that such an audit was “of limited benefit” as looking at the records “would yield little useful information”. Ms Zappone’s own words yesterday show the folly of such responses.
Adoption campaigners have called for a full audit of records for years. All of these calls fell on deaf ears.
You can go back two decades to find St Patrick’s Guild hitting the headlines but let’s start a little closer to the present.
None of what Ms Zappone said yesterday should shock anyone. It was already known St Patrick’s Guild had large scale evidence of illegal registrations in its records, and the issue of illegal registrations has been on the radar of successive governments for many years.
In April 2015, the Irish Examiner revealed that an Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) delegation told the DCYA in June 2013 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 agency held 13,500 adoption files and those have been in the possession of Tusla since 2016.
Tusla paid the agency €30,000 to support the storage of the files while the transfer was being negotiated and to assist the agency with its closure.
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”.
However, 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 regulatory body for adoption in this country was admitting there may 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. Five years on, it would appear they continue to be in the dark about the fact they are adopted. And this refers to just one adoption agency. St Patrick’s Guild was by no means alone in these practices.
In 2015, AAI chief executive Patricia Carey said that the “may be thousands” comment made at the June 2013 meeting was “a throwaway remark” and was “not based on verifiable facts”.
However, the fact that the department had called for a meeting on the subject and that an AAI delegation was willing to speculate at all on such a large number, indicates the issue was firmly on the radar of the adoption regulator and the DCYA at least five years ago.
More than that, it also had concrete information that St Patrick’s Guild had knowledge of “several hundred” cases of illegal registrations.
However, no audit or investigation was announced. In fact, nothing happened.
It seems the revelations made little or no impact at the time. Just five months after the meeting, then children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil she “had no plans to initiate an audit of all [adoption] files”.
She 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.
When the Irish Examiner published this information in 2015, it asked the DCYA did it not think that the AAI’s belief that thousands of people in the country had their identities falsely registered — a criminal offence — warranted investigation?
The department declined to respond to the specific questions asked, but said a full audit of adoption records would be “of very limited benefit”.
It is important to note that the only way information generally becomes available is when someone with knowledge about the event comes forward… There is little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements… Accordingly, an audit of all adoption records would be of very limited benefit in establishing the number of illegal registrations that took place.
However, the AAI clearly disagreed. The 120 cases mentioned by the AAI in the June 2013 meeting refer to a 2010 audit it carried out of its records on foot of a story by this newspaper on the case of Tressa Reeves, whose son was illegally adopted and falsely registered as the natural child of the adoptive parents without her consent. This was facilitated by St Patrick’s Guild, which allowed the couple to take the child without a formal adoption order being made.
The audit uncovered approximately 99 cases, while a further 20 were identified in the following years. 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”.
So clearly, the AAI felt the number of cases it uncovered in its own files warranted further investigation and “a more comprehensive audit”.
The statement by the department that there is “little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements” was also contradicted by a record obtained by this reporter of a meeting between two nuns from St Patrick’s Guild and representatives from Tusla, the Child And Family Agency, which states that the agency’s records contained “some illegal registrations” and, crucially, that “full details are available on the majority of cases”.
In response, the DCYA said the record of the meeting had been “interpreted incorrectly”.
The Irish Examiner also asked if the department had any plans to inform those victims of illegal birth registrations from St Patrick’s Guild of the true circumstances of their births. In response, the DCYA said any consideration of an investigation into the issue of illegal registrations of births would have to be “cognisant of the impact the receipt of such information could have on the persons who were the subject of the illegal registration and were never aware of this fact”.
“The wider impact on families that may have sought to surround the identity of a child in secrecy must also be considered,” said a statement. It concluded by saying that the benefits of any audit of adoption records “are questionable”.
Three years on, it seems that opinion has changed. They will now tell the people affected by these illegal acts. They will now begin a sample audit of records. It is not before time.