Tracing your birth family
Tracing your birth family if you were adopted or fostered in Ireland can be a difficult and sometimes painful process, and it can be hard to know where to start looking. The process can be similarly difficult and emotional for a birth mother or father tracing an adopted child. However, there are specific channels you can use to try and find your family or child, and there are a lot of support organisations that can give you practical advice and counselling throughout the process. The same channels and supports are also available to other members of an adopted child's birth family
There is no central location for adoption files in this country, so you may have to apply to a few different organisations to get the information you are looking for. Your first step should be to contact the adoption agency responsible for your placement or the placement of your child. This will either be a registered adoption society or the Health Service Executive (HSE).
In 2005 all 'health boards' in Ireland were replaced by the Health Service Executive (HSE). The HSE still holds 'health board' records. (In the past, adoptions were handled by health boards). The adoption agency should have a file on the adoption that may contain some information on your origins or where your child was placed.
If you do not have or cannot remember the name of the agency, you should write to the Adoption Authority. The Authority is an independent statutory body that can grant or refuse applications for adoption orders in relation to Irish adoption. The Authority is also responsible for registering and supervising adoption agencies and societies in Ireland. If you are an adopted person, in your letter you should include your name, date of birth, the names of your adoptive parents and your address at the time of your placement. The Authority has details of all registered adoptions dating from 1952 and should be able to give you the name of the agency that dealt with your case.
When you have approached an adoption society or your Local Health Office in the HSE about finding your birth family or child, you will be asked to fill out a form giving some basic details about yourself. Most agencies have long waiting lists of people trying to trace their birth families so you may have to be patient. When your turn comes, you will be contacted by a social worker from the agency and asked to come in for a meeting. On your first visit, you should ask about the agency's policy in relation to searching for birth families or adopted children. You should find out how long a search will take and what kind of support the agency will offer you. You should not expect a lot of information to begin with. Generally, the agencies will only give out what they call non-identifying information (no full names or addresses), unless the consent of all parties has been obtained.
If the adoption society that dealt with your case has closed since your placement, your records will have been transferred to the HSE. If this is the case, you should follow the same procedure that you would use for the adoption society. That is, tell your Local Health Office in the HSE that you are trying to trace your birth family or child.
It is possible to trace your birth family or child on your own or with the help of a private detective and some people decide to pursue this option. However, the adoption authorities do not advise this. They recommend that any searches are carried out in a controlled way to ensure that neither party is forced into something they are unwilling or unable to cope with.
If you are adopted, it means that your birth family lose all legal rights over you, and your welfare is no longer their responsibility. This responsibility passes onto your adoptive family. Your adoptive name is entered into the Adopted Children Register and a certified copy of the entry in the Adopted Children Register is issued for you. Only registered adoption societies and the HSE are legally allowed to place children up for adoption.
In May 2005 the Adoption Board (now called the Adoption Authority) launched a National Adoption Contact Preference Register. The purpose of the Register is to facilitate contact between adopted people and their birth families. Participation is voluntary and contact through the register is only initiated where both parties register. The Register allows you to choose what level of contact you wish to have. There is further information on the National Adoption Contact Preference Register on the Adoption Authority's website.
You may have been placed with a long-term foster family because, for various reasons, you could not live with your own family. However, foster children are legally still part of their own family and the HSE is responsible for you while you are in foster care. It should have details of your placement and your own family. If you were fostered a number of years ago, it is possible that records are not of the same standard that is required today. Also, if your own family lost contact with you, your foster family or the HSE, tracing your family after a number of years may be a difficult task.
If you were not legally adopted, the Adoption Authority recommends that you apply to the Local Health Office in the HSE in the region where you lived as a child. It may be able to help you trace your birth family as it is very likely that it was involved in or had some knowledge of your placement. You may still have your original birth certificate, giving details of where you were born. This may also be of help as some hospitals may keep records from the period of your birth. For more information on trying to trace your birth family if you were never legally adopted or if you are the birth parent of an illegally adopted child, you can contact the Adoption Authority or some of the adoption support organisations listed below.
Tracing your birth father
If you decide to trace your birth father, you will generally have to contact your birth mother first. The birth father's name is frequently not listed on a birth certificate and your birth mother will be the only person who can identify him. If his name is listed on the birth certificate, you should contact the Adoption Authority or adoption agency that dealt with your case to get advice on how to proceed. It is not recommended that you contact your birth family without outside help and counselling from professionals. This would also apply to a birth father trying to trace his adopted child. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that the child (and the adopted parents, if appropriate) are prepared and willing to meet the birth father. If you would like more information about tracing your natural child, you should contact the adoption society or the HSE Local Health Office that arranged the placement. If you do not have this information, the Adoption Authority will be able to help. Any change you want to make to your legal name (for example if you want to take the name of your birth father or mother) will have to be done by deed poll.
