‘RTÉ Investigates: Ireland’s Illegal Adoptions’ is a harrowing must-watch

Tonight, Wednesday March 3, RTÉ Investigates examines the story of Ireland’s illegal adoptions and some of the powerful individuals who facilitated the once common practice.

The programme will examine how past failings are being compounded even now by the continued refusal of State agencies to share basic personal information with those affected, and the serious consequences for some of the adoptees.

In January the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published its long-awaited report – over 3,000 pages it detailed the harsh treatment of unmarried women and their babies at 18 institutions across Ireland during the 20th century. 

The Commission’s report was largely silent on illegal adoptions despite Government promises for action in 2018 when it revealed 126 cases of babies who were illegally registered on their birth certificates as if they were the natural children of their adoptive parents. 

It was an Ireland of a different time. Unmarried mothers had few choices, many ended up in Mother and Baby Homes, but less well known are the cases of women who dealt with adoption agencies – largely run by religious orders.

The extent of the scandal only began to emerge when the former St Patrick’s Guild Catholic adoption society run by the Religious Sisters of Charity transferred its files to the Child & Family Agency TUSLA and it was decided those illegally adopted would be informed.

Dublin woman Susan Kiernan learned as a child she was adopted. She spent years unsuccessfully trying to trace her birth mother when out of the blue in 2018 she received a letter from TUSLA looking to set up a meeting with her. She was told she was one of the 126 babies illegally adopted. She managed to sneak copies of some of her documents during the meeting but was later provided with redacted records when she went through official channels. 

Among the documents seen in the RTÉ Investigates programme was a demand for £85, the fee St Patrick's Guild charged pregnant women to care for their babies until adopted – the equivalent of over €3,200 in today’s money. But when Susan’s birth mother did not pay her fee, the Sisters of Charity went in pursuit. 

Two months on they threatened to send the child back to her. The documents show a year on Susan’s birth mother was still struggling to pay the nuns and they began phoning Arnotts, where she worked as a shop assistant. The balance due is £82-10s...

Susan Kiernan

"If you do not send, my collector will call to see you. She would prefer not to have to do this as it might be embarrassing for you and we want to safeguard your reputation. We have not failed you; you have failed us", the letter read.

However, Susan’s birth mother was unaware the letters to return her baby, were nothing more than idle threats. Because Susan could not have been returned – she had in fact already long since been placed with her adoptive parents at only four days old.

Susan’s story and many more will be told on RTÉ Investigates: Ireland's Illegal Adoptions tonight, March 3 at 9:35pm on RTÉ One and RTÉ Player worldwide.

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