Wednesday 22 November 2017

'My birth mum was told to get rid of me or she couldn't go home' - How new legislation can change everything for Irish adoptees

For many of the 60,000 adoptees in Ireland, new legislation allowing them access to their birth certs can't come quick enough. But what about the mother's right to anonymity, asks our reporter

Decision: Penny Gray (40), who was adopted, chose not to meet her birth mother when the woman got in contact when Penny was 16. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Decision: Penny Gray (40), who was adopted, chose not to meet her birth mother when the woman got in contact when Penny was 16. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Lisa Connell
New bill: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone

Tanya Sweeney

For those on any prong of the triangle, the adoption process can often be a mix of conflicting emotions: pain, secrecy, confusion and, ultimately, love. Figures from 2014 suggest that around 60,000 Irish people are now searching for their birth parents. And given the breadth of experiences that many of them have faced when they go, it comes as no surprise to find a mixed reaction to a new bill on adoption tracing.

Late last week, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone secured Cabinet approval to publish the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill; after draft bills were first published in 2015 by senator Averil Power. Many adoptees are currently unable to access birth certificates listing their birth parents' names due to legal obstacles, including a constitutional right to privacy on the part of the parents.

Yet via a new Tusla (the Child & family Agency) operation, adoptees and birth parents will be asked to register, but parents will be able to avoid registration or declare a "no contact" preference.

This is intended as a way of striking a balance between the right to privacy of birth parents and the identity rights of adopted persons. While it is expected that the Bill will be published shortly, reactions from adoptees, adopters and birth parents have been understandably varied.

Lisa Connell
Lisa Connell

Says Ruth Kelly, author of 'Motherhood Silenced: The Experiences Of Natural Mothers on Adoption Reunion', of the legislation: "It's been a long time coming. It's a human right for an adoptive person to have information about themselves, and while there's the mother's right to privacy guaranteed in the Constitution, the human side of this must be considered: that when these mothers had their babies, they were treated so badly by everyone. Not just the Church, but the State, too.

"There's that retrospective element, and we need to be as gentle and kind to these women as we possibly can. They're a cohort of people who are very vulnerable."

Caitriona Palmer, 44, is a Washington-based writer/journalist who wrote the stirring memoir 'An Affair With My Mother'. The book charts her complex and emotional journey towards meeting, and forging a bond with, her birth mother. The new legislation, she posits, isn't without its flaws.

"I cautiously welcome this new legislation as a baby step in the right direction, particularly the provision that adoptees will, for the first time, have a statutory entitlement to their birth certificates," she says.

"But a lot more needs to be done. I am deeply concerned about the requirement, in some cases, for adoptees to give an 'undertaking' agreement not to contact their natural parent. This requirement infantilises Irish adoptees.

"It also amplifies the great painful dilemma of adoption that successive Irish governments have failed to solve - how to balance the privacy of the birth parent against the right of the adopted person to their biological identity. Whose needs are greater? The need to know, versus the need to preserve the shape of a life publicly lived?"

New bill: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone
New bill: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone

The changes to legislation throw into focus the tenet that, despite growing up in loving, enriching homes, many adoptees harbour a deep-seated longing to know their biological parents.

"Not all adoptees feel the same about their birthright and I can only talk about my own experience," says Palmer. "Despite my own happy childhood and the loving buffer of a supportive family, I still needed to know where I came from.

"My reunion story has been fraught with both happiness and deep sorrow, but do I regret ever venturing on this difficult path? Absolutely not. In the end, I couldn't not know."

Much like Palmer, 33-year-old Lisa Connell grew up in Donegal in a loving and open home. "I always knew I was adopted. When I was 18 or 19 I became curious about my birth parents. I had this fantasy that Mel Gibson was my dad, or my parents might be millionaires."

Amid the current legislation, Connell went through a "long and drawn-out" process, initially contacting the adoption agency that oversaw her adoption (previously, a religiously run agency) and waited for her birth mother to approve initial contact.

"The system right now is set up for the parent, and their rights and responsibilities are paramount," explains Connell. "This, on some level, has the last vestiges of shame and stigma attached to adoption.

"When I initially made contact (through the agency), my birth mother didn't want to talk for a few years," she recalls. "And when we met, just the once, it was sort of an odd experience. There was a definite fascination as we did look alike, but there wasn't a big emotional pull.

"My expectation was one of friendship, but I didn't need another mother figure. I feel very strongly that my parents are my parents."

Kelly acknowledges that shame is a significant emotion for many birth mothers: "There are mothers out there who wouldn't consider looking for their child as it's so shame-based," she says. "They say, 'how could I face my child when I gave him away?' Another said to me, 'if as many people assisted me to keep the child as assisted me to part with it, things would be very different now.'

"The responses by mothers who are contacted are so varied," she adds. "Sometimes there is no response. For the vast majority of them, they haven't told their husbands or other children," says Kelly.

Kathy McMahon, founder of Irish First Mothers, reconnected with her first daughter in 2001 after both of them registered on the Adopted Persons Association database. It was, in the main, a positive experience.

"We spent two years emailing and exchanging photographs before we met in person," she says. "My first daughter has received any information she asked for from me and met my youngest son three years ago when she and I met for the second time.

"I also met my grandchildren for the first time. There is no animosity between us. I would like more contact with her but understand that she has a busy life working and with young children. We exchange gifts on birthdays and Christmas and keep in touch by email and Facebook, although less frequently than at first."

As to her thoughts on the changes in legislation: "We don't agree with vetos," she says. "We don't agree with mothers and children being pitted against each other like this, which is happening with this bill."

For every adoptee or birth parent that has made a connection, there are several others now facing the prospect of a search. Magazine editor Penny Gray, 40, was given the option of contacting her birth mother when she was 16 after hearing from her agency that "there was interest from the other side".

"I didn't want to meet her then, but I did write her a letter telling her that she did the best thing possible by giving me up for adoption"

After the death of her mother two years ago, Gray found a letter amid her adoption papers: "I knew the facts surrounding my adoption, but the letter was balder and more personal. I found out that my birth mother was 19 and was sent to Dublin to have her child, and was told to get rid of the baby or she couldn't come home.

"I was born on December 22, and she chose to stay with me on Christmas Day, alone. Meeting with her has been mulling in my head for the last while.

"I don't want to cause upset, and if she has moved on and has a family, I don't want to throw myself into the middle of that for her. But I do think of a woman who might have a small think about that one lonely Christmas all those years ago."

Changes to the legislation hasn't hastened Gray's decision: "I already have quite a lot of information to go on", but she welcomes the development: "I'm delighted for people who do feel that hole in their lives. I know there are people who didn't have quite as wonderful an upbringing as I did."

Irish Independent

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