Q&A: What did the review of Ireland's adoption records find?

Report ‘will leave many questions unanswered’ but also raises many problems

The discovery of 126 illegal birth registrations at St Patrick's Guild three years ago marked the opening of "another dark chapter in our history"; so said Leo Varadkar, who was Taoiseach at the time.

It led to an independent review which tried to establish a definitive answer on the breadth of the problem.

What did it examine?
There are about 150,000 adoption records in the State, two-thirds of which are held by two State agencies, Tusla and the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI). The independent review examined samples of records held by Tusla and AAI. All told, it examined 1,496 records.

What was it looking for?
In the case of St Patrick's Guild, files relating to incorrect registration were marked as "adopted from birth". The independent reviewer established a list of similar terms (such as "private adoption" or "put away") and the agencies were tasked with combing their files for this, or similar language, or other suspicious markings.

What did it find?
About 265 files across the two agencies were found to have markers or language close to them, or to contain a "suspicious" reference. Based on the prevalence, the independent review estimates that between 5,540 and 19,980 files may have similar hallmarks.

Is it definitive?
The report itself acknowledges that it will "cause disappointment to those affected by incorrect birth registrations" and "will leave many questions unanswered". AAI said it was "clear that the agreed indicators of potential incorrect registrations did not yield any meaningful information", while Tusla found "limited evidence to support the practice of illegal birth registrations".The review stops short of calling for a full inquiry into the files, finding "it is unlikely that a more comprehensive review of records would provide clear information".

So can it be discounted?
No. It states a significant number of records may have information contained within them which could "indicate a potential for illegality in relation to the registrations of births. The potential for illegality cannot be dismissed in these cases." Even if there is not, on the face of it, clear evidence of incorrect registrations, this does not mean markers can be ignored.

What else did it find?
Tusla's review of records raised concerns around adoption practices at the time, not confined to the question of illegal birth registrations.

There was “evidence of allegations of forced or coerced consent” and records of underage mothers or those with serious mental health issues “[call] into question their ability to consent to the adoption of their child”. Tusla drew attention to the placement of children abroad “with little or no legal documentation”. It found a “striking practice” of changing a child’s date of birth by a day and, in some cases, children with a number of different names and dates of birth, and indications that registers were “filled in retrospectively”, with children “baptised one day after birth and given their adoptive parents’ name”.

“Where rape or incest allegations are recorded there appears to be no follow-up or reporting to the appropriate authorities,” it found. The files relate to birth mothers as young as 12, with the vast majority under age. It found that “attempts to reclaim children by their mothers appear not to be acted on”, detailing how “one mother is recorded as being advised that her child had died after she had spent years working close by the convent so that she could reclaim her child when she reached 16 years old.”

Where does it go from here?
The report raises a series of problems. The absence of definitive findings makes the path ahead unclear – but the State, confronted by thousands of potential cases, cannot do nothing. Further, the picture of the treatment of women and children during the adoption process demands some action.

Rather than narrowing down the problem, the sampling report has multiplied issues being faced by the Government.

Former tánaiste Joan Burton, who is adopted, said the Government’s decision to refer it to the children’s rapporteur for a period of six months was a “kick to touch” and said she is “deeply disappointed” at the proposal.

"After the RTÉ Investigates illegal adoptions programme, I would have expected a lot more than just kicking the can down the road."

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times