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Concerns raised for survivors 'torn apart' by 'omnishambles' of mother and baby home legislation

An adoption rights group said recent debates “have caused huge distress, with severe implications for people’s mental health”.

The site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
The site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

AN ADOPTEE RIGHTS group has called on the government to immediately introduce free mental health supports for adoptees and survivors of mother and baby homes.

Aitheantas, the adoptee identity rights organisation, said many survivors have been retraumatised and “torn apart” by recent debates over legislation related to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Maree Ryan-O’Brien, founder of Aitheantas, said debates in the Dáil and Seanad “have caused huge distress, with severe implications for people’s mental health”.

“People have been panicked, wondering will they get their file, will files be destroyed, are they running out of time to access their personal data, will the report be published?”

She said some survivors have been “torn apart” by the recent debates, “hollowed out, and just left emotional wrecks as a result”.

The controversial Bill, which allows the transfer of a database of 60,000 records compiled by the commission to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was passed in the Oireachtas last week.

Many survivors and legal experts have expressed anger at the Bill, which did not address a number of their concerns such as access to information rights.

Opposition TDs said the legislation was pushed through without proper scrutiny, and none of their amendments were accepted last week.

Ryan-O’Brien said it’s foreseeable that the publication of the commission’s report will greatly impact the mental health of some survivors and supports need to be put in place as a matter of urgency.

She described the government’s handling of the situation as an “omnishambles”, saying the communication around the Bill has led to a lot of confusion and stress for survivors.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has defended the legislation, but said he regrets poorly communicating what it intends to do.

The government maintains it has to seal the Commission’s records for 30 years, due to the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

The Department of Children said it has received legal advice from the Attorney General that the GDPR right to access personal data is prohibited by section 39 of the 2004 Act.

However, many legal experts such as Dr Maeve O’Rourke of the Clann Project have disputed this interpretation of the law, saying it places Ireland at odds with EU regulations and will lead to legal challenges.

In a statement issued last night the government said that the Department of Children, along with Túsla, would continue engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure peoples’ right to access their own personal information will be respected.

Presdient Michael D Higgins signed the Bill into law on Sunday after he “considered all the options available to him”.

In a somewhat unusual move, Higgins issued a statement on Sunday night noting that he had listened carefully to the debate and issues raised as to the rights of access to information submitted to the commission.

“While noting that important concerns were raised in the discussion on this bill which are serious and must be addressed, the bill itself did not directly raise a constitutional issue suitable for an Art 26.1.1 referral,” the statement said.

“The President’s decision to sign this legislation leaves it open to any citizen to challenge the provisions of the Bill in the future,” the statement added.

‘They’re legislators, legislate’

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Ryan-O’Brien said she does not understand why legislation that “restricts people’s access to their own personal data” passed through the Oireachtas.

She said the government’s stance that their hands are effectively tied by the 2004 Act doesn’t hold up and that GDPR supersedes the previous legislation.

Ryan-O’Brien said the Bill passed last week is deeply flawed and amounts to a missed opportunity to address concerns over access rights.

“They’re legislators, legislate. If the law isn’t right, fix it. That’s what you’re there to do,” she said of Oireachtas members.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was established in 2015 to inquire into the treatment of women and children in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes between 1922 and 1998.

Ryan-O’Brien said mental health supports urgently need to be put in place for survivors who wish to access them in the coming weeks and months as they come to terms with what is included in the commission’s report.

The report, due to be sent to O’Gorman on Friday, is 4,000 pages long. Some of the details included in it have been described as harrowing.

The report will need to be reviewed by both the department and the Attorney General before being published.

“There’s an equal amount of anxiety for people who might have given testimony that they want kept privacy as for those who gave testimony and want it made public, Ryan-O’Brien told TheJournal.ie.

“It’s down to individual rights, if somebody wants access to the information they should be given it. If they don’t want access to their information that’s their choice.

“It’s an individual choice, it’s not a choice that can be made unilaterally on behalf of somebody. It can’t be all open access if somebody doesn’t want it open and it can’t be all closed access if someone wants it closed, because you can’t elevate one right and obliterate the other.”

