The Legacy of Church-run Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland

By Aliah O'Neill

July 21, 2010 / irishcentral.com

In the wake of the Ryan and Murphy reports*, both released in 2009, often the memories of the children, women and workers involved have taken a sideline to the question of who is to blame for systemic abuse. But while the Irish public attempts to heal from this broken past and demand justice, more stories are on the verge of disappearance: those of the unknown women and babies who lived in Church-run mother and baby homes and of the American families who adopted these children from the 1940s until the early 70s. I spoke with Dr. Valerie O’Brien, lecturer and researcher in Applied Social Science at University College Dublin, about her joint project with Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao, founder and CEO of Center For Family Connections in Boston and lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to reach out to those involved and record a history obscured by Church and State. By sharing these stories, O’Brien and Maguire Pavao see an opportunity to positively affect modern adoption practices in Ireland as well as bring dignity to the mothers who were forgotten by their community.

Even after the 1952 Adoption Act, which regulated adoption in Ireland and made it legal, most adoptions were facilitated by nuns in mother and baby homes. In these homes, pregnant, unwed women were hidden away in shame to have their child under the watchful eye of the Catholic Church. Sometimes located on the same site as the Magdalene laundries**, the institutions were also workplaces for pregnant women and new mothers, who often raised their children until they were toddlers. Based on records of adoption passports from 1949 on, O’Brien and Maguire Pavao list 2103 adopted Irish children, though the exact number is still not known.

While the mothers gave consent to their children’s adoptions, O’Brien describes it as a decision made out of helplessness. “For the vast majority of women, they couldn’t leave the mother and baby home until their child was a certain age. For many of the women the children were 2 or 3…[and] the nuns didn’t always tell the American adoptive parents that their mother was looking after them. They wanted to give the impression that they were orphaned or abandoned children,” says O’Brien. Not only was this painful for the young mothers, the method posed problems for both adopted people and adoptive parents. “The adoptive parents weren’t given the full picture. They were often given very traumatized children who were suffering from separation from their mother’s love and care and attention.” Even after the Adoption Act, this practice continued due to a loophole that provided for “illegitimate” children to go overseas.

The difficult search for biological family by adopted children reveals the need for full access to mother and baby home records. “Prior to the 90s [when records of adoption were found], some people knew about the practice,” says O’Brien, describing the mother and baby homes as “known but not known” by the Irish community. “There was some disquiet reported from time to time in the media but attempts to more tightly regulate the practice were impeded. What was involved were nuns moving children from Ireland to America with the cooperation of Catholic charities here predominantly, and placing children in adoptive homes. And the children were then adopted here [in America]…Unless they were told by their American adoptive parents that they were adopted they might not even know.”

The adopted children, now adults, were often given new names upon arrival and may not be in possession of their original birth certificate; in fact, they may not even know they are Irish. While the Church stipulated that the adopted child be placed in a Catholic family, the family did not have to be Irish American. According to O’Brien, “The criteria that was laid down by the Church was that the children were placed in Catholic homes, where parents gave a commitment to raising the children Catholic, sending them to Catholic school and Catholic college.” Controversially, these adoptions all occurred without the help of American institutions—though the Child Welfare League of America offered assistance to the Catholic Church and Catholic charitable organizations throughout the 50s and 60s, their offers were turned down.

Recognizing these past concerns, the project aims to impact contemporary adoption practices. In addition to being a member of the Irish Adoption Board for over ten years, O’Brien has written frameworks for many aspects of domestic and international adoption in Ireland. Still, with Ireland just beginning to become a “receiving” or adopting country rather than a sending country, she believes that the country’s adoption practices can be improved, particularly by passing Hague legislation to regulate intercountry adoption and prevent child trafficking. Ireland is the last country in the western world to adopt this legislation.

The recent release of the Ryan Report and the allegations of abuse against children and women in Church and State-run institutions are also not far from O’Brien’s mind. In her early work to understand the historical angle of adoption in Ireland, she adds that she is “trying to examine through the lens of the Ryan Report what might have happened if the children had stayed. I think some of the children were probably very lucky, that they didn’t stay in institutions where we now know so many children were treated abysmally.” That O’Brien can see the positive side to these adoptions, despite their circumstances, is a testament to the project’s ultimate goals of justice and sensitivity. “When we uncover the past we must be very mindful of people’s sense of self and identity and integrity. We’ve no wish to pathologize individuals…because for many people that came here [to the U.S.], they’ve had very successful lives. So what we’re really interested in is hearing about those successful lives but also how they learned to integrate the stories from the past and how they learned to integrate their identity in relation to their Irishness, especially for those who weren’t raised in Irish American homes.”

For the mothers who raised their children in mother and baby homes without power or choice, O’Brien has found common ground with the calls to expose the horrors of the Magdalene laundries in balance with respect and privacy for women involved. “I think it’s the same issue of justice for women who have been through quite a horrific period where to be pregnant outside marriage in Ireland was such a taboo, and while the Church played its part the community did as well…I don’t think any of us can walk away.”

