Scandals at home and abroad have shaken board

By Conall O Fátharta

Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE Adoption Board has been at the centre of a number of scandals concerning how domestic and foreign adoptions have been carried out since adoption was made legal in 1952.

According to its website, the Adoption Board is “responsible for registering and supervising the registered adoption societies and for maintaining the adoption societies register”.

However, the level of supervision it actually carries out is questionable. 

Numerous cases of illegal adoptions and questionable practices involving accredited adoption agencies have been highlighted by this newspaper and by numerous adoption groups.

Despite the Adoption Board having full knowledge of these cases, it has never de-registered any of the adoption agencies in question, nor inspected all of the files they hold.

One need only look to the case of Tressa Reeves and the case highlighted by this newspaper in April and Carol O’Keeffe’s story below to see blatant examples of such practices.

Since its foundation in 1952, the Adoption Board has been, and continues to be, a peculiarly secretive body.

Despite the fact it is a public body entirely funded by the taxpayer, and whose members are all appointed directly by the Government, it remains exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

For this reason, it is free not to release any information or internal documentation into its workings. Its proceedings remain hidden from public view.

This is not the first time the board has found itself embroiled in controversy.

The case of Tristan Dowse, who was abandoned by his adoptive Irish father Joe Dowse in an Indonesian orphanage in 2003, two years after he and his wife had adopted the boy, caused understandable outrage when it became public in 2005.

His adoption was recognised in Ireland on the basis that the Adoption Board had approved Indonesian adoption procedures. It later transpired that Tristan was, in fact, a victim of human trafficking, as he was simply taken from his mother and sold.

That same year, the Adoption Board came under fire for advice posted on its website telling couples hoping to adopt children in Vietnam that they must bring $3,000 (€2,300) in cash to complete the adoption in the country. The post also told couples to pay another $3,700 (€2,900) in a bankers draft to My Linh Soland, who was then facilitating adoptions there.

At the time, registrar of the Adoption Board Kiernan Gildea defended the payment of such a large amount of money to a single person and not to Vietnamese authorities.

“She was mutually agreed by us and the Vietnamese. They were happy to deal with her,” he said.

However, it emerged in 2006 that Ms Soland – who was interviewed by the Adoption Board in 2004 for the role of facilitator with adoptions of Vietnamese babies by Irish couples and who later operated in this role for the Helping Hands adoption agency – had served a three-year sentence in the late 1990s for fraud, obstruction of justice and intimidation of witnesses.

At the time the Adoption Board said it was unaware of Ms Soland’s criminal convictions. However, it later emerged that the board had, in fact, been warned about her activities by letter as early as May 2004, shortly after she was appointed.

Maxine Caswell, of British ethical adoption group OASIS, wrote to the Adoption Board warning that Ms Soland was well-known in adoption circles as having worked for a number of agencies and individuals.

Ms Caswell said it was her view, based on evidence from adoptive parents who had “the misfortune to be involved with her during their adoptions that Ms Soland’s motivation is financial rather than humanitarian”.

This proved to be the case as Ms Soland was secretly recorded saying how the 150 adoptions she facilitated for Irish couples were accompanied by fraudulent paperwork which altered the children’s histories.

She also revealed how $4,500 of the adoption fee intended for humanitarian aid was instead given to corrupt officials at the upper end of the adoption process in Vietnam.

The Adoption Board informed the Gardaí at the time and said it would launch an internal investigation. There is no record this report was ever made public, although the Adoption Board confirmed it sent a copy to a reporter with the Irish Times.

Ms Soland was acting as a facilitator for the Helping Hands Adoption Agency in Vietnam when the story of her criminal past became public.

Helping Hands came under fire then and is in the news as a result of an investigation into the fees it charges people to adopt from Vietnam.

The investigation was launched after the agency was specifically singled out for criticism in Unicef’s International Social Services report (ISS) last year.

However, although the Adoption Board registered and regulates adoption agencies such as Helping Hands, issues of conflicts of interest arise in relation to the agency.

The 2004 bilateral agreement with Vietnam (currently suspended) stipulated that all adoptions from Vietnam go through a single mediation agency licensed by both jurisdictions.

This facilitated the creation of Helping Hands in 2005 and the appointment of Sharon O’Driscoll as chief executive of the agency.

Ms O’Driscoll was on the Adoption Board for eight years under the chairmanship of Judge Jim O’Sullivan. She resigned from the board after taking up her position with Helping Hands.

The agency is under investigation by the Adoption Board in relation to fees it charges people to adopt from Vietnam. It is also understood the agency has threatened the Adoption Board with legal action as a result.

Ms O’Driscoll also acted as chair-woman of a charity set up by former chairman Judge Jim O’Sullivan called the Judge O’Sullivan Fund to “alleviate the suffering of children”.

Speaking at the time of the Adoption Board’s investigation into My Linh Soland, former Independent TD Paudge Connolly aptly summed up the attitude of many adopted people and natural parents when dealing with the Adoption Board: “It’s like hitting a football against a haystack, you get very little response.”

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, August 14, 2010

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