Aitheantas/Uplift Adoptee Voices Survey: 'Identity Rights for Adoptees'
Contents of ‘Aitheantas/Uplift Adoptee Voices Survey: ‘Identity Rights for Adoptees”
Overview of survey
This survey, carried out in conjunction with Uplift, consisted of questions put to adoptees, to their spouses/partners, and to their children (where applicable). The questions asked about adoptees’ interactions with state and private agencies, with a particular focus on the issues of family tracing, terminology, how adoptees feel they are perceived and information retrieval. There were also questions about adoptees’ views on the wider societal context of adoption in Ireland, as well as questions about the experiences of spouses, partners and children. The questions put to adoptees’ spouses, partners and children were intended to highlight the intergenerational impact of adoption in Ireland.
Aitheantas is firmly of the view that the effects of adoption are not limited to a specific home, remit or agency, but that they are experienced to some extent by all adoptees, regardless of how they came to be adopted. As such Aitheantas advocates for a more inclusive approach to support for Adoptees as opposed to a narrow view specific to remits, homes or institutions.
The aim of Aitheantas’ research, summarised in this report, is to show the impact of adoption on adoptees and their spouses/partners, the intergenerational impact on their children and the necessity for mental and physical health support for adoptees and their families.
A full summary of questions asked in the survey can be found in Appendix A.
One of the main issues for adoptees in Ireland is the lack of knowledge of their medical background. The largest proportion of adoptees in Ireland were adopted in the 1970s. This cohort are entering middle age largely without background medical information and have no knowledge of their possible hereditary risks of diseases such as cancer, diabetes etc. Therefore, the information sought by adoptees was primarily biological health information, which adoptees sought out because they wanted to be aware of any hereditary illnesses they or their children may be susceptible to.
The survey responses make clear that the current lack of clear pathways to access adoptees’ identity information, including health information, continues to cause distress and embarrassment to many adoptees.
A trip to the GP, a normal experience for citizens who are not adopted, can in many cases become a source of upset and concern for adoptees, as they are unable to provide information about their hereditary medical history. The quotes below highlight how distressing this experience can be.
“When doctors ask you about family medical history all you can say is ‘I don’t know anything’. We should be automatically given medical records so we can be aware of genetic problems and have annual tests and check-ups”.
“I have no idea the medical background, risks etc. in my genes, this also passes on to my children, they too are affected by this lack of medical history”.
“When I was younger I just answered ‘I’m adopted’ to questions about my medical history and never really thought of the implications this might have for my medical care. But now that I have gotten older and have my own children it actually is very concerning not to have any genetic family medical history. Really with advances in medical screening, in the absence of any history, adopted adults and the surviving children of deceased Adoptees should have access to free genetic screening to help fill in the gaps”.
“Not knowing who you are, where you came from, who you are related to, resemblances. Ireland is a very small country. Not knowing your natural family can be very complicated here”.
“Not knowing your family’s health history means you cannot take any preventative steps other people can. Mentally, it is cruel to deprive a person of a critical piece of their identity”.
The importance of health information to adoptees highlights the necessity for any legislation passed by the Oireachtas to include provisions for assisting adoptees with accessing health information on hereditary risks of illness as well as early access to health screening.
Legislation and identity information
Historical adoption has a greater impact on adoptees and their families in Ireland than in other European countries. This is because of the lack of legislative and social progress on this issue over many years. Prevarication and delay with regard to information and tracing legislation continues to leave adoptees and their families in limbo. Supportive and expansive legislation, including provisions for enhanced medical screening and mental health support for adoptees, is an urgent necessity.
Aitheantas has repeatedly asked for “legislation for the country we have, not the country we had”. Adoptees still live with attitudes of shame and secrecy representative of “old Ireland”. The lack of access to birth information and lack of autonomy over their own identity information has a profound effect on the mental health of adoptees, and a knock-on effect on their families.
The standard operating practices of state and private agencies have usually focused on the dynamic between an adoptee and their birth mother. However, this accounts for only 50% of an adoptee’s biological background. Information and tracing legislation must take into account these knowledge gaps and provide enhanced medical screening for adoptees, as well as entry to existing screening programmes at an earlier age than the general population.
