Irish Adoption Rights

Susan Lohan

In this interconnected world, adoption is definitely not national but international, especially in regards to adoptive parents in the US. I do have some Irish roots (thanking all that is good that I can even know this today). My adoptee father’s, paternal great-grandmother (if I have this right) was fully Irish (both of her parents were Irish born in Ireland.) So, what happened there, does matter to me here in this blog.

Today, I came across this story in The Guardian about Susan Lohan who is an adoption rights activist. She was adopted as a baby, and has been denied any information about her natural parents. Lohan has spent years fighting the church and state seeking for them to reveal what they know – about her (and the thousands of others like her born into the same situation). Similarly, hidden information that traps adoptees as second class citizens here in the US continues.

In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice. The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labor. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were skeptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

Lohan now helps to run the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which she co-founded more than a decade ago with fellow adoptees and activists Claire McGettrick, also adopted from an Irish Sisters of Charity institution, and Mari Steed, one of the “banished babies” adopted from Irish institutions to the US. The ARA campaigns for the estimated 100,000 adopted people in Ireland to have an equal right to their identity and information.

Lohan was about 21 years old when she met her mother, Nábla, for the first time. A social worker with the religious-run adoption agency made contact with Nábla and arranged and oversaw their meeting. At first, says Lohan, her mother had a stern demeanor but, as soon as they started talking, all that fell away and her mother spoke candidly. When Nábla had discovered she was pregnant, she was already maintaining the family home alone and supporting her brother studying overseas, as her own mother was dead and her father had left. There was no support for Nábla to keep her daughter – there was no welfare for unmarried mothers until the 1970s and, even after that, many were evicted or lost jobs if it was discovered they had children out of wedlock. So she was referred to St Patrick’s Guild, the adoption agency run by the Sisters of Charity. “We were not unwanted children,” says Lohan. “[Our mothers’] sexuality was unwanted. Their self-determination was unwanted.”

After their meeting, Lohan’s mother still kept her existence a secret and withdrew from contact for about four years until her death from cancer in 2000. “It broke my heart,” says Lohan, who was in her mid-30s at the time. “I think that was my first realization that I had been grieving the loss of my mother my whole life.” At her mother’s funeral, the priest spoke of “an additional sadness, because she was a single woman with no family of her own”. Lohan felt like screaming, not only at the untruth, but at the unending stigma.

Years later, having received no information about her father, she was meeting with an official from the adoption authority when he left her alone in a room with her file (she believes deliberately), which allowed her to find her father’s name. She went on to discover that her father had died in the 1990s, while she was searching for him. It would take her until 2016 to establish for certain that she had siblings.

Lohan has helped lead a successful political campaign against a bill that would have criminalized people adopted in Ireland for contacting their natural parents, punishable by a year in jail or a fine. In 2005, she was part of the advisory group launching the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, an initiative to enable people separated through Ireland’s adoption system to voluntarily register their interest in receiving information or contact.

An official review of adoption records has found evidence that tens of thousands of adoptions in Ireland potentially involved illegal practices. The Clann Project produced its own report on mother and baby institutions in Ireland. It found that the state’s policy involved the incarceration of thousands of women and girls and the separation of many thousands of children from their mothers “through a closed, secret, forced adoption system”.

How many more children will have to be born in Catholic-ethos hospitals and attend Catholic-ethos schools (90% of primary schools in Ireland are still under the influence of the Catholic church) because the church will not relinquish influence and the state will not ensure alternatives. “We should have absolute separation of church and state,” Lohan says. “It is long overdue.”

Realizing the Value of DNA Testing

Getting the results of my own DNA tests (both Ancestry and 23 and Me) did NOT bring surprise results to me – in that I knew BOTH of my parents were adoptees at the time I did the tests. What was I hoping for ? Answers to my cultural identity. A question that had plagued me since public school. What are we ? I asked my mom. We’re Americans, she answered. No, I said, what ELSE are we ? We don’t know because we were adopted, she answered.

And I did get insight into what I had yearned to know from childhood. Yet, my DNA tests did something for me that I did not anticipate. As actual genetic, biological relations were found at the two platforms, my DNA test proved to these that I actually was related to them. Me, someone they never knew existed. Though to be honest, I never knew they existed either. Building relationships with people who have decades of history with my original families (the families my parents were conceived as part of) and none involving me is slow and not earth-shattering but soul warming never-the-less.

I am pretty certain I came as a surprise to some of these – especially on my dad’s paternal line. His father’s family was located in Denmark. Several of his father’s siblings as well as his father immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, his father never knew he had a son. More’s the pity. My dad did look remarkably like his own father and they shared an interest in boats, the ocean and fishing. They would have made wonderful friends as father and son. So, that family has been the most amazed at my existence. I originally found my grandfather’s step-granddaughter who told me quite a bit about him. And only recently, I now have email contact with one of his nephews in Denmark, who has told me something about my grandfather’s early life in that country before immigrating.

