Adoption scandal: Forged birth certs, family secrets and babies taken from sleeping mothers
Twenty-odd years ago, while writing a book about the 2,000 and more Irish children dispatched to America for adoption, I received a letter from a man in Texas called Gene Autry that was to lead me deep into the world of falsified birth records and bogus birth certs.
Gene had just discovered, at the age of 44, that he wasn’t the biological child of Wesley and Mary Autry, the people he had always called mom and dad, but had in fact been born in Ireland, in a nursing home called St Rita’s. Wesley Autry had been in the US airforce and based in England at the time.
Gene was in shock but desperate to trace his Irish roots, and I offered to help.
I knew a little about St Rita’s already and had obtained a copy of a 1954 Garda report from the National Archives into the goings-on there. The police had found that Mary Keating, St Rita’s owner, was forging the registry of births and giving Irish babies to Americans, complete with official birth certs in their own names.
Before releasing the report to me, all the names in it were to have been redacted, but one had been overlooked and, by an astonishing coincidence, it was "Autry". Gene’s parents had been caught up in the St Rita’s investigation along with many others from the same US airforce base.
Mrs Keating was engaged in forgery on a grand scale, committing a serious criminal offence in the process.
With little snippets of information, I was able to discover that a friend of Gene’s, Lynda Harden, was another of the ‘St Rita’s babies’. Her parents, Major and Mrs Harden, had actually acquired two children from St Rita’s, Lynda and her brother David.
Forging the registry of births is usually seen as a way of helping unmarried women fall below the radar - because there is no record of them ever having given birth - but I soon realised that what Mrs Keating was doing was procuring children for people who couldn’t adopt legally.
Both the Hardens and Autrys had been unable to adopt in America but had no difficulty in getting babies from Mrs Keating, without questions and without vetting.
A priest on the airforce base had directed Mrs Harden to St Rita’s, and when she contacted Mrs Keating she was told two babies were available. They had been born two days apart to different mothers, but Mrs Keating would forge the paperwork to make it appear that Mrs Harden had given birth to twins.
At the age of 13 Lynda discovered she wasn’t the Harden’s natural child, but she was in her 30s before she found out David wasn’t her brother - traumatic discoveries, made more painful by the fact that her parents refused to discuss things openly.
Lynda told me her childhood was full of friction and tension that she believes started with the "illegal mess" surrounding her and David’s acquisition. She grew up angry because she knew dark secrets were being kept from her.
"I simply wanted to know what happened and who I was", she said. But her parents took their secrets to the grave.
Back in 1953, it was the Hardens who told Mary and Wesley Autry about St Rita’s, and following her initial enquiries, Mrs Autry received a letter in March 1953 to say a baby was available but there was a complication: the mother was ill and might have to go into hospital. This, the letter explained, would cause problems because "in our home we would register the baby in your name, but in the hospital the babies are registered in their mother’s name."
This was indeed a candid admission of criminal intent.
A few days later Mrs Autry got a call: another baby was available. She went immediately, and was soon on her way home with baby Eugene. Mrs Keating, as promised, registered the birth as if the Autrys were Gene’s natural parents.
Decades later Lynda Harden discovered that her natural mother had known nothing about the fabricated birth records until the police told her during their investigations into the matter. Angry and upset, she went to the registry office and demanded that the record be corrected, but her request was refused.
Someone, however, noted her name - Vivian - in the margins, the clue that helped Lynda find her, although it still took years of searching.
When they eventually met, Vivian told Lynda that she had been heartbroken by her experience at St Rita’s for although she had agreed to part with her baby, Lynda had been taken from her as she slept.
Back in 1997 Gene told me his American parents had lived in dread of losing him because of the web of illegality they’d been involved in. This, in turn, took its toll on Mary Autry’s health with a series of stress related illnesses. Only on his deathbed, in 1997, did Gene’s father offer the first hint of the family’s dark secret.
When Gene started looking for his natural mother, the authorities in Ireland offered no help, although they had known her the true identity since the Garda inquiry of 1954.
Gene eventually persuaded one official to tell him the first letter of his mother’s name. Another revealed the number of letters. Like solving a crossword, he eventually uncovered her name, and with a lot of luck he finally found her.
What he discovered next was astounding. After his birth, Gene’s natural parents had married and had seven more children, his full siblings. In the years since new bonds have grown. Then Gene’s Irish mother made the trip to Texas and met her grandchildren, finally exorcising the deception that had plagued her adult life.
Yet while Gene and Lynda succeeded in uncovering their true identities, they did so without help from official Ireland. Time is rapidly running out for the State to mend its ways.
Mike Milotte is the author of Banished Babies: the secret history of Ireland’s baby export business, published by New Island at €16.99