The survey also revealed that cultural attitudes of shame and secrecy around adoption in Ireland still persist. Over 47.4% of the survey respondents stated that they are treated differently in Irish society as a result of being adopted. Almost half of the respondents feel that there is still a social stigma surrounding adoption in Ireland.
The majority of respondents also felt that they are treated or perceived differently by others if they disclose that they are adopted.
Experience with agencies
The agencies entrusted with assisting adoptees with information and tracing have caused considerable distress to adoptees, distress which is augmented by adoptees’ obligation to interact with these agencies in order to access vital background information. Most respondents spoke of negative experiences with state and private agencies currently tasked with supporting adoptees in their attempts to retrieve personal information.
Adoptees do not enter into the process of tracing their personal information lightly. The decision often follows months, if not years, of careful thought and consideration. However, many adoptees and their families recount experiences of “coming up against a wall” when trying to access information via state and private agencies.
Respondents agreed that the information and tracing system used by agencies is too invasive and controlling. This approach leaves adoptees with feelings of depression, helplessness and mistrust of the agencies involved.
Common experiences included frustration at the detached way in which State agencies interact with adoptees, as illustrated in the quotes below.
“Awful, frustrating, not very helpful or supportive and left hanging for long periods of time as I searched patiently. Very upsetting experience”.
“Awful, traumatic, lack of support, very cold approach. A clip board job completed by an emotional journey [which is] not respected or supported along the way of tracing [during] over 4 years with Tusla”.
These upsetting interactions are not simply a result of insufficient information and tracing legislation, but are indicative of a larger issue with the entire model of how state and private agencies interact with adoptees. Even if new legislation is passed, these structural issues will still form a barrier to participation by adoptees with the agencies tasked with assisting them with information retrieval. For these reasons, Aitheantas strongly recommends that a new agency be created to support adoptees accessing their identity information, and to handle all matters concerning historical, domestic adoption.
Experience with social workers
A common and recurring thread in the experiences outlined in this survey has been the upset caused to adoptees by the ofen insensitive and dismissive attitude of some social workers. Adoptees are obliged to engage with social workers as part of the process to access their own information, but all too often these experiences are upsetting for adoptees. For example, many respondents have recounted experiences of meeting with social workers who have placed files on the desk before the adoptee, without indicating if these files contain information about the adoptee or not. This experience can cause anguish and upset for adoptees, and adds to their sense that information is within reach while simultaneously being withheld from them.
While it was outside the scope of this report to quantify the trauma experienced by adoptees as a result of being adopted, but it is clear from respondents’ insights that adoptees’ mental health is affected by the ongoing lack of access to birth and identity information. Often a triggering event, such as the birth of a child or the death of an adoptive parent, acts as the impetus for an adoptee to seek out their personal information.
Survey results show that many adoptees describe feeling a “void” or as if something was “missing” in their lives, which drives them to engage with the relevant agencies to enquire further about their backgrounds, as highlighted by the quotes below. What has repeatedly been described as “stonewalling” by agencies has resulted in adoptees using commercially available DNA tests as a faster, accurate and more reliable means of tracing their personal histories.
“It is hard enough to deal with the trauma of dealing with adoption without being ignored and disregarded by our country. I have had no support with [my] mental health, no social worker or anyone to keep an eye on my adoption, no one to confide in. I’ve only met two adult adoptees in my life. I had nobody around me growing up who could relate [to me] and no one tried to relate to me as I struggled desperately, especially in my teens”.
“Not having knowledge of one’s background, history or roots, causes a person to be insecure and doubting [of their] self-worth. Coupled with deep seated issues of abandonment [this] can cause serious issues for one’s well-being”.
“I have struggled with unanswered questions all of my life and as a direct result have never felt a sense of belonging. I have also struggled with depression and anxiety and I would absolutely associate this with feeling like I was lucky to have survived in one of these homes and not ended up in an unused septic tank. This weighs heavily on my [mind] daily”.
“There are pieces of meat in the supermarket with more rights to tracking & information of origin than me”.
Many survey respondents experienced practical administrative challenges as a result of being adopted, such as problems accessing public service cards and passports. In some cases, the validity of adoptees’ existing identity documents was questioned, as highlighted in the quotes below.
