TV | RTÉ Investigates: Ireland's Illegal Adoptions
• Religious Orders pursued birth mothers for maintenance payments months after their children were adopted • Prof Eamonn de Valera, a son of the former president, faked medical appointment documents to facilitate illegal adoptions • TULSA to apologise to illegal adoptees for insensitive meetings
Broadcast Wednesday 3rd March at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player worldwide
This Wednesday, RTÉ Investigates examines the story of Ireland’s illegal adoptions and some of the powerful individuals who facilitated the once common practice. How past failings are being compounded even now by the continued refusal of State agencies to share basic personal information with those affected, and the serious consequences for some of the adoptees
In January the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published its long-awaited report – over 3,000 pages it detailed the harsh treatment of unmarried women and their babies at 18 institutions across Ireland during the 20th century. The Commission’s report was largely silent on illegal adoptions despite Government promises for action in 2018 when it revealed 126 cases of babies who were illegally registered on their birth certificates as if they were the natural children of their adoptive parents.
It was an Ireland of a different time. Unmarried mothers had few choices, many ended up in Mother and Baby Homes, but less well known are the cases of women who dealt with adoption agencies – largely run by religious orders. The extent of the scandal only began to emerge when the former St Patrick’s Guild Catholic adoption society run by the Religious Sisters of Charity transferred its files to the Child & Family Agency TUSLA and it was decided those illegally adopted would be informed.
Dublin woman Susan Kiernan learned as a child she was adopted. She spent years unsuccessfully trying to trace her birth mother when out of the blue in 2018 she received a letter from TUSLA looking to set up a meeting with her. She was told she was one of the 126 babies illegally adopted. She managed to sneak copies of some of her documents during the meeting but was later provided with redacted records when she went through official channels.
Among the documents seen in the RTÉ Investigates programme was a demand for £85, the fee St Patrick's Guild charged pregnant women to care for their babies until adopted – the equivalent of over €3,200 in today’s money. But when Susan’s birth mother did not pay her fee, the Sisters of Charity went in pursuit. Two months on they threatened to send the child back to her. The documents show a year on Susan’s birth mother was still struggling to pay the nuns and they began phoning Arnotts, where she worked as a shop assistant. The balance due is £82-10s... "If you do not send, my collector will call to see you. She would prefer not to have to do this as it might be embarrassing for you and we want to safeguard your reputation. We have not failed you; you have failed us".
However, Susan’s birth mother was unaware the letters to return her baby, were nothing more than idle threats. Because Susan could not have been returned – she had in fact already long since been placed with her adoptive parents at only four days old.
Neil Dargan was meant to go to the Temple Hill orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity for three months potentially to be adopted from there, for which a fee was payable to St Patrick's Guild for his upkeep and his birth mother was responsible for paying it. However, unknown to his birth mother, Neil was illegally adopted within 10 days of being born but for the months of June, July and August his mother had to pay the maintenance fee.
It was a criminal offence under the 1952 Adoption Act for an agency to receive money for anything other than maintenance of the child. So, if the child was not being maintained by the agency then it would appear that those payments were illegal.
At that time because they operated as charities, religious organisations like the Sisters of Charity were exempt from filing detailed annual financial statements. But accounts RTÉ Investigates has seen for the St Patrick's Guild Templehill orphanage for several years during the 1970s, do not reveal any record of the payments the nuns collected from birth mothers like Neil's. Neither is there any evidence of the various donations RTÉ Investigates has seen they frequently received from adoptive parents.
RTÉ Investigates has also uncovered new evidence of the involvement of some of Ireland’s most elite and powerful individuals in repeatedly arranging the illegal adoption of babies. Among them was the son of a President of Ireland, Professor Eamonn de Valera Junior - a Consultant Gynaecologist at Holles St National Maternity Hospital. De Valera Junior arranged antenatal appointments for a woman who was not pregnant in order to facilitate an illegal adoption. This was almost a decade after the Adoption Act 1952 came into force.
Brenda and Brian Lynch were two of four children illegally adopted into the one house over the space of five and a half years. The four adoptions were facilitated by Eamonn de Valera Jr. Their adoptions were concealed as fake pregnancies.
Brian's adoptive mother went to St Brendan’s Nursing Home on Dublin’s Percy Place on her pretend due date, only to emerge with Brian, the child of an unmarried mother. Fearing her children would face the stigma of adoption, their adoptive mother never told them the truth.
