Monday 24 October 2016

Photos of my birth family were just odd, not upsetting

Claire Scott - who always knew she was adopted - set out to research adoption for her university degree and by chance came across information about her own birth family. Here, she hails the proposed new legislation on adoption but says more can still be done

Claire Scott

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

‘MY BIRTH MOTHER WAS ALLOWED TO CHOOSE WHO RAISED ME’: Claire Scott says she is grateful for the gift her birth mother gave her — a wonderful family. Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘MY BIRTH MOTHER WAS ALLOWED TO CHOOSE WHO RAISED ME’: Claire Scott says she is grateful for the gift her birth mother gave her — a wonderful family. Photo: Gerry Mooney

We always knew we were adopted. My sister and I can't recall a significant moment our parents sat us down and told us, but we always knew we were sisters, just not by blood. In our house, it was something that was always acknowledged and freely discussed.

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Both my parents are teachers. My mother teaches art and my father maths. My sister is older, a vet, and my opposite in almost every respect. In that way, we are a perfect fit for each other. There is a lot of love in my family, even though there are no blood ties between us. For me and for many, being adopted has no impact on the authenticity of love in a family. But unfortunately, the rules governing adoption in Ireland have impacted on the rights of adopted people like my sister and I.

Currently, under Irish law, we do not have the right to immediate access to our birth certificates. We do not have the right to immediate access to our relative family medical history or information concerning the circumstances of our adoptions. The process to ascertain this information can be lengthy and arduous, and for many people it can take years.

As of last Wednesday, the Government has signed off on proposed legislation which will allow adopted people to access their birth certificates without the bureaucratic rigmarole in operation at the moment. This is a huge step in the right direction for the adoption community in Ireland but there is still a lot more that needs to be looked at in terms of establishing equality for adoptees in Ireland.

I have been researching adoption legislation for the past two years and its effects on adopted people, birth mothers and adoptive parents. The legislation we have in place stemmed from a need for secrecy on the part of the Church and the State. In light of the accounts given by women who were sent to mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries and also the children of these women who were often sent to the US for adoption, we are beginning to understand the extent of the damage our closed adoption system has caused.

Before beginning this research I knew that many women in the 1950s and 1960s were forced to give their children up for adoption in Church and State-run institutions. What I didn't realise was that Ireland's negative attitudes towards unmarried mothers continued into the 1980s. I have spoken with many women who feel they were put under immense social pressure to give up their children for adoption as recently as 1984. In fact, the last mother and baby home didn't close until the late 1990s. What's shocking is that the laws under which these homes conducted adoptions are still enforced, and many of the adoption institutions that conducted unregulated adoptions are still accredited by the Government to this day.

My adoption experience has been different to the adopted people and birth mothers I interviewed. My parents were given some information on my birth family during the adoption process, something which many adopted people long to know, even as adults.

This is mainly due to the fact I was adopted in 1991 and attitudes towards adoption were shifting. My parents were given the opportunity to meet my birth mother. She was allowed to choose who raised me, and she chose my parents. This seems like a logical way to execute adoption but from what I now know, this was a luxury that wasn't afforded to many women from the very founding of the Irish State right through to the 1980s.

Many birth mothers in Ireland were coerced into relinquishing their children and many adopted people were told they weren't 'wanted', and subsequently carry an overwhelming sense of abandonment and loss.

I originally intended on beginning the tracing process for my birth family this year whilst conducting interviews with fellow adoptees and other birth families, but I decided against it. My research was part of a journalistic project for an MA degree in DCU and I really wanted the articles to remain objective. Also, the process can be time-consuming - many adoptees have had to take time off work and essentially put their lives on hold in order to trace relatives successfully.

However, in May this year something unexpected happened following an interview with an adoption researcher. From the little information I told him about my birth mother, he managed to source a picture of her. Coincidentally, this researcher already knew members of my birth family and could give me their contact details, which goes to show the pointlessness of the barricades put in front of adopted people looking for information. I have also seen a photograph of my younger brother (perhaps half-brother) with my grandfather, both of whom my family and friends say are "the spit of me".

This experience was daunting but simultaneously anti-climactic. Growing up, I would often wonder what my birth mother looked like or whether I had other brothers and sisters and whether we were similar. Seeing photographs of them after over 20 years of imagining them made them a reality; it confirmed they existed outside of my imagination as normal, everyday people, which is difficult for the mind to process at first. It wasn't upsetting . . . just odd.

I plan on contacting them in an official manner in the near future but for now it's a comfort to see that they seem happy. To know that my birth mother appears to have had a good, full life following my adoption, is as positive an outcome as an adopted person can hope for. She was always in my thoughts whenever I met a birth mother or an adopted person who was struggling to find information. My only wish is that she knows how grateful I am for the gift she gave me of a wonderful family. I am forever indebted to her for making that selfless decision and I look forward to the day we might meet and I can thank her in person.

For now, I hope to continue my research. One of my major concerns lies with how we are operating inter-country adoption, not just in Ireland but worldwide. I believe the Hague Convention which set out new practices on adoption in 1993 improved sanctions on deeming whether children are genuinely adoptable, insofar as affirming these children haven't been trafficked or rushed through the adoption process. Ireland ratified the conventions laws with the Adoption Act 2010.

However, even under the convention's laws we are adopting from countries that have similar attitudes to unmarried women as Ireland did 50 years ago. We are adopting from countries that are unable to support young mothers and provide counselling for them once they give up their children.

We are adopting from countries without proper information and tracing policies in place for when these children grow up. It is my belief that adoption agencies and governments need to presume that adopted people want and require information on their birth families. This information should be stored and regularly updated so that if and when an adopted person decides they would like to know their information, it is easily accessible to them.

Adoption from my perspective can be a wonderful thing, but we need to have robust measures in place to ensure full transparency within the adoption or mediation agencies and we need to ensure that information is available for the people who need it most.

My sister and I are lucky, but there are many who have been trying to find their siblings, their birth parents and indeed their basic information for decades now. I believe this new legislation cannot come soon enough.

Claire Scott is this year's Veronica Guerin Scholarship journalism student at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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