Tracing your birth family or adopted child is not something you should undertake lightly and you should be prepared for the emotions that this process could bring to the surface. Most adoption societies and the HSE offer counselling to people trying to trace their birth family and it is recommended that you talk to a social worker or counsellor before and during the process. There are many support and self-help groups for people who have been adopted or who have placed children for adoption. They provide a lot of information and advice from people who have already gone through a similar experience. Organisations that offer support are listed below.
Outcomes from tracing attempts
There are a number of possible outcomes to any attempt to trace your birth family. You may find the birth mother/father or adopted child you were looking for and reunite with them. On the other hand, you may find them and discover that they do not want to meet you. They may have died before you found them or got a chance to meet them. Another possibility is that you may never find the person you are looking for. This is more likely if you are dealing with records from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s or 1960s as those records generally contain very little information. All of these outcomes can bring their own problems and emotional concerns. Talking to professional counsellors or other people who have been through similar experiences can be a great help in coming to terms with your feelings at this time.
If you have successfully located your birth family or child, and everyone has agreed to a meeting, the next step is to arrange a time and place. It is recommended that your social worker act as a liaison between you and your birth mother, for example. It can help to have a neutral third party there to make the introductions and ease the tension. Your meeting place should be private and the first meeting should last for a relatively short time, for example, two hours. It may be helpful to have exchanged letters, photos or details of your lives before the meeting. You should talk to your social worker about this. You should not expect too much from a first meeting. It can be difficult for everyone involved and will not necessarily dictate the way your relationship will develop in the future.
Maintaining a relationship
Not every reunion will result in a relationship and, for some people, an initial meeting is all they want. Other people will be anxious to develop a relationship with the person with whom they have been reunited. This may be a rewarding experience but it could also be one with many difficulties. You should be prepared to deal with the intense emotions you may experience and make sure your adoptive or foster family members understand what you are going through. They can be a source of great support to you but it may be difficult for them to enter into your feelings completely. Support will be available from your social worker or from the support and self-help groups listed below.
The legislation that applies to the tracing of birth families is the Adoption Act 2010. The Act does not specifically state that adopted people should have automatic access to their birth certificates. However, under Part 10 of the legislation, the Registrar General must keep a record of all adoptions. This is known as the "Adopted Children Register" and it is available to members of the public for inspection.
There is also provision that requires the Registrar General to keep an index. This index allows for connections between each entry in the Adopted Children Register and the Register of Births to be traced. This means that details of an adopted child's birth parents can be traced back to the Register of Births. Due to the sensitive nature of this information, this index is not available to the public and you must apply to the Adoption Authority to get access.
You may have been trying to get a copy of your original birth certificate without success. Generally, the certificate can only be released if the consent of the birth mother has been obtained. However, if you have tried and failed to find your mother, if she is dead or if she refuses to give her consent, you have the option of applying to the Adoption Authority. It will review your case and decide whether or not to give you the information you need to get a copy of your birth certificate from the Registrar General.
The Adoption Authority's first step is generally to go to the adoption society or HSE Area responsible for the placement. The Authority will make sure that everything possible is done to locate your birth mother, and it will look for details of the counselling you were given by the agency as to what you should do with the information contained on your birth certificate. It is possible that the certificate will give an address or some identifying detail for your birth mother, and the Authority is obligated to safeguard her privacy. The adoption society or HSE Area must prepare a report containing all the relevant information about your case and pass it on to the Adoption Authority. Based on this information, the Authority will make their decision as to whether or not the relevant information should be made available to you.
If you have gone through this process and the Adoption Authority has refused you access to the information relating to your case, you can make an application to the High Court for a judicial review of the Authority's decision. However, this is an expensive process.
Depending on the adoption agency involved, you may be asked to pay a fee for the tracing of a birth family member. The fee varies from agency to agency but is generally in the region of €50. This fee goes towards the costs of phone calls, travelling and other costs that are incurred during the search. Some agencies do not charge any fee but they may accept donations. In that case, anything you give is up to you.
How to apply
If you know the name of the adoption agency responsible for your placement, you should contact it first. Details of former health boards and adoption societies are available from the Adoption Authority. If you do not know the name of the adoption society or former health board that dealt with your case, you should write to the Adoption Authority, enclosing your details and ask it for the name of the relevant agency. If you are trying to trace your birth family or child, and are unhappy with the help you are getting from your adoption agency, you can make a complaint to the Adoption Authority.
You can download tracing guides for adopted people and birth parents/family on Adoption Rights Alliance's website.
Where to apply