Documentary film director Sharon Lawless has profiled the stories of Irish people who have discovered they were illegally adopted. She now believes she has more stories to find in the US. 

What if you discovered, after decades of family birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, that your mother and father were not your real parents?

How would you feel to learn you had in fact been illegally adopted?

Documentary film director Sharon Lawless has profiled the lives of Irish people who have made just that shocking discovery in a celebrated series on TV3. Now she talks about her desire to hear from Irish participants who were trafficked here or who have legal documentation showing their adoptive parents as their natural parents, for a new feature-length documentary.

Here's how illegal adoption worked in Ireland for decades. An unwed and expectant mother's family paid to have her child delivered in secret. This was done to protect her reputation and to prevent her parents from being publicly shamed.

Then the infant was quickly presented to a new set of unvetted and frequently unqualified parents, who often could not adopt through more traditional channels, and who often paid handsomely to illegally adopt the child that had just been delivered.

Then all of the people who facilitated and drafted the legal papers to complete the transfer of the child to its new parents took their cut. Doctors, midwives, solicitors, politicians and more. Illegal adoption was a lucrative cottage industry in Ireland for decades, and so vast sums of money were made by profiting off the illegal trafficking of children and all the human misery that surrounded it.

Read more: 15,000 illegal adoptions in Ireland, mothers told babies had died

Documentary film director and producer Sharon Lawless has studied the system carefully and her TV3 series and book "Adoption Stories" tells their lamentable stories through the firsthand testimony of those who lived it.

“It's great that illegal adoption is finally getting a bit of attention now,” she tells IrishCentral. “But it's frustrating that it's only happening years after we started talking about it. Many of the people I interviewed in my series had gone to the various Irish authorities in search of their relatives for decades and were just told to go away, that they had no rights or they were just ignored. They wondered what it would take to get justice.”

One of Lawless' documentary subjects, a fiercely determined mother named Tressa Donnelly Reeves (whose case is currently before the Irish High Court) started looking for her son and asking questions about what happened to him from the Irish authorities in the early 1970s, over a decade after she had surrendered him for adoption on the orders of her parents.

Read more: Irish adoptions to US dropped as couples feared child’s true identity must be revealed

Tressa Donnelly Reeves sought to locate her son for fifty years

Tressa Donnelly Reeves sought to locate her son for fifty years

First, the Irish adoption agency gaslighted her, telling her “she must have imagined” having a baby at all because they didn't have a file on her. Then they told her he must have been sent to the United States. There was no record of what has happened to him, she was told. For decades every trail she ever pursued went cold, facing one official stone wall after another.

Finally, in the late 1990s, she was told that he had been illegally adopted and that no records remained. Another decade went by and then in the summer of 2012, after filming with Lawless for her TV series, she received a phone call from a source (the case is currently in the courts, so the information is privileged) that allowed her to finally make contact with her son, who was now in his late 40's, after almost fifty years of flat denials.

Reeves son wasn't in America she discovered. He wasn't even in England. It turned out he lived in County Carlow. In fact, most of the people Lawless has interviewed for her series were cases of children born to single mothers and still residing in Ireland, who were not aware of their own adoption situation, or the truth of their own lives.

Reeves son was reportedly devastated by the news. “He didn't know how to feel about it and he still doesn't,” Lawless says. “He grew up with parents who weren't his parents. He didn't have a happy upbringing. He was very severely physically abused by his father and he left their home as soon as he could.”

“He's trying to come to terms with the fact that he lives this life he didn't have to live. Yes, he was given up for adoption and his mother had signed the forms, but he was supposed to be legally adopted. His parents should have been assessed by the Health Board. Obviously, his adoptive father would not have passed that assessment and perhaps that's why they went the illegal way.”

In 1960 it was almost as shameful to be married and not have children as it was to be unmarried and have a child, Lawless says, the social pressure on couples was enormous.

“In a lot of illegal adoption cases, it was all down to money. A doctor, a midwife, a social worker, a solicitor, a judge, a politician, a little network of well-connected people who would all look after each other, operating out of private nursing homes and they made a fortune.”

Reeves son was 52 when the news came. He learned he had been handed over as a newborn. His birth cert had been forged. His younger brother had also been illegally adopted, and again his papers had been forged. “At this stage of his life to find out he had a natural mother who had been looking for him for decades (and four half-sisters) hit him hard.”

“I have covered four or five stories of illegal adoptions in Ireland, but there are thousands of cases where the same thing happened there and the child wasn't told. The authorities would have known and done nothing about it. Even in more recent years until 2012 Tressa was still on to the adoption authorities and Irish government ministers and no one would do anything for her. It was the threat of a TV show going out that changed the story.”

Everyone knows about the banished babies that went to America. They have been documented in the Philomena story and film, for example. But illegal adoptions cases are completely different because these mothers thought their children would be adopted, not simply given away.

Tonight's 'Adoption Stories' is a doozie! Hour-long special on @TV3Ireland and I'm on the @SevenOClockShow about the series and book too.

— Sharon Lawless (@ShashLawless) October 26, 2016

How was this permitted to go on for so long? Why did no one speak out to prevent it? The social and religious atmosphere of the times certainly contributed, but since it was also so profitable, for so many, for so long, cash had to be a factor.

Lamentably, children are being separated from their parents and shipped thousands of miles away with little to no record keeping by the Trump administration in 2018, another jolting reminder of just how easy it is for all this industry to start up again.

This week it was reported that Bethany Christian Services, an adoption center with financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, took in 81 undocumented children who were forcibly separated from their parents.

Most of the kids have had no contact with their families and many have no records. Bethany is reportedly charging $700 per child per night to house each child. Again, the money involved is astronomical.

“It's a huge business,” says Lawless. “Much as I want to highlight what went on in the past in Ireland, it is still going on today under different guises,” Lawless says. “I want to look at the industry worldwide. I know there are people who are discovering now that their parents are not their real parents. I want to hear from them. I want to take this to Netflicks. These stories need to be told.”

Adoption Stories the book is now available on