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'Before I became Averil, my name in mother and baby home was Roisin'


Senator Averil Power. Photo: Tom Burke

Senator Averil Power. Photo: Tom Burke

Senator Averil Power. Photo: Tom Burke

MY name was Roisin Ryan. That's what I was called during the time I spent in the mother and baby home in Temple Hill in Dublin before being adopted and renamed Averil Power. For 29 years, this information was withheld from me.

When I was about 10 years of age, my parents told me I was adopted. However, they weren't able to tell me much more than that. They had never met my birth mother and had simply been told by the adoption agency that she had become pregnant outside of marriage. In the Ireland of 1978, the only real option she had was to put me up for adoption.

From the moment I learned I was adopted, I wondered about my birth mother. My mam and dad were the only parents I had ever known. They had loved me as their own and nothing could ever weaken that bond. However, I had a huge desire to know more about the woman who had given birth to me.

Was she okay? How had her life turned out after we parted? Did she look like me? What personality traits had I inherited from her? Did I have a brother or sister out there somewhere that I had never met? I had so many questions and no one who could answer them.

When I turned 18, I contacted the Adoption Board but it simply passed me to the agency I had been adopted through. Neither would give me any information about my mother.

Ten years passed with no developments. Then in 2006 I heard about a new voluntary contact register for adopted children and their birth relatives. I signed up and, luckily for me, so did my mother.

Instead of contacting each other directly, we were put in touch with the post-adoption counselling service in Barnardo's. Before we exchanged any information about ourselves, we took part in separate counselling sessions there. Over the following months, we exchanged letters through the counsellor and she helped us prepare to meet. This was an invaluable support as meeting my mother again after 29 years was a very emotional experience.

Our reunion went well and within a few months I met my half-siblings, granny, aunt, uncles and a host of cousins. All were happy to meet me and have welcomed me as one of the family.

I finally feel like I know who I am and where I come from. However, I still remember the huge hole in my life for all those years before we reconnected. I recall getting particularly sad every year on my birthday and at Christmas. I loved my adoptive family but I felt like a big part of me was missing.

That's why I have decided to go public about my experience and try to put pressure on the Government to help other adoptees. Some 45,000 people have been adopted in Ireland since 1952, and 11,000 adoptees and their birth relatives have signed up for the Adoption Contact Preference Register. Yet I am one of only about 650 people who have been matched through that process.

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Many others have tracked down their birth information themselves with the help of genealogists, private detectives and online forums.

It is possible to get the information this way but it can be a difficult and heart-breaking process. In

the absence of a single centralised archive of all adoption records, the path often leads back to the religious order or agency that handled the adoption many years ago.

Mothers have been forced to go back to the very mother and baby homes they were incarcerated in and beg for information about their separated children. As the movie Philomena depicts, the people that ran these homes have also been known to deliberately withhold information, even when they knew that both parties wanted to contact each other.

Over the last few weeks, there has rightly been a massive public outcry about the deaths and undignified burial of babies in the mother and baby home in Tuam. The Government's promise to establish a Commission of Investigation is very welcome.

However, the conditions in those homes was just half the story. The forced separation of thousands of mothers and babies was just as shameful and continues to cause immense pain to many people to this day. For decades, unmarried mothers were pressurised into giving up their babies by their families, priests, nuns and social workers. They were made to sign consent forms within days of giving birth and forced to promise never to look for their children.

If the Government is really serious about doing the right thing in the aftermath of the outcry about the Tuam babies, it won't stop at uncovering the truth of what happened in those homes. It will also act now to assist all of those affected by Ireland's forced and secret adoptions.

Adopted people in England have had a right to their birth cert on turning 18 since 1975. Forty years later, Irish adoptees still don't have that right.

The Taoiseach said last week that introducing such a right in Ireland might require a referendum. Many constitutional lawyers disagree. In fact, as Conor O'Mahony from UCC has pointed out, the Supreme Court said in the I O'T v B case that balancing the adopted person's right to their identity and their mother's right to privacy is a job for the Oireachtas.

We can and should put in place a system that balances these two rights in a way that is sensitive to everyone's needs.

One way of doing this would be to establish a full State-funded information, counselling and tracing service to support all adoptees and their parents in the way that Barnardo's helped me.

All adopted people should have a right to get their birth cert through this service. However, they could be required to receive at least one counselling session first before being given this information. If they wished to trace their mother, the counsellor could talk them through the process and help them to prepare for both the best and the worst outcomes. They would also help the adoptee to understand their birth parent's perspective and wishes, including where the parent preferred not to meet them. In this way, their mother's right to privacy and her needs could be considered and respected.

Access to adoption information is a sensitive issue but that hasn't stopped most European countries from dealing with it. If the Government is unsure about how to legislate, it should set up an expert group to advise it on the way forward, as it has done with other issues. The group should look at best practice in other countries and welcome submissions from interested parties on what would work best in Ireland. Its recommendations should then be the subject of public and parliamentary debate so that everyone has a chance to have their voice heard before legislation is drawn up.

Instead of kicking the issue to touch by talking about an unnecessary referendum, the Taoiseach should set this group up straight away and give it a clear deadline.

Nothing can undo the horror of what so many Irish women went through in the mother and baby homes or the impact of forced adoption on them and their children. But legislating for a right to adoption information now would help to heal some of the hurt.

It would also help every other "Roisin" to find out who they are and where they came from.

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