With my other 3 grandparent family lines, there was some awareness of my parent’s existence. One of the first that I met shared the same maternal grandfather with me. His daughters (my mom’s half-siblings) were aware of her existence. My cousin said to me upon my emergence into her life, My mom always wondered about your mom and wanted to have an opportunity to meet her. Sadly, I barely missed this half-aunt of mine. She died only months before I began my own search into my roots after BOTH of my parents had died only 4 months apart.

Next came cousins and an aunt on my dad’s maternal line. 23 and Me outed my cousin and she wrote me in excitement, Delores or Dolores Hempstead/Barnes is my grandmother. The aunt is her mother and she was living only 90 miles away from my dad at the time he died. He never spoke to me about being adopted except that one time after his adoptive father died and my dad was going through some papers and marveled that his original surname was Hempstead. My mom did tell me that he was not supportive of her own effort to search, warning her that she might be opening up a can of worms. That has informed me somewhat about his perspective – that the people who adopted him were his parents – end of story. We did know that my granny “got” him at the Salvation Army. There is so much more to that story that I have now been able to learn and I will always believe that the Salvation Army coerced her into surrendering him to adoption as she was unwed. I’m told she regretted losing him the rest of her life. One cousin lead me to another cousin who had the breadcrumb clue that my paternal grandmother left as to my dad’s father’s identity. A few photos and some notes written on the back of these.

Though the initial focus of my adoption related searches was my mom’s Stark family line, that one took me the longest to finally connect with the children of my grandmother’s youngest brother, who I also just missed as he had died not all that long before. I did learn early on from a woman “related by marriage” who was also a genealogist that my Stark family was Scottish. She belonged to the church across the street from the cemetery where my grandmother, her second husband and her parents are all buried. My maternal grandmother was a victim of Georgia Tann and the baby stealing and selling scandal of the Memphis Branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. My mom knew some of this background information, believed that she had been inappropriately adopted (her words for what happened to separate her from her mother) and actually tried to get her adoption file (the one I now have the complete file of, including photos of my grandmother and baby mom) but was denied it by the state of Tennessee. These second cousins (as they are my age but would be genetically my mom’s cousins) had close and fond relationships with my maternal grandmother. They gave me the warm kinds of intimate details about the kind of person she was – what my heart had yearned to know since I began my own journey.

I believe I have fulfilled my destiny to reconnect the broken threads of our family’s origins – the reason I managed to be preserved with the parents who first conceived me out of wedlock (my mom still in high school, my dad had only just started at an out of town university – high school sweethearts they had been. They did marry and remained married until death did part them).

Until I began learning more about the traumas of being adopted, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. So natural, that both of my sisters actually each gave up a baby to adoption. Thankfully, I’ve met and have contact with both of these wonderful, valuable persons – my niece and nephew. It’s impossible to know how their lives might have been different if my sisters had kept them. If my parents had never been surrendered for adoption – the miracle of it all for me personally is – I simply would not have existed. I love my life and for having one at all and with my original parents, I am grateful. So, I am also grateful I wasn’t given up for adoption – it would have been the most normal thing in the world to have happened to me.

Glad I Was

I’m not adopted but both my mom and dad were.

Many times, adoptees will say, “I am glad I was adopted.”

My mom wrote about her adoption that to me in an email – “Glad I was.” I don’t believe she meant it. She had been denied her adoption file by the state of Tennessee. She believed she had been stolen from her parents and while it turns out that wasn’t exactly true, Georgia Tann did exploit my grandmother – that is clear from my mom’s adoption file that I now possess. My mom was heartbroken when all Tennessee offered her was the news her mother had died several years before. She wanted that reunion. Their excuse was that they could not determine the status of her father. They didn’t try very hard. He had been dead for 30 years when they checked to see if he had a current Arkansas driver’s license.

No 2 adoptees feel the same way about their adoptions. My dad did not have that burning desire that my mom did but I think he was afraid of opening up a potential can of worms (he used those words with my mom when she wanted to search). It’s a pity. He could have met his half-sister living only 90 miles away from him when he died. She could have told him a lot about his mother.

The feelings that an adoptee has are complicated. At times they may be angry. Other times they may feel sad. They may feel blessed. My mom’s adoptive parents were wealthy. Their financial resources afforded her, us as her children and even her grandchildren opportunities we probably would not have had if they had not adopted my mom. I know a bit about my mom’s original parents now (and not as much as I wish I knew). Even so, poverty and humble circumstances would have been my mom’s life had her parents remained together.

