Chris Wallace, a 73-year-old former teacher living in England, had no idea she had been “sold” as an infant by a religious order in Ireland and that what she knew about the early years of her life had been a “lie”.
Her case was among more than 100 where Tusla, the child and family agency, established in 2018 that children had been illegally adopted through the St Patrick’s Guild adoption society.
A report earlier this year, from the special rapporteur on child protection Prof Conor O’Mahony, found that State authorities in the 1950s and 1960s consciously turned a blind eye to the practice of illegal birth registration.
Ms Wallace only found out she was one of those cases when contacted by a social worker from Tusla, Karen McSweeney, in recent years.
From October 3rd adopted people will be able to apply for full access to their birth certificates and birth information for the first time, as well as trace their birth relatives under a reformed scheme.
The new regime giving adopted people much greater access to information about their early life and family was brought in under the Birth Information and Tracing Act, passed by the Oireachtas earlier this year.
Speaking in advance of the new law coming into effect, Ms McSweeney recalled efforts in recent years to trace Ms Wallace to tell her Tusla believed she had been illegally adopted.
“I felt sad but morally conflicted about what we were doing — we were essentially blowing peoples’ lives out of the water… We recognised the importance of people being able to live their truth,” Ms McSweeney said.
“I knew that it wouldn’t be good practice for me to get into such a sensitive conversation over the phone with Chris, so all I told her was that there was an issue with her birth certificate and that I could travel to the UK to meet her in two days to discuss more with her,” she said.
During that meeting the social worker explained to Ms Wallace that her birth mother had been a 23-year-old woman from Co Wicklow whose first name was Ena.
For Ms Wallace the discovery was a big shock. “I had to tell other family members the news — it was like phoning to tell them that someone had died. Then it dawns on you: Who am I? Who can I trust? My entire life was a lie,” she said.
Working with the social worker she was able to discover the identity of her birth mother and father, which led Ms Wallace to connect with other relatives she never knew existed.
Ms McSweeney said the reforms of the system for adopted people to try to trace their birth relatives and access information about their early life will make that process much easier in future.
Even after connecting with birth relatives, Ms Wallace said she is still left with unanswered questions. “I’d like to know my first name. Was I healthy? How much did I weigh?” she said. However, she is glad to know more than she once did. “When I finally got to hug some of my birth family, it felt like coming home.”