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Joan Burton backs new rights for adopted people

Published 27/07/2015

Tanaiste Joan Burton only discovered the identity of her birth mother after her death
Tanaiste Joan Burton only discovered the identity of her birth mother after her death

Tanaiste Joan Burton has urged support for reforms to give adopted people rights to their birth certificates and to trace their birth mother.

The reform for the first time allows people to try and contact their natural parents and to take their search to the courts if they are denied access to information on their identity and childhood medical care.

The new regime will apply to over 18s, regardless of how long ago they were adopted, by whom and whether the arrangement was by a religious organisation, informal, illegal or wrongly registered. Campaigners said it eases many concerns they had about the long-awaited reform.

The Tanaiste, who was adopted herself and did not discover the identity of her birth mother until she was dead, said: "I hope adopted people, and the organisations advocating tirelessly on their behalf, will see this proposed legislation as a welcome development, and the Government will continue working with them to get the best possible legislation enacted."

Under the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill adoptees will be able to make a request to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency about access to information before applying for their birth certificate.

They will be required to make a declaration to respect the wishes of a parent who does not wish to be contacted but the new reforms have yet to set out any potential penalties for breaching the commitment.

The laws will also allow people access to personal information such as medical details from their early years.

One clause may prove contentious, however, with birth mothers retaining the right to state a "compelling reason" for their details not to be released such as a threat to life.

The new rules will bed in for one year to give birth mothers an option to confirm they do not wish to be contacted or otherwise, a decision which can be appealed either way in the courts.

The reform will open the doors on up to 100,000 files on adoptions and follows a long-running campaign which gained the backing of Philomena Lee, whose quest to find her late son Anthony became a hit Hollywood film.

James Reilly, Children's Minister, described the reform as a major breakthrough.

"We faced a particular challenge in the attempt to reconcile an adopted person's request for information about his or her identity with the right to privacy of his or her birth parent," he said.

"We recognised that adopted persons are a unique part of this process and the information that they are seeking is about their own identity. A birth certificate is an important piece of identifying information that is shared by an adopted person and his/her birth parents."

The Tanaiste also said: "For many years, adoption in Ireland happened very much in the shadows, with little or no regulation and great secrecy.

"Children were put up for adoption, often against the will of the mother, usually under the auspices of religious bodies, and without legal protection for them or their adoptive parents.

"The birth mother was told that her identity would be kept secret and would never be disclosed to her child, or anyone else.

"As an adopted person myself who discovered the true identity of my parents only after an exhaustive and deeply emotional search in the late 1990s, by which time they were dead, I always thought that this was grievously wrong."

The Adoption Authority of Ireland described the reforms as comprehensive, progressive and child-centred.

"The information and tracing bill addresses in a very impressive and sensitive manner the balance between the right to information about identity and the right to privacy," it said.

Senator Averil Power, another adoptee, who earlier this year published proposals to reform access to birth certificates, hit out at limitations in the new legislation including asking adoptees to sign declarations about approaching their birth mothers.

Paul Redmond, chairman of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, said secrecy is finally being lifted.

"We've been waiting generations for this day of equality. This is a great victory for all the campaigning groups and a new era has dawned in Ireland for openness and co-operation between the Government and the survivor community," he said.

The Adoption Rights Alliance refused to support the reforms as they stand because of the declaration clause.

Describing rules on commitments to respect privacy as offensive and unnecessary, co-founder Claire McGettrick said: "It is important to separate the issues of information and tracing; adopted people are seeking a statutory right to information as opposed to a statutory right to a relationship with their natural mothers."

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