Illegal adoptions: Government’s next step fraught with difficulty

State has duty of care to subjects of illegal birth registrations but also to their anguish

The State is faced with two profoundly difficult choices when it comes to the question of illegal adoptions: either it fully investigates the extent of the issue and potentially turns the lives of those adoptees upside down or it effectively sits on the knowledge that such cases might exist without addressing the truth of the matter.

At this week’s Cabinet meeting, Ministers were fully appraised of the ethical dilemma facing the Government when it comes to illegal adoptions.

After it emerged that there were at least 126 illegal or incorrect birth registrations at St Patrick’s Guild adoption society between 1946 and 1969, a scoping inquiry was commissioned to investigate the extent of the practice in a wider context. That review has flagged potentially thousands of suspicious markers or notes on files across at least 25 adoption agencies.

While the review did not have enough time to validate for certain a further practice of illegal adoptions, it did state that what was found could not be ignored. The press release from the Department of Children heavily emphasised the fact that the report found a further investigation would be unlikely to yield a clear answer to the question of how widespread the practice was.


Utmost seriousness

That is partially because the specific markers found on the St Patrick’s Guild files are not in existence in the same way as they are on other documents.

Despite the department’s press release, and the difficulty in nailing down what is or is not an illegal adoption, the political reality is that this is an issue of utmost seriousness and something must be done.

The decision at Cabinet level was to ask the special rapporteur on child protection, Conor O’Mahony, to investigate the complexities of this situation. Whatever the result, Ministers believe a full inquiry must eventually take place although the form of such an inquiry is very much up in the air.

Such a process will be fraught with not only logistical difficulty but also ethical quandaries.

Government sources acknowledge the State has a duty of care to people who were the subject of illegal birth registrations but a question remains around whether that duty means investigating and informing, or on the other hand, not contributing to a person’s mental anguish.

Psychological standpoint

When the Cabinet considered the issue this week, they looked to the experience of those people who were the subject of this situation in St Patrick’s Guild, which was run by the Sisters of Charity. Understandably, those men and women have experienced a range of emotions from shock to disbelief, and that is only the start of it.

Every individual will react differently, depending on their own circumstances. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work if the issue is examined from a psychological standpoint. It also gives rise to another question: should the State inform a person about this truth when it does not actually have much information beyond that one most salient fact?

Many members of the Cabinet acknowledge how difficult and complex this issue is. Beyond that, there is incredulity among some Ministers that this report has more or less sat on a shelf since mid-2019.

A six-month review, to determine whether a fuller review might be needed, is not regarded as adequate by many people with a stake in the outcome and there is an awareness of this in the Government.

The recommendation from the rapporteur’s report will likely leave the Government effectively in the same place: investigate or do not, with a heavy weight of consequence attached to bothoptions.