Several campaigners have said survivors should have the right to access their own information, and for it to be available to researchers and academics if they want it to be, once the rights of people who do not want any personal information made public are respected.

Huge public support

Minister O’Gorman last week said he wanted to reassure people who have “very legitimate anxieties” about access to birth information and tracing that future legislation will allow greater access to records.

“I am absolutely committed to addressing the long-running matter of birth information tracing legislation,” he said.

Ryan-O’Brien said the way adoptees and survivors of mother and baby homes are continually treated amounts to “hamster wheel politics” – essentially the same debate keeps happening but little changes.

“We’re going around and around and around in the same circle,” she said, noting the long-running debate over access to information.

“As regards adoptees’ access to information we have the most restrictive laws in Europe,” she said, adding that people don’t want to end up on another legislative “cul de sac”.

Members of the Oireachtas failed to agree on elements of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 when it was being debated last year because a compromise couldn’t be reached on privacy rights versus the right to information – as outlined in a Seanad debate on the mother and baby home Bill earlier this month.

Ryan-O’Brien said the government is asking people who have been continually let down by the State to “put their trust in them to do the right thing down the road”.

“We’ve been here before. Many, many, many times. You can see how the State over decades has treated people. and we’re asking these same people who’ve been traumatised by the State to put their trust in them that they’ll get it right next time,” she said.

Huge public support

Ryan-O’Brien told us that having to fight for access rights, as well as redress and accountability, leads to a “huge outpouring of emotion” every time these issues are debated publicly.

“For whatever reason, this was particularly raw. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite as bad, as raw emotion, as what happened (in the last week).”

She said the Repeal the Seal petition was set up as a way to “give a boost” to survivors and campaigners after a particularly difficult week, and show them they had support.

However, she had no idea it would take off in the way it did. At the time of publication, over 190,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the records not to be sealed and to allow survivors access to the database compiled by the commission.

“It just took off like a rocket, it was unbelievable, and it’s still clocking up, it’s like a train.”

Ryan-O’Brien said the petition struck a chord with people because so many families have been impacted by some form of institutional abuse and/or adoption.

“This is an unprecedented mandate for change, this isn’t just an indication of this particular issue, it’s endemic and systemic, and things needs to change.

“Everybody in this country is invested and, believe me, I know having dealt with people across the country, there is not one family in Ireland that is not invested in this cycle of loss.

“It’s a cycle of grief, and it’s one that we’re beginning to come to terms with. It needs to change. People are demanding that change now.”

Ryan-O’Brien believes the will of the people will force politicians to make legislative changes.

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“We’ll deal with in the same way we have dealt with other social issues, and that is by the demand of the public to change it, and the public are demanding very loudly that we change this, and it’s important we get this right.

“We need to look at doing things a new way because the old way is not working.”

At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, the government agreed to prioritise a number of matters relating to the commission.

Among them that legislation be progressed in relation to adoption and other information tracing, as well as legislation relating to the Tuam mother and baby home site.

In a statement issued last night the government said that the Department of Children, along with Túsla, would continue engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure peoples’ right to access their own personal information will be respected.

It added that the HSE will expedite providing health and wellbeing support to survivors. 

The government also said it would set up a national archive of records related to institutional trauma during the 20th Century. 

“The government acknowledges and regrets the genuine hurt felt by many people across Irish society,” last night’s statement said. 

“It is determined to take the necessary actions to ensure that these concerns are dealt with in a manner that is timely, appropriate and that is focused on the needs of victims and survivors.”

Speaking last week, Minister O’Gorman said the Bill passed last week is “not the end point” and many campaigners “have rightly pointed to the overwhelming need for greater access to information from the commission’s investigations”.

The minister said he agrees with campaigners and is “fully committed to working with survivors and any of those affected by this institutional abuse”.

“I am in touch with the Attorney General on legal ways to improve access to records, and will be requesting the Joint Oireachtas committee on children examine the best legislative reforms to deal with these issues as best we can.

“Over the past few weeks, many people have contacted me and spoken eloquently about the pain this system of institutional abuse caused them and their families. I am committed to do right by them – both in protecting the database … and improving access beyond that.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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