My dad’s mom was unwed and she also had a hard life. Really from the age of 3 months when her mother died. She was resilient and self-sufficient. She simply took care of her pregnancy. My dad wasn’t adopted until he was 8 months old. He remained with her all that time but she had him in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers and then later, lacking resources to keep a roof over their heads or food in their bellies, applied for employment with the Salvation Army and traveled from California to El Paso Texas with my dad in tow. I’m fairly certain they pressured her to give him up. She worked there for 5 years.

Only an adoptee can tell you what being adopted was like. My parents never talked about it. I only remember my mom mentioning it to me once when I was a child and wanted to know what nationality we were and she couldn’t answer me. However, when I was in my mid-30s, she wanted to search for her original mother and my dad was not supportive. So, I became her confidant.

No adoptee escapes separation trauma from not being raised by their original mother. Often they are haunted by feelings of abandonment and rejection, desperately seeking love – sometimes in the wrong places. Fortunately for me, my parents found each other and stayed together for over 50 years – from teenage years until death did them part. I can not deny that but for their adoptions, I would simply not exist. I love life and so I am grateful for that much. My adoptive grandparents were all influential in my growing up years.

A Sad Fact of Life

~ Childhood Sexual Abuse ~

So here is the story (not my own personal story, just making that clear) –

So my brother and I got taken away from my mom at a young age (I was 6 or 7) my brother was an infant and we were put into foster care. I went with my aunt and my brother went to a stranger foster family. My mom was able to get me back before she got my brother back. (From what I remember my brother had been hurt and they thought he was being abused, so we both were removed from the home.) Around the time my mom had us both back in her custody, my brother’s father started sexually abusing me. I told my mom and she ended her relationship with him and told him to leave. I always wondered why she never told the police but I now realize that maybe she didn’t tell law enforcement because she didn’t want us taken away again. As a mature person now, that seems like a reasonable explanation.

One adoptive mother replied –

I think your explanation of your Mom’s failure to report is plausible. She got you back and wasn’t going to let you go… also she managed to take you out of immediate future harm by making him leave. It sounds as if this is maybe an older story, and I don’t know the timeline, or your relationship with your Mom right now, but: do you think you could ask her why? She might not have an answer or know why she didn’t report. But asking her and talking openly about it can deepen your connection.

I have a very good adult relationship with my Mom, but we went through a really rough patch due to me having difficulty coming to terms with why she didn’t have the capacity to take me out of harm’s way when I was abused as a young child (not by a family member), by a person I knew she strongly (and justifiably) suspected. I have compassion and empathy for why she didn’t report and that eases the pain of the fact that she didn’t… and also, discussing it with her was zero fun but it ended up deepening our relationship and connection.

Another part to this is, and I can’t tell from your post how you feel, but do you want him reported? That is something to consider asking yourself. For my part..: By the time I came to terms with the abuse, I was well into adulthood and my abuser was dead. If I could have gone back in time and reported him myself, I would have done it. But I ironically wasn’t ready until my late 30’s… I’m not saying you want to do this, that’s only for you to know, but if you find yourself wanting to report him, there are resources that don’t have to include your Mom, if that’s not going to help your connection with her.

You could talk it through with a counselor who will know the laws in your state and know whether you are jeopardizing your and your brother’s ability to stay in your Mom’s home. IF you want to report. Which many people don’t. I just regret that I wasn’t able to come to the decision to report before the f**ker was dead. You have no responsibility to anyone but yourself in this. I am so sorry you’re carrying this burden. If you have access to a trauma therapist, I encourage you to consider engaging one. While I won’t tell you to report, I will tell you that getting support to work through childhood sexual abuse is better than white knuckling it for decades.

And another person with some thoughts about Child Protective Services (CPS) –

If your mom had knowledge or experience of how reporting abuse works, that could explain her silence about it. My son was abused by a 14 year old boy when he was 11. Last year CPS did a mandatory assessment to see why or how my child wound up in the position of being abused! Luckily for u,s it was a boy from school and it happened at school. No blame could be laid at my feet. I was abused as a child. My mother believed me but didn’t report it as she “didn’t want the family to get a bad name!” I know how that felt, so I never thought twice about reporting my son’s abuse. However, doing so did throw us into the bureaucratic ringer! Both with CPS and in actually having to go to court! The boy was found guilty of 5 charges but wasn’t jailed. We were made to feel at fault and under the microscope. Had it been a family member, I’m damn sure I would have lost all my kids. I would not go through reporting again. A lot of victimizing comes with taking action, especially blaming of the accuser by CPS.

