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Ongoing legacy of historic adoption practices revealed in published evidence

18 March 2022

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has published the first tranche of written evidence it has received as part of its inquiry into the adoption of children of unmarried women between 1949 and 1976. The submissions include a large number of personal testimonies from mothers who were separated from their children, and people who were separated from their mothers as babies.

The testimonies reveal the societal and institutional pressures that led to unmarried mothers feeling they had no choice but for their baby to be adopted, and in many cases being given no option at all. They reveal a pervasive sense of shame and judgement towards unmarried mothers that led to pregnant women and girls being hidden or sent away and an air of secrecy for many years afterwards. This extended to the standard of treatment experienced during and after the birth, and has left a lasting impact. People who were adopted described the legacy of not knowing their family history, particularly for health issues.

A central aim of the inquiry is to listen to those affected by adoption practices during this time. As part of this the Joint Committee is holding a round-table event where members of the public can relate their experiences. Further information about how to take part can be found here.

The published written evidence can be found on the Committee’s website here. Excerpts of the submissions giving an overview of some the key issues raised are below. At the request of some respondents, and to protect the anonymity of individuals, some parts of the submissions have been redacted ahead of publication.

How unmarried mothers were treated

“Sending me away from my family to adult lodgings to have a baby on my own at 15 years has scarred me for life. Physically and psychologically. Being away from home in a strange town, I was not integrated into ante natal care and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had a traumatic manual induction of labour at the hands of a local GP. I went into labour and hospital by ambulance alone. The birth process was a terrible shock as I had no preparation. I cared for my son for 8 days in the maternity hospital before returning to my lodgings alone. Back in my home town I was not integrated into post-natal care. I believe this lack of physical health care led to my being unable to have any further children. An indescribable grief.”

Mrs Eileen Griffiths (ACU0006)

“In 1962, as a seventeen year old art student, I found myself pregnant. As was commonplace at that time, my family was horrified and decided to send me away and hide my situation, to avoid the shame and loss of reputation that would otherwise follow.”

Anonymous (ACU0092)

“I was unaccompanied during the birth, except for the midwives, and the birth took place in a local hospital on 1975. The birth was long and grim, ending with an epidural, forceps and many stitches, probably because I had had virtually no ante-natal care or preparation and was absolutely terrified. My daughter was taken straight into the nursery and I was left on a trolley outside the delivery room until, sometime later, I was wheeled onto a ward. I cannot remember much of the next ten days (ten days was the usual post-birth hospital stay then) but I do know that I was desperate to see my daughter all the time. I remember going secretly into the nursery in the dead of night and attempting to breastfeed her – I had no idea at all of how to do this but some primal need and drive led me. After ten days, I left the hospital with my mother, leaving my daughter behind. And from that moment on, my family didn’t refer to either my daughter or my experience for forty years. I was expected to get on with life.”

Anonymous (ACU 108)

Making decisions around adoption

“I did not know I was allowed to give my son a name – I was so elated when I was told I was allowed to. There was so much I didn’t know, about my rights. There was no-one standing up for me and my son. Everything was geared to pressurise me into relinquishing my son to a married, childless couple.”

Anonymous (ACU0044)

“As an unmarried mother I was allocated a social worker, who although, was very kind and understanding, persuaded me that there really was no alternative but to have my baby adopted. I had no support from the father of the baby, I could not, and would not rely on support from my parents, and at that time there was no government support in any way. I just could not have kept my baby, carried on working and supporting myself without help. So the most painful decision of my life had to be made, and everyone encouraged me to have my baby adopted.”

Florence Keaton (ACU0057)

“My parents didn’t really know what to do, so left it all in the hands of our family doctor. He immediately put us in touch with the Church Army moral welfare officer and the whole situation was completely governed by my GP and the Church welfare officer. Adoption was the only prospect ever considered by them and my parents – I didn’t even have a say in the matter. But I knew even before he was born that I loved my baby – it felt like it was him and me against the world. But my rights as a mother and his rights as my child were taken away from us.”

Anonymous (ACU0112)

Attempting to establish contact

“I decided I would try to find my mother as the law allowed. I had to go for 3 interviews with Social Services just to apply for my original birth certificate. They gave me incorrect info regarding my mother. Said she was 21 and not Irish as I had been told by my adopted mother. They told me they could give me no help in tracing my mother. I felt I had to pass a suitability test just to know who I was.”

Anonymous (ACU0020)

“Another very difficult thing to hear from my mother was that she had searched for me. She had desperately wanted to find me and had done everything in her power to find out where I was including going through the records at [redacted] House. All to no avail, she was told that all she could do was leave her details on my file should I ever come looking. I will never understand this. Why was she not allowed to at least know that I was alive and safe? How incredibly cruel. It brings tears to my eyes to think of how that must have felt for her, knowing I was out there somewhere, possibly in the next street or possibly on the other side of the world.”

Anonymous (ACU0081)

“Under the adoption legislation of the time, the adoption was deemed full and final, that there would be no contact. What if my daughter didn't know she had been adopted? There was, after all, no requirement for her to have been told and I had no right to approach mediation services”

Anonymous (ACU0115)

Long-term impact

“I am angry that adoption practices allowed me to be handed over to unfit adopters. I am angry that society, professionals, and adoption practices at that time caused my birth mother so much pain, trauma, and life-long shame. I feel an adoption apology to acknowledge the huge impact of forced adoption on birth mothers and their children who were adopted is long overdue.”

Anonymous (ACU0046)

“None of us – me, my birth mother, and adopted parents – received support or counselling. There was nothing. We were all just left to get on with it… it’s only from having a friend who is a fellow adoptee of the same age (with similar issues) that I have researched the effects of how being adopted impacts on one’s self-esteem and ability to bond with others. But I continue to feel like a dirty unworthy secret.”

Anonymous (ACU0074)

“I was severed from my birth family, and they were severed from me. I was prevented access to familiar faces and the people that I look like. I didn’t have information pertinent to familial medical history. I grew up without the facts surrounding my life. I was raised with the knowledge that I am adopted, although my experience of dialogue around my adoption is shut-down. It is not talked about. Adoption has deeply impacted on my sense of self, my self-esteem, my relationships to others, and my relationship to the world.”

Harry Barnett (ACU0091)

Further information

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