“Shocking” was the word used by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone in reacting to the discovery of “significant quantities” of human remains at Tuam.
It’s a word that crops up again and again in relation to the story of Ireland’s mother and baby home system.
That very word was used in an unpublished internal HSE report in 2012 to describe the “wholly epidemic” levels of child death in Cork’s Bessborough Mother and Baby Home — 472 infants and 10 women in a 19-year period.
Two government departments were aware of this information — but an inquiry wasn’t launched for almost another two years.
Local historian, Catherine Corless, has been rightly commended for her tireless work uncovering the details of the 796 infants who died at the Tuam home.
She also faced some online abuse concerning the septic tank aspect of the story. The commission has now confirmed that this headline-grabbing part of the story appears to be true.
Ms Corless faced all praise and opprobrium with the simple grace of a woman focused on the bigger issue of getting to the truth. In the end, that’s all that matters.
The crucial point to note here is that despite all the hand-wringing by politicians, and the repeated utterances of that word “shocking” — the State was well aware of issues around infant deaths and Tuam long before Ms Corless’ work became global news. Not only were exact numbers of infant deaths at some of the State’s more notorious mother and baby homes in the HSE’s possession since 2011, they had informed two government departments about them.
Even more remarkably, the HSE’s concerns about Tuam were so advanced by 2012, that senior management stated that the minister needed to be informed so a full State inquiry could be launched. As part of the HSE’s examination of the State’s role in the Magdalene Laundries as part of the McAleese inquiry, it was examining both the Tuam and Bessborough Mother and Baby Homes.
In Galway, a social worker raised extreme concerns about an archive of material uncovered relating to Tuam Mother and Baby Home. These concerns, that up to 1,000 children may have been “trafficked” to the US from the Tuam home, were recorded in an internal note of a teleconference in October 2012 with then assistant director of Child and Family Services, Phil Garland, and then Medical Intelligence Unit head, Davida De La Harpe.
The note highlighted concerns raised by the principal social worker for adoption in HSE West who had found “a large archive of photographs, documentation and correspondence relating to children sent for adoption to the USA” and “documentation in relation to discharges and admissions to psychiatric institutions in the Western area”.
Among other things found were letters to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children who had already been discharged or had died.
The social worker, “working in her own time and on her own dollar”, had compiled a list of “up to 1,000 names”, but said it was “not clear yet whether all of these relate to the ongoing examination of the Magdalene system, or whether they relate to the adoption of children by parents, possibly in the USA”.
At that point, the social worker was assembling a filing system “to enable her to link names to letters and to payments”.
The note reads: “This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State, because of the very emotive sensitivities around adoption of babies, with or without the will of the mother.
A concern is that, if there is evidence of trafficking babies, that it must have been facilitated by doctors, social workers etc, and a number of these health professionals may still be working in the system.”
It ends with a recommendation that, due to the gravity of what was being found in relation to the Tuam home, an “early warning” letter be written for the attention of the national director of the HSE’s Quality and Patient Safety Division, Philip Crowley, suggesting “that this goes all the way up to the minister”.
“It is more important to send this up to the minister as soon as possible: with a view to an inter-departmental committee and a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry.”
That inquiry didn’t come until almost two years later — when the revelations of Catherine Corless and the overwhelming media attention forced the issue.
At around the same time in Cork, an unpublished report was prepared based on an examination of Bessborough records spanning from 1922 to 1982. These were transferred to the HSE by the order that ran the home — the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary — in 2011.
Taken from the order’s own death register, it reported that a “shocking” 470 children died at the home between 1934 and 1953, as well as 10 women. A staggering 273 of these deaths occured in a six-year period between 1939 and 1944.
However, the Irish Examiner revealed in 2015 that the order reported higher numbers to state inspectors during this period. It is unclear why an order would do such a thing; but the HSE report said: “Whether indeed all of these children actually died while in Bessboro or whether they were brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic, has dire implications for the Church and State and not least for the children and families themselves.”
The report outlined how the records revealed that women and children were “little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders”.
It also spoke of a culture of “institutionalisation and human trafficking” among various religious orders and State-funded institutions.
The HSE report was dismissed as “conjecture” when it was made public in 2015.
This is a scandal that will only get more “shocking”. The commission needs to examine the sites of all mother and baby homes. It is clear that the issue of infant mortality was not confined to Tuam and the State has ample evidence in its possession. It needs a wider set of terms of reference so the full scale of illegal adoptions can be examined through the myriad of connected adoption agencies and private and State maternity homes.
It is noteworthy that successive governments resisted a full audit of adoption records held by the State. This is despite former adoption agencies and even the Adoption Authority itself privately admitting that the number of illegal adoptions could run into the thousands.
This is a scandal that involves the living and the dead. Tuam has been the touchpaper that has lit the fuse.