The Loss Of What Could Have Been

In the early 1990s, the Georgia Tann baby stealing and scandal re-emerged into the national consciousness.  She had been dead 40 years and narrowly escaped criminal charges when the complications of cancer took their toll.

60 Minutes did a feature on the scandal.  They introduced a woman named Denny Glad who lived in the Memphis Tennessee area and was doing her best to assist Tann’s victims in relocating the families they had been taken from.  At this time, adoption records were closed and firmly sealed behind the power of the state and kept from even adult adoptees.  My mom did reach out to Mrs Glad and was only able to receive some minimal information which was still more than she had before.

My mom took the next step and contacted the state.  They promised to do everything in their power to locate the parents my mom had been born to.  It was a lie.  There was definitely bureaucratic laziness in their less than motivated efforts.  My mom’s father was 20 years older than my mom’s mother when they married.  He had been dead 30 years at the time my mom made her effort to get her adoption file.

All the state did was inquire of the Arkansas Driver’s License about his status.  In the adoption file, it is indicated that he signed a separate set of surrender papers after a sheriff showed up at his mother’s home in Beech Grove Arkansas with those papers along with a subpoena to Juvenile Court in Memphis for the very next day – not much time to prepare – and anyway, I’m certain he was told the mother had already signed these and if he did too, he would not have to appear in court.

Had the state of Tennessee confirmed he was no longer living when my mom inquired, she would have been given her file.  She had at least 2 uncles and 2 aunts still living on her mother’s side and half-siblings on her father’s side.

My mom was devastated when the state of Tennessee told her that the woman who gave birth to her had died several years earlier.  It ended her hopes and dreams.  My mom was never told when the state of Tennessee decided to release the adoption files to victims or their immediate descendants in the late 1990s.  Thanks to that change in the law, I finally received her adoption file in October of 2017.

One-Sided Reunion

On her deathbed, she made her family promise to never forget her only child, whom she knew would someday return.  When I spoke to her youngest brother’s son, he vaguely remembered knowing that she had had a daughter.

Was this my grandmother as well, who used her “childish nickname” Lizzie on her gravestone ? Her second husband survived her – did she make certain he knew ?

What I do know is that my mom was almost a decade too late in attempting to locate her natural mother.  Though she learned about the Georgia Tann scandal as a teenager, for the most part, growing up, she didn’t let herself think about her natural mother, there seemed to be no use, but as an adult when stories of reunions hit the national awareness, she began dreaming about finding her.  Learning that she had already died devastated my mom, destroyed her dreams of reunion.

In my 60s, I made it to my grandmother’s grave and sat on the ground speaking to her.  I did the same at my grandfather’s grave and at my mom’s half-sister’s grave.

I have discovered in my own life that Life has a way of coming full circle. I am whole now.  I believe also that my mom finally got that reunion with her own natural mother – after she died. It’s what my heart believes and I know in my heart that my mom knows even more of “her story” now than I have yet to discover.

“The day I realized I had two mothers, I was cut in half . . .One half of myself resided here with my family, and the other half was lost, lost to a shadowy woman floating somewhere out there in the world. You see, I’m adopted.” ~ Anne Bauer, The Sound of Hope

“But there’s a story behind everything . . . behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.” ~ Mitch Albom, For One More Day

The Effects Of Relinquishment

In my mom’s attempt to receive her adoption file, which was denied her, she said to me – “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”  She also believed she had been stolen and I believe she wanted to determine if that was true or if there was some other explanation (there was another explanation).  I now possess her file thanks to the baby stealing and selling scandal of Georgia Tann in Tennessee.

Before relinquishment, it is clear to me that my maternal grandmother wanted to keep my mom.  She worked very hard to make that happen but her timing and the situation around her were not kind.  It was deep into the Great Depression and Memphis had just experienced a superflood that began the month my mom was born in Virginia.  My grandmother arrived in Memphis with my mom in the midst of charity fatigue because thousands of refugees had poured into the city from Arkansas.

My mom’s father was in Arkansas shoring up levees and doing other flood related work for the WPA.  Therefore, when the Juvenile Court wrote him about my grandmother and her baby’s needs he didn’t respond.  I’ll never know why he left her with her father 4 months pregnant but I do have some kind theories that I prefer over any kind of brutal one.  He didn’t divorce her for 3 years but then how could she face him having lost their child ?

My grandmother never had any more children.  I believe she hoped throughout her lifetime that my mom would find her.  When my mom tried, she was told her mother was already dead and that devastated her.  My grandmother was clearly pressured and exploited by Georgia Tann with a no win choice.  She even tried to undo the damage but with a paying customer on the train coming from Arizona to pick my mom up, Miss Tann was not about to give her back.