Mother and baby homes inquiry must be resourced

Health managers have welcomed the government decision to establish a Commission of Inquiry into mother and baby homes as a unique opportunity to establish – and learn from – the truth about this difficult period in Irish life, but have warned that if it is to be successful it will have to be properly resourced.  Maureen Browne reports.

Maureen Browne
Maureen Browne

Health managers have welcomed the government decision to establish a Commission of Inquiry into mother and baby homes as a unique opportunity to establish – and learn from – the truth about this difficult period in Irish life, but have warned that if it is to be successful it will have to be properly resourced.

The Commission is to be chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy and while its terms of reference are yet to be announced, it is expected to be comprehensive and far reaching.

“This is a really important Commission, which will significantly affect the lives of thousands of people and we really want to see it produce a comprehensive and detailed report. However, if this is to happen, we need experienced staff to search for and through the thousands of records involved,” said one manager.

“It is critical that we contribute to this inquiry to the greatest extent possible by retrieving what is useful”

“These records are likely to be archived by the HSE and the local authorities and we will need to find them, interrogate them, conserve them and keep them secure,” said another manager.

“It is not just a case of digging out files, although that will involve a major trawl. I believe that to interpret them it will be necessary to have staff with some skills in this area, who will be aware of what is required. I don’t see it as a job for a school leaver,” he added.

“It is critical that we contribute to this inquiry to the greatest extent possible by retrieving what is useful – and indeed as the Gardai say even if you think something is unimportant retrieve it and make it available because while it may appear unimportant it may be the biggest piece of a jigsaw.”

Managers are delighted that the Commission is to be chaired by somebody of the calibre of Judge Murphy but they are very concerned that with the current shortage of frontline staff, it will be extremely difficult to find people to do this work.

“We know that the Minister has said that while Judge Murphy would be provided with funds to carry out her work, the Government is “determined” exchequer money should be prioritised towardsservices for people, rather than towards commissions of investigations and we have to agree with this,” said another manager  We are also aware that the highly respected Judge Catherine McGuinness has called on the government to ensure funding for the inquiry is not taken from the children who are alive and with us today but we feel that if the Commission is to be enabled to carry out its work funding will have to be provided for staff,” said a manager This may involve taking on staff with the appropriate skills on a temporary basis.

A considerably amount of records are also held by the local authorities which ran the city and county homes where babies who were admitted to the care of the councils were kept.

Another agreed saying that at the moment administrative staff had been cut to the bone and it was difficult to see where they could be found to embark on what are expected to be lengthy and complex searches of long buried archives.

There is also general agreement among managers that since trawl has to be undertaken through the records it would be a pity if the opportunity was not taken to properly archive and store the records for the future.

Many of the mother and baby homes handed their records over to the Health Boards and these are now held by the HSE, which is also the registration authority. It is understood that in some cases records were handed to the health boards then returned to the bishops and returned again to the boards. A considerably amount of records are also held by the local authorities which ran the city and county homes where babies who were admitted to the care of the councils were kept.

One manager pointed out that the comprehensive amount of detailed documentary evidence which seems to have been compiled in the past with papers and ledgers shows how well public health professionals then did their job. “We owe it to the mothers, babies, families and indeed the professionals who went before us to put really robust processes in place,” he said.

Children’s Minister, Dr. James Reilly will not announce the terms of reference of the Commission until the autumn, saying the issues are complex and could take time to finalise.

Judge Murphy comes with an impressive reputation – she was previously in charge of the government investigation into the clerical sex abuse scandal which was released in 2009 and was also appointed to assist in finding closure for victims of symphisotomy.

The latest investigation has been prompted by reports that 796 babies and children had died at the Tuam mother and baby home between 1925 and 1961. While the scope of the new investigation has still to be decided, its scale will be considerable in view of the fact that we know there were almost 24,000 births in nine mother and baby homes between 1940 and 1965 and many more children were likely to have been resident there who were born elsewhere.

The interdepartmental report into what the government knows about the mother and baby homes also suggested: “An important potential contribution of the commission would be to research a social history which provides an objective account, within the wider social context, of the role of the different types of institution and the records available to assist further research.”

The Minister for Children said that on the return of the Dáil after the Summer recess he intend stabling a draft order to establish the Commission under the Commission of Investigation Act, 2004 together with a statement providing an estimate of the costs to be incurred by the Commission in conducting the investigation and a time frame for its work. This is a complex task and it is very important it is completed to the highest standard.

He said: “When it comes to cost, the Government is determined that the money available should be put into services, not into running commissions.

“The Government is determined that this commission should be broad enough and inclusive enough to get us a thorough understanding of the issues but precise enough to allow it to complete its work in a timely and cost-effective way.”

Dr Reilly said “the funds will be made available” with Judge Murphy due to give the Government an estimated cost for the inquiry in the coming months.

The latest investigation was prompted by reports that 796 babies and children had died at the Tuam mother and baby home between 1925 and 1961 and hundreds were thought to be buried in a mass grave.