Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Third Interim Report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes: Statements


7:35 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I will start by mentioning the name of Christine Buckley who may not be known to all those in the Chamber. She was one of the most important people in bringing out the story of what happened to people who were in institutions, including mother and baby homes. In Dublin there is a private small charity group called the Aislinn Education and Support Centre. The centre was established by Christine Buckley, among others. It caters for people who have been in institutions and want a place to meet. The centre caters in particular for people who were in mother and baby homes as children and who went on to bigger institutions as they grew older. Often, they were shown the door on their 16th or 18th birthday. If they had the money, many of them took the boat to England straightaway.

The Aislinn centre exists on a shoestring. It is provided with a small amount of HSE funding. All the fine talk in the Chamber is as nothing if there is insufficient funding for the older people who go to the centre. In the centre they can sit down, have a cup of tea and take part in art and drama classes. Basically, it is about helping them to feel empowered as people and pick up on parts of education that they did not get previously.

One of the things about children from orphanages who went to mainstream primary schools is that they were always at the back of the class. Many people who spent a good deal of their life in homes have serious problems with literacy, even at this stage. They never got opportunities for educational development.

I know that the Minister is a concerned person on this issue. I appeal to her to pick up the telephone or get her officials to pick up the telephone and call the Aislinn centre. She should ask the people there to tell her or her officials the current position of the centre. I know the Minister is going to tell me that it is not her responsibility and that it is not under her budget. It is really important that the centre continues its work for many of the people who are now growing older. I have had the privilege to be at the centre.

Some people joke that I am a graduate of Temple Hill, as are people like Sally Mulready. I spent the early part of my life there and in foster care. To be honest, what I care about most of all is the dignity of the people and of all the good lives that the people from there have made and led. Up to 20 or 30 years ago, it was not easy to be a child who was adopted in Ireland. Let us be frank about it, there was a lot of social distinction. It was not easy to be a birth mother either. I have met so many birth mothers who are carrying incredible grief in their hearts. They are now very much older and have no way of making contact. The Minister and I have spoken privately about this. She has been very decent in arranging to meet people who have approached her to tell her their story. We need to think about how we address this.

There is a situation in Tuam and in many other places, including Bessborough, that involves a set of family stories. What was a secret was in fact privately held knowledge among extended families. I am referring to when a girl went away. I use the word "girl" because that was the language of those days. the girl went away, had a baby and came back. Sometimes she came back to the family home and sometimes she went to England. Often the men held strong views and perhaps the mothers also. Reconciliation never happened. In fact, people got married and had children themselves and never told anyone about their experiences. Anyone who has had the privilege of meeting these people will know what I am talking about.

Aside from the Aislinn centre, there are other places in the country that try to look out for people and offer a helping hand. I do not mean any kind of charity but a real helping hand to people. I believe the Aislinn centre could do with more Government support and more funding to allow it to do its work. Costs are rising exponentially in Dublin city centre. Although there are some already, there is probably need for similar centres at different points around Ireland where people could make contact.

7 o’clock

I am not happy about Caranua. While I acknowledge that apologies were made, the comments made were incredibly demeaning of people who were in mother and baby homes. If the Minister has any influence over the Department of Education and Skills, she should use it in respect of the substantial fund operated by the Department to provide redress. Funding may be provided for individuals only, not for organisations. The Minister should speak to people who use Caranua's services. Some organisations and individuals have a good relationship with it, while others have a difficult and strained relationship with it. The current model needs to be overhauled. I acknowledge, however, that Caranua does not come within the remit of her Department.

On the issue of records and fostering, when I was Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, I saw through the House a Bill to give people the right to trace, almost to its final Stages. As we heard, many of the individuals in question are getting older. Tracing is a lottery. Some people are successful because the organisation that arranged their adoption is still in operation and has a structure in place for dealing with tracing, while others are unable to trace their family. Increasingly, adopted persons want to trace their birth parents to find out about their medical history. Worldwide, more women than men trace their birth parents. However, after they have children, particularly in cases where medical issues arise, men often want to trace their birth parents to obtain their medical records. The Minister spoke about bringing forward a human rights commissioner, which is great, but she must implement legislation on tracing. I am not aware of any progress that has been made with the Bill I introduced. As Deputy Anne Rabbitte stated, this is a complicated issue involving different parties whose rights and interests must be respected. However, postponing the introduction of tracing legislation until the commission of inquiry has completed its investigation, as I believe the Government may have decided to do, would be wrong, given the age of many of the individuals in question.

Large numbers of adopted persons are repeatedly told by adoption organisations that they were an only child. This is patently not true because many of the people who gave up children for adoption were in long-term relationships. For one reason or another, including the prevailing mores at the time, they were unable to have an open relationship. Local busy bodies often pressed for their children to be placed in homes and made the necessary arrangements to do so, causing intense grief. Many people have siblings that they have not been able to trace and this issue must be addressed. It is possible to facilitate meetings and achieve some level of reconciliation among extended families. I have sat in many kitchens with elderly women who survived the mother and baby homes. They often ask why Ireland did this to them and why it was as it was. The reason is we had an incredibly powerful and autocratic Catholic Church which knew what was right.

The Minister faces a serious challenge in her brief on the commission of investigation, namely, to try to right a number of wrongs. The Catholic Church should come out and apologise, as should the Church of Ireland and other churches that operated homes on a smaller scale. Parish priests should ask their parishioners from the pulpit at Sunday mass to help people who come to the district seeking to trace relatives. I am not aware of any parish priest who has done this, yet in all my years of tracing I have met many priests who told me I was extremely lucky to have been adopted. I know that I was lucky and there is no doubt that the alternative of living permanently in an institution was the worst case scenario. I was also fantastically lucky in the family who adopted me. However, others were not so lucky and they want to know their story and obtain their papers.

The Minister can take certain initiatives and address some of the issues I have raised without waiting for the final report of the commission of investigation. She should not postpone taking action until the commission has concluded its work. It is important that the commission do its work properly and fully; I am not in favour of a quick report. Given that the commission is reporting in stages, will the Minister indicate whether she has addressed all of the recommendations made in the second interim report? I do not believe the Department has done so and will leave that to the record. I plead with the Minister to reach out to try to bring more humanity into this area.


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