Like these other projects that attempt to heal the wounds of the past in Ireland, so much depends on access to state records. But in the absence of concrete numbers, the significance of what O’Brien calls “memory work”—focusing on remembering rather than uncovering the truth—becomes all the more clear. She and Maguire Pavao are conducting interviews with everyone “from policy makers to air hostesses to students that were in applied social sciences at UCD, my university,” says O’Brien. “There were many stories of students going to live or study in America very often had their passage paid and brought the child on their knee. Again we don’t have any firm data, and those are the stories that need to be collated.”

This memory work provides the chance for connections that concrete statistics often cannot. O’Brien learned that for herself when she described the project she was working on to her aunt one day. Her aunt replied that as a child she remembered babies, wrapped in shawls, coming through the house with nuns on their way to the airport. It turned out O’Brien had relatives who worked in mother and baby homes and they would often stop for a cup of tea on the way. O’Brien had already been working on the project for years before she made this accidental discovery. “It was just amazing. It was so powerful to think that some of the people that I might get an opportunity to meet in fact were held in arms in my family home.”
    
*The Ryan Report is the published report of the Irish government’s investigation of child abuse in reformatory institutions and industrial schools operated by the Catholic Church and funded by the Irish Department of Education from 1936 on. The Murphy Report investigates cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin.

**Magdalene laundries were Church-run institutions in Ireland where young girls and women engaged in hard labor and many allegedly suffered physical and sexual abuse. This abuse was also covered in the Ryan Report.

If you are interested in participating or have any questions, please contact Dr. Valerie O’Brien at Valerie.Obrien@ucd.ie or Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao at kinnect@gmail.com.

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The (not so) Positive Spin

While I applaud those who take the time to investigate the history of child placement and adoption services, (for future practice), I'm growing more and more sick and tired of The Positive Spin adoption advocates want to keep perpetuating, especially if it means more children in-care will be gathered and exported to another country, and that act will be seen as a lucky benefit.  Being sensitive to the needs of children means being aware of the dangers children put in-care are forced to face, thanks to a warped sense of righteousness, arrogance, and greed.

In her early work to understand the historical angle of adoption in Ireland, she adds that she is “trying to examine through the lens of the Ryan Report what might have happened if the children had stayed. I think some of the children were probably very lucky, that they didn’t stay in institutions where we now know so many children were treated abysmally.” That O’Brien can see the positive side to these adoptions, despite their circumstances, is a testament to the project’s ultimate goals of justice and sensitivity. “When we uncover the past we must be very mindful of people’s sense of self and identity and integrity. We’ve no wish to pathologize individuals…because for many people that came here [to the U.S.], they’ve had very successful lives. So what we’re really interested in is hearing about those successful lives but also how they learned to integrate the stories from the past and how they learned to integrate their identity in relation to their Irishness, especially for those who weren’t raised in Irish American homes."

Actually, I think many a priest, nun, and certain type of adoptive parent SHOULD be pathologized.  In fact, I think even more should be added to that defunct group; I'd like to have exposed the many selectively deaf and time-to-turn-a-blind-eye sheeple... like certain types of motivated adoption recruiters and orphanage directors... who support adoption practices, as a principle, yet allow horrific atrocities against mothers and children to continue.  It's time for the cloak of secrecy... the one that provides selective protection.. to come to a final end.  As such, I'd like more media/adoption industry interest grow towards those who were sold for cash and then abused by the not-so-carefully screened AP's... you know, the good religious AP's that came with fresh donatable dollars and glowing written recommendations/reports from fellow members of their congregation/church.  Abused adoptees don't want to read any more sweet success stories reflecting the luck of adoption-- we've had enough of those shoved down our bloody throats.  <gag, choke>  Abused adoptees want others to focus on the stuff that will and should make the adoption community very uncomfortable and ill at ease.  Only when the full dark and ugly picture is exposed, can one begin to see the truth behind all that's unkind and corrupt in Orphanville and Adoptionland... that truth being very very simple:  when it comes to so-called non-profit international adoption, and certain adoption services, there are not as many altruistic humanitarian positives as one would like to think or believe.  In fact, in many cases, the one word that can best describe the actions against mothers with adopted-out children is... what else?... evil.

"The positive side to these adoptions" needs to be re-visited, by more than a reporter or two.  While many foreign children (abandoned by fathers and kin) were spared prolonged years of Catholic institutional living, and brought into 'better' American homes, it would be a grave mistake (dare I suggest sin?) to assume all those children (with living mothers) were placed in loving homes.  A great number of children were sold to needy psycho/sociopathic wolves... folks who had all the right things on the surface (on paper, at least -- the money and written recommendations),  but lacked the patience and skill to parent properly, because as children, they too were abandoned and/or abused by "good Catholic" parents.  To make very personal matters worse, names and birth facts of chosen little ones (put on the foreign adoption-block) were altered and changed, making it impossible for a first-parent to find his/her sold baby... the baby sold by and through the church.

