(This opinion piece appeared in the Irish Mirror on 9th June 2014)
Once again, Ireland is being forced to face up to another element of our dark and shameful past.
The discovery of hundreds of children buried in a septic tank on the site of a former “mother and baby home” in Tuam has served as a horrifying reminder of the abuse Irish women and children were subjected to for decades.
Women who were stigmatised and forced into institutions just because they became pregnant outside of marriage. Children who were branded “illegitimate” from birth, treated as second-class citizens, and forced to live in conditions that put their health and lives at risk.
As the discovery of the mass grave in Tuam has so starkly reminded us, thousands of children died in these homes. Eight hundred are thought to have died in Tuam alone, while “angel plots” scattered all over the country are the final resting place of many more. State records show the infant mortality rate in the “mother and baby homes” was up to five times higher than the average rate for other children at the time. Some homes had a mortality rate of 50%, as child after child lost their lives to preventable diseases and malnutrition.
The Government is rightly under pressure now to investigate the circumstances in which these children died and ensure they are given a proper and dignified memorial.
However, we should not stop there.
We must also remember the thousands of children who were forcibly taken from their mothers in these homes and given to other families. Some of these children, now adults, don’t even know that they were adopted as their birth records were falsified to list their new families as their birth parents. Others know they are adopted and have spent years involved in difficult and often fruitless searches for their parents.
When I first met my birth mother in my late twenties, she told me that she used to think of me every single year on my birthday. Where I was, if I was safe and if I was happy.
We cried as I told her that from the moment I learned I was adopted I had exactly the same thoughts. I loved my adoptive family but I needed to know who I really was and where I came from.
I had longed to know if she looked like me, had a similar personality and was interested in the same kind of things. Not knowing had left a huge hole in my life, a sadness and emptiness that would particularly engulf me on birthdays and at Christmas.
It would also strike me every time a doctor would ask me about my family medical history and I’d have to tell him that I didn’t know.
I am lucky to be one of the tiny minority of adoptees that have found their parents through the Government’s voluntary Adoption Contact Preference Register. In the absence of a statutory right to information, most have not been so fortunate. They still live with the same questions and lack of information that tortured me.
Many children and mothers have initiated searches only to have their efforts frustrated by an indifferent State or a deliberately evasive adoption agency or care home.
The movie Philomena gives a sad but common account of how many adopted children and their birth parents have been treated. When her son Anthony went looking for her the nuns in Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home told him that she had abandoned him at two weeks old and they didn’t know where she was. In fact, she had reared him in the Abbey until he forcibly taken from her at the age of three-anda-half and sold to an American family.
She had also visited the convent several times over the years to try to find her son but the nuns repeatedly told her that they were unable to help her, insisting that all the adoption records were lost in a fire.
Knowing that a desperate mother and her lost son were trying to find each other, the nuns had deliberately decided to keep the two apart.
As a result, by the time Philomena found Anthony he was dead.
It’s too late for the Irish Government to help Philomena. However, she is determined to ensure that other families don’t suffer the same fate.
She has therefore set up the Philomena Project to put pressure on the Government to give adopted people and their birth mothers the information that they need to find each other.
To date, there has been little sign of any real intention on the part of the Government to do this. An Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, promised by the end of 2012, has still not published and it is not clear if it will include a full retrospective right to birth information.
It shouldn’t have taken the discovery of the Tuam Babies to bring this issue back to the fore. But I hope that this latest scandal will finally force the Government to do everything it can to deliver justice for all the mothers and children who were forced to live in “mother and baby homes” and for all families separated through adoption.
A full independent investigation must be undertaken into the circumstances in which women were placed in these homes and in which children lost their lives there.
The Government must also seize and centralise all records relating to adopted babies and make them available to the families concerned. And finally, they must also legislate so that adopted persons over the age of 18 have the same right to their birth cert and early care information that their counterparts in other European countries have enjoyed for decades.
Then and only then will we really have faced up to our past and gone some small way to giving people the justice they deserve. Anything less is just lip service.