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Mother and Baby Homes report misses the mark

Added on April 13, 2017

The language and scope of the Mother and Baby Home Commission is questionable, says Conall Ó Fátharta

WE WAITED seven months for the Government to publish the second interim report of the Commission to Inquire into Mother and Baby Homes. It did not make for encouraging reading.

Running to 16 pages, the report has three main sections -- on redress, its terms of reference, and on the issue of the false registration of births.

However, on the issue of the real elephant in the room -- illegal adoptions -- it was remarkably, and worryingly, lukewarm. In fact, the section is not even titled "illegal adoptions". It is given the more euphemistic title -- one favoured by government departments -- "false registration of birth".

While the commission notes that illegal adoptions cover a "wide variety of situations including actions taken (or not taken) prior to the adoption and illegality in the adoption orders made", it makes no effort to highlight any of these. Instead, the focus of the section is on false (or more accurately, illegal) birth registrations. These occurred where the birth was registered in the name of adoptive parents and -- crucially, from the State's perspective -- no formal adoption order was ever made.

In short, most of these cases can't be called illegal adoptions as no formal adoption order was ever granted by the Adoption Board.

While the commission acknowledges that the false registration of a birth is a criminal offence, it speculates that those involved in such practices may have been engaging in a crime for what they thought were the right reasons.

"It is possible that such registrations were carried out for what were perceived to be good reasons (this does not change the fact that it was an offence). Formal legal adoption did not become available in Ireland until 1953. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that, prior to the availability of formal adoption, "adoptive" parents may have falsely registered the birth in the belief that they were conferring legal status on the child."

The report offers a narrative, offered without anything other than "anecdotal evidence", that such activity was done by ordinary, well-meaning couples rather than being facilitated by any other power structure such as a religious order or, indeed, the State. Is there a possibility that the opposite of this scenario may also be true? Namely, that such activity may have been facilitated by religious orders and the State for less than well-meaning reasons?

Another peculiar scenario cited is the following: "It may be that some people registered the adopted child in their own name without realising that this was illegal and that they should have applied for an adoption order."

The commission seems to neglect, or worse, fail to understand, that if an adoption order was granted in such a scenario, the Adoption Board would have been doing so in the full knowledge that the birth registration was fraudulent. The Adoption Authority is aware of no such cases and, furthermore, if the adoptive couple illegally registered the child as if he/she was born to them, seeking an adoption order via the Adoption Board would only reveal the illegality. In short, this scenario makes no sense.

No other type of illegal adoption scenario is mentioned. For example, adoptions have been granted on the basis of extremely questionable consents, sometimes in false names. They were also granted where the mother consenting was a minor. They were granted in the absence of birth certificates of any kind, and in the case of children whose parents were married. Documentary evidence for these cases exists.

The commission states that it is "impossible to fully investigate the issue" of illegal birth registrations. Much of the language concerning the area of illegal adoptions seems to be more about what the commission cannot do rather than what it can do. The report states: "If there are no records and the people involved in the false registration do not come forward, it is difficult to see what assistance could be provided by further investigation."

Surely the job of any commission is to, at the very least, attempt to fully investigate these issues? It has the powers to compel witnesses to appear before it. What is clear from this newspaper's research in the area of illegal adoptions is that paper trails do exist.

Instead, the report ends with a bald statement that an amnesty from prosecution for people involved in such activity may "encourage those responsible to come forward". It offers no recommendations in terms of what conditions would be attached to such an amnesty.

On the wider issue of whether all adoptions -- regardless of the mother being in a mother and baby home -- should be investigated, the commission states that it may make such a recommendation after its current work is completed.

However, it notes: "This would require a full investigation into all adoption societies, the Adoption Board, and all adoption orders, and would be a vast undertaking."

This is what those affected by the issue have been calling for for years. They've always been told it would take too long and, in any case, there's nothing to see in the records.

If nobody looks at them, it will stay that way.

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