Sister of adopted woman died while request to meet sat in a backlog

Woman calls for quicker processing of cases as new regime for accessing birth information, starting on October 3rd, is likely to be flooded with requests

Catherine Lynch was adopted when she was around eight months old. She grew up in a loving home in Terenure, south Dublin, and later married a childhood friend. The couple now live in Kiltipper with their 10-year-old son, in a home surrounded by fields at the foot of the Dublin mountains.

It was after the birth of her son that Catherine began to feel a drive to find out about her birth mother and other family members, with a view to potentially meeting them.

She signed up on the Adoption Authority of Ireland’s (AAI) contact preference register in 2013, indicating she wanted to be contacted if any of her birth family signed up to the State adoption-tracing service. After several years with no news of any match on the system, life moved on.

Then unbeknown to her, in January 2021, a sister who was born several years after her contacted the AAI, signing up to the tracing register seeking to meet Catherine. A match between the two siblings was identified the following month and the case was put on a waiting list to be assigned a social worker who could facilitate a meeting.

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The case sat in a backlog for 16 months before it reached the desk of a social worker this summer, who moved to contact both women to inform them there had been a match. However, when the social worker wrote to Catherine’s sister, a response came back this June that she had died suddenly in March 2021 while the case was waiting to be assigned.

“My sister wanted to find me and I wanted to find them for the last nine years and I was deprived of that,” Catherine says. To describe the circumstances as a missed opportunity was “such an understatement”, she told The Irish Times.

Now Catherine is concerned the large backlog of cases in the tracing service could lead to other adopted people being robbed of a chance to reunite with parents or other family due to a “systems failure”.

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.

Greater access

The new regime, giving adopted people much greater access to information about their early life and family, was brought in under the Information and Tracing Act, passed by the Oireachtas earlier this year.

Under a reformed contact-preference register, a parent can request not to be contacted by an adopted person, but cannot block a birth certificate or other information being released.

Both the AAI and Tusla, the child and family agency, which also hold adoption files, are bracing for a surge of requests for information and tracing services under the new system. Since July more than 2,000 people have signed up to the new register to indicate a contact preference, 1,922 adopted people and 236 birth parents or other relatives.

Ahead of the expected “floodgates” opening for adopted people, Catherine is concerned the system is not fit to cope with expected demand. “People out there need to be aware that there is a clog in the system and it is not going to be a fast-track,” she says.

“And in fact it might be a really sad story instead of being a happy ending, because that’s what it should have been for me and my sister and it wasn’t.”

Delays ranging from months to more than a year connecting adopted people to their birth family, potentially elderly parents, would be too long a wait in some cases, she says.

In a statement, the AAI said Catherine’s case was given a “level-three” priority for matches concerning siblings. This placed it behind cases where a parent or child were seeking to trace each other, or cases where there were exceptional health circumstances.

The authority said her sister had died suddenly just two months after signing up to the tracing service seeking to meet Catherine. “Even if her case had been a highest priority, it is extremely unlikely that a tracing request could have been completed prior to her untimely death,” the authority said.

Extra staff

A spokesman for Tusla said it had hired extra staff to prepare for an expected increase in demand on tracing services.

The agency was working with the AAI “to ensure we deliver a timely and effective service”, while recognising the new system “may present challenges” when it opens in October. “We will continuously review and appropriately adjust our plans and the allocation of our resources as we progress,” the spokesman said.

For Catherine, who is now 49, the missed chance to meet someone from her birth family has left her with more questions than ever. She wants to find out more about her sister: who she was, whether she had children, what she did during her life. “All these questions. There’s probably a new one that pops into my head every day,” she says.

‘I actually used to brag when I was a kid that I was special,’ as Catherine says that was what her mother would tell her as a child

Born in late 1972 in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in Dublin, Catherine also wonders how her birth mother was treated in the institution. She was adopted in the summer of 1973 and had an “amazing upbringing”, she says. Her adoption was not kept a secret but talked about openly growing up.

“Every question I ever asked I was told the answer, to the best of their ability and their knowledge,” she says.

“I actually used to brag when I was a kid that I was special,” as Catherine says that was what her mother would tell her as a child.

She has known her husband most of her life, the pair having been childhood friends. “We met again when I was 29 and that was it. I asked him out and it all moved forward.”

Catherine had several miscarriages while the couple were trying for children, and she says those difficulties made the birth of their first child “all the more precious”.

‘Through the wringer’

The couple’s second child, Alfie, died moments after his birth in late 2016. “Myself and my husband have been through the wringer together, and these things will only make you stronger,” she says.

‘If there are other people that I am related to out there, I would love and welcome the chance and opportunity to meet them and for them to meet my family’

Growing up, she says she did not have a major desire to search for information about her birth mother or family. During that time, she adds, she would have been uncomfortable if someone from her birth family had turned up at her door. Similarly, now Catherine says she has an “equal respect” for her birth family, if they do not wish to reconnect with her.

“If there are other people that I am related to out there, I would love and welcome the chance and opportunity to meet them and for them to meet my family. They may or may not be interested, I can’t make that decision for them,” she says.

However, the death of her sister had given her a “real hunger” to find more about her early life, and perhaps one day meet her birth mother or father. “I’ve never wanted it as much as I do now.”