“When I got married I was unable to get access to my full birth cert and this really upset me. Also at all religious sacraments where a birth cert was required I always felt sad as mine was not the same as everyone else’s”.
“Getting married in [named EU country] I was told an adoption certificate is not good enough and I would not be allowed marry until I could get my original birth certificate”.
The majority of survey respondents believed that adoptees have a right to their original birth certificates by default.
“It would mean the world to me if I could have access to my original birth certificate. I would feel I have equal rights to everyone else. It’s important also for my children; If I could pass on something of my heritage and family medical history to them”.
“The birth certificate should always belong to the named person. A copy can be left with the Adoptee”.
“[…] Adoptees do not have basic information about themselves because the State refuse[s] to give it to them, information on their birth parents, biological medical information, birth certificate. Not because the State agencies do not have this information, most of the time this information is in a file but it is withheld by the State. This is shocking and shameful and I don’t think most people understand this”.
Archiving and memorialisation
When responding to questions about their preferences for how their personal information should be stored, respondents showed no clear preference for an independent archive. Aitheantas concluded that many respondents have not been provided with much information on the issue of archiving their records, and that further investigation into adoptees’ opinions on this issue would be useful. With that in mind, Aitheantas carried out a ‘Participation, Validation and Memorialisation’ survey following the publication of the final report by the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes and Related Matters in January 2021. The results of this survey are outlined later in this report.
The spouses/partners and children of adoptees that responded to the survey shared their loved ones’ frustration at the lack of access to health and identity information, as the below quotes make clear. Many also commented on the impact of adoption on their own lives, and the costs of unresolved and multi-generational trauma.
“My wife as an adoptee has practically no biological medical information. She was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune condition […] and she has been living with this for […] years now. If she had her biological medical information this condition could have been pre-empted and dealt with and prevented as it is a genetic disease. Now she will have to live with this for the rest of her life. She obviously is unaware of any other genetic medical conditions and cannot take preventative measures. We have children that are missing 50% of their biological medical information and they are facing an unacceptable lack of information on their health into the future. This issue has affected us hugely as a family”.
“I have lived with someone for [..] years who often seemed to feel like a second-class citizen, even in her adopted family”.
“My children and wife do not know their medical history. This is critical information for any human being and is a basic human right”.
“I feel as a child of an adoptee, that I should have the right to take the government to court over the death of my father as he committed suicide because he searched for his mother his entire life and nobody would help him. He was a great father but there was an empty hole that could never be filled unless he found out who his mother and father [were], all he wanted was answers and the government withheld that from him, as such, I grew up in a home without a father, ended up homeless with my mother, lost our house as my father was the main income provider, from the age of 8 until now. I have suffered greatly because of the loss of my father and this could all have been avoided if only my dad got the answers he needed, not wanted but needed. So I feel it should be granted some confirmation for the pain and suffering I have endured over the years, not to mention the hell I went through during the homeless years with my mother. I hold the government responsible for this”.
“My mother has suffered years of depression and anxiety not knowing who she is, feeling like she has been rejected over and over again. Feeling like nobody recognises her rights as a human being. It’s heartbreaking to watch”.
“I’m the child of an adoptee. I want people to know that adoption is multi-generational. It impacts the lives and futures of children of adoptees, siblings and half-siblings of adoptees, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Without DNA testing and the recent opening of adoption records in New York, my family would have never known who and where we came from and we would not have been able to discover medical information and claim/obtain Irish citizenship– which provides enormous economic and educational benefits”.
One of the aims of Aitheantas’ research was to show the impact of adoption on adoptees and their spouses/partners, the intergenerational impact on their children and the necessity for mental and physical health support for adoptees and their families.
Impact of DNA testing
While there has been little progress with information and tracing legislation in Ireland, time and science have moved on. Many adoptees now use commercially available DNA tests to identify biological relatives. They often take this approach after they have exhausted all avenues to access information through state and private agencies, and feel they have no choice other than to take a DNA test. A high proportion of adoptees expressed the view that if they had been able to access their information any other way they would not have taken a DNA test.