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Ireland opens access to records for children separated from their mothers years ago


For decades in Ireland, unwed mothers and their children were confined to institutions run by the Catholic Church. And those mothers were often coerced to give up their babies. It's a well-known history that's been chronicled in movies like "Philomena."


JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) I'd like to know if Anthony ever thought of me 'cause I've thought of him every day.

SUMMERS: Mothers often have no idea what happened to their children. Those children often don't know who their birth parents are. Mari Steed is now U.S. coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance. She was adopted from Ireland and grew up in the United States.

MARI STEED: I got involved in the advocacy end of this as I began the search for my own mother. I found her in 2002, and we reunited, had a wonderful 12 years together until she passed in 2013.

SUMMERS: This week, the Irish government launched an online service that will allow adopted children to see any information the state holds about them. And when I spoke with Mari Steed earlier today, she said that could be a far easier process than her own search.

STEED: The way I did it was sort of the old-fashioned way. Of course, this is before records were open. There was just a long history of obfuscation, brick walls, religious orders lying to us, you know, giving us misinformation. So it was a very difficult process 25 years ago on up until relatively recently, and certainly for the folks in Ireland, this past week. That's the first opportunity that they've had to actually go through an online portal, request their original birth certificate and get early life records. That's something that they've never been able to do before.

SUMMERS: I know that this online service is pretty new, but have you heard anything from people who are trying to go through this process now? Do you see any information that the state holds about them and just how easy it is to start that process?

STEED: I mean, obviously, it's early days yet. Nobody has gotten any kind of information back yet. You know, I think it is going to take some time. They're inundated with requests. We've already noted at the very beginning, from Monday, there were technical difficulties with people accessing the system, and we have detailed those to the relevant bodies. So far, they've been very proactive in getting those things fixed. So it seems to be smoother now as we move toward the end of the week, and people are at least able to get their applications in.

I would guess it's probably going to be another few weeks before they start to hear back, so we'll be anxious to hear whether information is being redacted, which we've been promised it wouldn't be. We'll see, you know, exactly what level of access they're given and whether or not this really is what we had hoped it would be.

SUMMERS: All of this access, this information about your past - on a personal level, what does it mean to you?

STEED: I mean, everybody takes it for granted. If you're not adopted, you have a birth cert. You know who your parents were. You know who your grandparents were. You know your family's story. That's something that we've never had. And, you know, regardless, whether you're an adoptee in the United States, domestic or Ireland or from some other country, it's a basic human right that we take for granted that we've been denied for many years. In many U.S. states, there are still states that seal records.

We're only asking for a birth certificate and early life records, not the right to a relationship. We know that's a whole different animal. That's a whole different story. Whether or not the people that you might find on that journey are open to contact or any kind of relationship is not a given, and we don't assume that, and nobody necessarily expects that. Most adopted people are very realistic about that. But just to know who they themselves are - who did I start out life as? - it's incredibly important and fills in so many missing holes.

SUMMERS: This seems to be one step in correcting a historical wrong. But is it enough? What should happen next?

STEED: It's certainly not enough. You know, the infant mortality rate in so many of these institutions was just incredible. And much like our compatriots in Canada and elsewhere, there are enormous numbers of mass unmarked graves. Those still need to be addressed. There is the issue of redress to the mothers and children who came through these institutions. And finally, and I think most importantly, is going back to that idea of a national repository much like the Stasi archives in Germany; just a full, thorough accounting of every person that went through any type of institution, home. Whatever it may be, make it accessible to all family members who have a relevant interest in it and, on a redacted basis, make it accessible to academics, students, people who want to learn from that history.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Mari Steed, U.S. coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance. Mari, thank you for your time.

STEED: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.