Mother and Baby Homes: Women who gave birth expected to do 'the decent thing and disappear'

Report finds 'little evidence' of mothers trying to reclaim their children as they were 'silent partners' in adoption process
Mother and Baby Homes: Women who gave birth expected to do 'the decent thing and disappear'

Limerick survivor Ann O'Gorman has tried for many years to trace her daughter Evelyn. Picture: Brendan Gleeson

The institutions examined by the Mother and Baby Home Commission had little to do with informal adoptions before legal adoption was introduced in 1953, the report has found.

Investigators found little evidence of mothers trying to get their children back after they “surrendered” them for adoption, while the evidence they did find appears to have centred around the reclamation of children who were old enough to work.

As far as consent was concerned, the Commission has concluded that “it is very difficult to retrospectively assess whether or not any particular consent was ‘full, free and informed’ at the time it was given”.

The Commission says it heard evidence from women who had no memory of ever signing any adoption papers.

There were those who also had no memory of signing, but who recognised the signature on the adoption papers when they viewed them later.

Some stated adamantly that they had not actually signed any adoption papers.

“A few said that they had subsequently seen the forms in the adoption society files and they asserted that the signatures were not theirs," the Commission said.

One commentator told the Commission mothers who gave birth “were the silent partners to the adoption story” and were rarely spoken about by anyone involved in the adoption process.

Another observed: "The mother who has given birth was expected to do the decent thing and disappear."

In a narrowly defined look into adoption that only examined issues around consent and foreign adoption, the Commission concluded: "There seems little doubt mothers who surrendered their children had no real choice because they were unable to look after their children themselves.

"It is likely they would have been successful in reclaiming their children if they tried to do so.

“The commission has not seen much evidence of attempts to do so.

“There are a few examples in the Department of Health files but they generally involved reclaiming older children who could be put to work.” 

As is noted in the Commission Report’s executive summary “a comprehensive review of adoption did not form part of the commission's remit”.

Philomena Lee has called for mother and baby homes survivors to be paid compensation. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Philomena Lee has called for mother and baby homes survivors to be paid compensation. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Despite previous reports of high numbers of children being adopted out of Ireland, the Commission has stated it only found evidence of just over 1,600 foreign adoptions.

It concludes institutional and official external records show between 1922 and 1998, 1,638 children resident in Mother and Baby homes and the four county homes were placed for foreign adoption.

Countries they were adopted to included the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.

While 1,427 were placed for adoption to the USA, a passport record was found for 1,266 of the children placed for a foreign adoption.

The Commission said: “While it might be an exaggeration to say that it was ‘official policy’ to encourage the adoption of ‘illegitimate’ children, adoption was undoubtedly promoted as the best option by the families of unmarried mothers, by the mother and baby homes and by religious and civil charities.

“It was seen as the best option for the children and for the mothers and it was also seen as desirable for married couples who did not have biological children.” 

It is clear that consent was a major issue in adoption practice in the years under investigation.

“Nearly all of the court cases in relation to adoption centred on the validity of consent.

“Any assessment on the validity of a consent has to take account of the mental state of the mother and her social circumstances at the time the consent was given.” 

Some witnesses told the Commission they consented to adoption because they considered it would provide the best outcome for their children.

In general, these women regarded the consent as free and informed, the report said.

Others said they consented because they were not in a position, economically or socially, to care for the child in the absence of family support.

Their decision was informed but some consider that it was not free, as they had no real choice.

Some said they did not give free and informed consent to the placement of their children for adoption or to the subsequent adoption orders.

A number of women said that they had no choice but to sign the adoption papers  — that they had been forced to do so by for example parents, adoption societies, mother and baby home staff, social workers, or priests.

Some stated adamantly that they had not actually signed any adoption papers.

A few said that they had subsequently seen the forms in the Adoption Society files and they asserted that the signatures were not theirs.

“From much of the period under investigation social attitudes were such that unmarried pregnant women were expected to go away quietly, have the baby and place it for fostering or adoption and then resume life as if nothing had happened,” the Commission said.

Little consideration was given to how the mother felt about it.

There seems little doubt that mothers who were not receiving family support had to make decisions that did not necessarily reflect what they wanted but reflected the fact that they had little or no choice.

A witness who was involved with the Irish First Mothers group told the Commission "that there was a lot of emotional pressure put on mothers".

She said that, in her case, her father was standing over her when she was asked to sign the adoption consent at the office of a Commissioner for Oaths.

"I don't remember getting a chance to read the document because of the trauma I was feeling,” she said.

We were never told what choices we had.

The Commission noted: “There is little understanding or insight into the birth mother's state of mind.

“Many were so traumatised that, years later, they had no recollection of the sequence of events, including the provision of formal consent.

“While understood now, it was not known then denial is a common feature in crisis pregnancy where memories can be blurred or obliterated by the associated trauma.” 

There was no regulation of foreign adoptions during the period under investigation.

On adoptions in general, the Commission concluded that little is known about the level of vetting of prospective adoptive parents carried out by the voluntary organisations.

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