"No one is above the law, who does this person think that he is? That he can just decide that oh yeah here is a baby, we will take her from her and give her to a good family, middle class. It is incredible."
The Lynch family were not the only people for whom Prof Eamonn de Valera Junior facilitated illegal adoptions. Mary Flanagan was born in March 1961 – she never knew she had been adopted. She was told a story as a child about her much-wanted miraculous arrival. In October 2019, Mary’s life was thrown into upheaval when she and her sister Anne were told by TUSLA they and their late brother Seamus were not the biological children of the people they’d always believed to be their parents.
"Prof de Valera was mum’s gynae and he was her gynae for years because of the fact she had so many problems and she went to see him privately, it must have cost her a fortune you know and like we weren’t a wealthy family by any means."
During the course of this investigation RTÉ Investigates has spoken with dozens of people from around the country who were illegally adopted. Many of those describe the shock of learning for the very first time, in their 60's and 70's that they were adopted. This is then compounded by the fact that their adoptions were illegal. Others describe being given the news by TUSLA in insensitive ways.
Mary Dolan grew up in Belfast and didn't learn she was dopted until the 1990's. It was not until years later following the death of her adoptive parents that Mary decided to begin her own search.
When Mary Dolan contacted TULSA in 2018 to see if they had any information on her adoption they arranged a meeting in a hotel.
"I was really, really panicking about going to that meeting because I just didn’t know what she was going to present to me so I turned up to the meeting and in the lobby of an hotel a lady got up and introduced herself as a social worker from TUSLA and then she proceeded to open a file in front of me and she took out 3 or 4 pieces of paper.... It was just the most unprofessional place you could possibly give anybody information which was so sensitive and so confidential in the public lobby of an hotel and it just really added insult to all the pain that I was going through."
For almost 60 years of his life, Brian Webster who now lives in Ballina, Co Tipperary believed he was the son of Mary and Tom Webster from New York City. Until this time last year – on the cusp of his 60th birthday – Brian was totally unaware that he had been adopted and that the adoption was illegal. He received a letter from TUSLA to say they had come into some personal and sensitive information relating to him and that they would like to discuss it with him. He arranged to meet them. The first inkling Brian got that he may have been adopted came from a Google search to locate the office where his meeting with TUSLA was due to take place, which turned out to be an adoption and tracing service facility.
TUSLA said since receiving correspondence from RTÉ Investigates, it has “... identified a small number of cases where meetings have taken place in venues that would fall outside our own guidance and best practice.” It intends to engage with these people again and “apologise directly to them”.
There were dozens of other organisations and private individuals involved in arranging adoptions in Ireland – many of whom also facilitated illegal adoptions and whose files have never been handed over to State authorities.
Over 180 institutions, agencies and individuals were involved in arranging adoptions in Ireland – just how many also facilitated illegal adoptions is unknown. Some experts say it will be impossible to know the true figure of illegal adoptions, but they believe it could be more than 10,000. Some people may never discover the truth.
It was not just couples in Ireland who were illegally provided with babies. In June 1954, the American Embassy here in Dublin went as far as alerting Irish authorities that it suspected criminal activity involving the falsification of birth records. They were concerned significant numbers of visiting American women were claiming to have given birth in Dublin and were looking to have their new babies added to their passports. Ireland’s new Adoption Act had made it illegal to place babies abroad.
The St Patrick's Guild announcement in May 2018 coincided with the implementation across the EU of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With the new legislation now in force, those learning they had been illegally adopted saw GDPR being referenced as the reason why their personal information could NOT be shared with them.
In a statement to RTÉ Investigates, TUSLA said current legislation here only allows it “to share personal information with those affected that relates directly to them.” It accepts this is “a huge source of distress and upset.” And is "fully supportive of new legislation that is urgently required to facilitate adopted persons” The Minister for Children told RTÉ legislation “to allow access to birth information, including birth certificates, will be prepared by end March/early April.” Elsewhere adoptees have had the right to access their birth records for decades including in Scotland since 1930, Germany since 1957 and Northern Ireland since 1987.
Watch RTÉ Investigates: Ireland's Illegal Adoptions, Wednesday 3rd March at 9.35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player worldwide.