Nice, isn't it... how church and state learn how to cooperate?

The cruelest part is knowing many adoptees were NOT brutalized or abandoned by heartless first-mothers, but instead, they were victimized and abused, brutally, by holy fathers, brothers, and nuns and other civilian minions working within the Catholic community... the very people young impressionable children were told to respect, honor, and trust... the very people religious hierarchy prefers to protect, as per church policy.  The most unfortunate unlucky adoptees later got abused by chosen AP's.... saviors within their own community. The sad hurtful truth is, many many bastard adoptees grew-up thinking the worst of their original mothers.   Many many (far too many) bastard adoptees grew-up thinking the worst of themselves. 

Here's where I offer a parting extended thought -- let's be clear -- this religious malpractice is not limited to the Catholic Church, or Ireland, or the 1950-70's.  It's 2010, and children living in orphanages/institutions in struggling countries are still having identifying information altered (to meet "abandoned" status) and many of those so-called adoptable "orphaned" children are being abused by those in a position of respect/authority.  Still, the average uninformed PAP is taught to believe adoption is the one, the only, the perfect Godly solution to so many tragically sad life-damaging practices.  Even more disturbing, in spite of the improved "strict adoption rules", adoptees are still being abused. Go figure the logic in all of that.

Altering documents to meet 'abandoned' criteria

 It's 2010, and children living in orphanages/institutions in struggling countries are still having identifying information altered (to meet "abandoned" status) 

So true, and so wrong.

 

Adoptive Parent's Interests

Growing-up, I knew my Amother was very jealous of the woman who gave birth to me.  As much as it was not a secret I was adopted, many of the facts behind my adoption were indeed kept quiet, and far away from me.  [Having sealed records sure didn't help!]  It was taboo to discuss my life before my adoption.  It was an unforgivable sin to dishonor the woman who wanted (and paid) to be Mommy. 

It's refreshing to learn there are AP's who find some of the tactics used to obtain children (for adoption) are indeed, wrong.  The problem is, as I've always seen it, the people who later abuse or neglect the adopted child are the same people who could not care less about the early details - the ways and means that child was collected, and cared for - before final purchase fees.

There are those who adopt because they want to help a child in-want and in-need of a family.  Then there are those who adopt because they have a pathological need to BE The Perfect Family.    Many abused adoptees are convinced there is a third group -- those who adopt so they can use and abuse.

So well wrote i could not

So well wrote i could not have but it better my self we the adopted bastard children of ireland are still being abused i often wonder was there much difference between being foddered out to adopted parents or staying in the home cos i can never remember laughing as a child my child hood as an adopted child was well what way can i put it SHITE even when i got married i had to get permission from a priest to get married education was crap so i never did well in life OH what anger i feel towards these institutions i hope you the kerry writer from this comment can get in touch with me ................................... mary

Important note on this article

It should be noted in fairness that, according to Dr. Valerie O'Brien, this article was prematurely published to IrishCentral.com without final edits from her.  It was originally slated to run in August.  Moreover, the proposed study still awaits funding.

That said, I welcome such a study with some skepticism.  Ireland's Adoption Authority has never had an adopted adult serve in an official capacity on its board (with the exception of an advisory board established in 2006, on which members of the former AdoptionIreland, Anton Sweeney and Susan Lohan, briefly served).  It is currently under investigation, along with several agencies responsible for the largest exportation of children to the U.S., for past illegal adoption practice.  Past scandals involving adoptions from Vietnam and the case of Tristan Dowse, an Indonesian boy adopted by an Irish couple who subsequently returned Tristan to his native country because he just didn't seem to 'fit' their family, also tarnish its credibility.

I was actually quite stunned to find, at a 2003 adoption consultation hosted by Minister Brian Lenihan in Dublin, that the current population of adoptive parents (most seeking children from outside exporting countries such as Romania, Guatemala, Vietnam, etc.) had no clue as to Ireland's own history in child exportation.

Voices of adopted adults in Ireland have long sought inclusion in the 'framework' of post-adoption policy and reform, only to be shunned.  It remains to be seen whether Ireland will really listen to its 'elder statesmen' who have lived the experience and have much to offer in the way of advice and future direction.

For more on current and proposed adoption legislation in Ireland, see http://www.adoptionrightsalliance.com.

Note: The article states "Magdalene laundries were Church-run institutions in Ireland where young girls and women engaged in hard labor and many allegedly suffered physical and sexual abuse. This abuse was also covered in the Ryan Report."  While the laundries and attendant abuse may have been noted in the Ryan report, Magdalene survivors themselves were egregiously omitted from the 2002 Redress Act.  The advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (http://www.magdalenelaundries.com) has proposed restorative justice for these women, along with a State, Church and public apology.

Pound Pup Legacy