SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Government already knew of baby deaths

The State has said it was horrified by the revelations about the 796 babies buried at Tuam. However, HSE reports into Tuam and Bessborough mother and baby homes had been prepared for the Government two years previously, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

A raindrop hangs on one of the white crosses at the site of the Tuam mother and baby home.

The latest revelations about the Tuam and Bessborough mother and baby homes raise a number of serious questions as to why a State inquiry into the issue was not launched three years ago.

Material obtained by the Irish Examiner shows that the HSE examined both Tuam and Bessborough as part of the Magdalene laundries inquiry in 2012.

What it uncovered was so shocking that senior HSE figures recommended that the minister be immediately informed so that “a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry” could be launched.

READ MORE: SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Fears over ‘trafficking’ of children to the US .

However, it would be almost another two years before an inquiry was announced, on foot of the revelations of historian Catherine Corless.

The HSE material directly addresses infant deaths, and records that the nuns had been soliciting money from parents of children that had been discharged or died. Most shocking of all, concern is expressed that almost 1,000 children may have been trafficked from Tuam for adoption, “possibly in the USA”, noting that “this may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State”.

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A separate report on Bessborough, written in 2012, spoke of “staggering” numbers of children listed as having died at the institution. The author of the report says infant mortality at Bessborough between 1934 and 1953 is “a cause for serious consternation”. Curiously, no deaths were recorded after 1953 but 478 children died in this 19-year period — which works out as one child every fortnight for almost two decades.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the view of the report that death certificates may have been falsified so children could be “brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic” — a possibility the HSE report said had “dire implications for the Church and State“.

It is worth noting that the HSE was making such allegations after examining the institution’s own records. The report, which runs to more than 20 pages, notes that these records reveal a culture “where women and babies were considered little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders” and that they were “provided with little more than the basic care and provision afforded to that of any individual convicted of crimes against the State”.

The report highlights the “intricacies of Bessborough’s accounting practices”, and that “detailed financial records and accounts were not handed over to the HSE by the Sacred Heart Order”.

We also learn of the nuns’ “preoccupation with material assets” and “preoccupation with materialism, wealth, and social status”, and that the women provided “a steady stream of free labour and servitude”. The nuns also received “financial renumeration” for the children of these women.

With regard to the money made by the order both via adoption and by making natural mothers pay for their care, the report specifically states that “further investigation is warranted into these practices”.

Thus it was that, in 2012, while preparing material for the McAleese investigation into Magdalene laundries, two separate HSE reports noted the issue of infant deaths at both Tuam and Bessborough. One noted that almost 500 children died in Bessborough in less than 20 years.

Both reports mentioned the possibility that children had been trafficked for adoption with one speculating that it was possible that death certificates were falsified so children could be “brokered” for adoption.

Both mentioned that these issues needed to be investigated as a matter of urgency; one was so concerned about the implications of what was located at Tuam that it recommended the minister be informed immediately so that a State inquiry could be launched.

It also noted the possibility that up to 1,000 children may have been trafficked from the Tuam mother and baby home, which could “prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State”.

None of the concerns are mentioned in the McAleese report. However, the issue of mother and baby homes was outside of its terms of remit.

In that report, Martin McAleese points out that the committee uncovered material that was, “strictly speaking, outside its core remit” but that he was happy to include it “in the public interest”. He said some of this material “may challenge some common perceptions” about Magdalene laundries.

The ‘Report of the Inter-Departmental Group on Mother and Baby Homes’, published by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in July 2014, also failed to mention any of these concerns.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs said neither it nor the minister were made aware of the concerns at the time but that the issues were being discussed in the context of the McAleese report, which was conducted under the auspices of the Department of Justice.

It stated that the minister became involved in the issue once material around infant deaths in Tuam became public in mid-2014, and launched a commission of inquiry on foot of these revelations.

The Irish Examiner reported at the time of the State apology to the Magdalene women that the Government may have been fearful that mother and baby homes would be next.

This newspaper has frequently speculated that the elephant in the room on such issues is the spectre of forced and illegal adoptions.

When, thanks to the tireless work of Ms Corless, the world was made aware around this time last year of the 796 babies that lay forgotten in Tuam, the Government expressed horror at the revelations.

The then children’s minister, Charlie Flanagan, told the Dáil that the deaths brought the horrors of the mother and baby homes to the attention of the Government, as the issue had not featured prominently before then.

“The revelations in Tuam, Co Galway, have brought to the fore the situation in other mother and baby homes throughout the country,” said Mr Flanagan. “The practices in mother and baby homes have to date not featured prominently in the various reviews and investigations which have dealt with many of the past abuses which were inflicted on vulnerable citizens, many of them women and children.”

However, we now know that the State had known about both Tuam and Bessborough for nearly two years. The HSE had investigated both institutions in 2012 when it was examining the health authorities’ interaction with the Magdalene laundries.

Just last month, the Department of Children reiterated its belief that an audit of adoption records to ascertain the scale of illegal and forced adoption that occurred here “would yield little useful information”, as there would be “little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements” on the files.

This statement was issued in response to revelations that the department was told by an Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) delegation in June 2013 that one adoption agency, St Patrick’s Guild, had “several hundred” illegal birth registrations on its books. The agency holds 13,500 adoption files — one quarter of all adoption files in the country. The AAI speculated that the number of illegal adoptions may run into thousands.

This latest material shows that the HSE was raising extremely disturbing issues around infant deaths and the possible trafficking for the purposes of adoption relating to Tuam and Bessborough one year earlier again, in 2012.

These concerns were raised on examination of the very files that the department continue to feel are not worth auditing.

Adoption support groups have repeatedly said the Government refuses to order such an audit because it fears what will be found. Given what the HSE found way back in 2012, this may well be the case.

We finally have an inquiry into the scandal of mother and baby homes. It’s not before time. It was launched because the Government had no option — an international media storm about the Tuam revelations made sure of that.

We now know it could have and should have been launched earlier — almost two years earlier.

READ MORE: SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Fears over ‘trafficking’ of children to the US .

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