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Mixed-raced people had 'childhood stolen' in Irish institutions & redress must be extended, UN says

Conrad Bryan believes he was subjected to a vaccine trial, and not placed for adoption, because of the colour of his skin.

Conrad Bryan on holiday with his prospective adoptive family as a young child
Conrad Bryan on holiday with his prospective adoptive family as a young child
Image: Conrad Bryan

Updated Sep 23rd 2022, 8:30 PM

HUMAN RIGHTS EXPERTS from the United Nations have criticised the Irish Government’s response to the “systemic racism” faced by mixed-race people who passed through State and religious-run institutions between the 1940s and 1990s.

In a statement released today, the experts say that many mixed-race children “had their childhood stolen because of the racial discrimination and systemic racism that prevailed in the childcare institutions at the time”.

Some mixed-race children were not placed for adoption because of their skin colour and ended up in industrial schools or other institutions.

The UN experts say the Government has not sufficiently addressed this issue, and that its planned redress scheme for survivors of mother and baby homes and related institutions is inadequate.

The letter is signed by several special rapporteurs who are tasked with monitoring countries to ensure that people’s human rights are upheld as set out under international law and treaties.

The experts state that information they have received indicates systemic racism in childcare institutions here “resulted in the higher institutionalisation rate of children of African and Irish descent”.

Because of their prolonged time in institutions, these children were exposed to heightened risk of corporal punishment, sexual abuse, and physical and verbal abuse, with life-long consequences. Some of them were also subjected to vaccine trials.

Seven rapporteurs previously contacted the Government in April following a complaint made by Conrad Bryan in January. The 58-year-old spent his early life in St Patrick’s mother and baby home in Dublin, before being sent to an industrial school.

Bryan, a trustee of the Association of Mixed Race Irish and former member of the Collaborative Forum of Former Residents of Mother and Baby Homes, has raised concerns over how he and other mixed-race children were treated in institutions.

Bryan believes he and other children were singled out for vaccine trials – and less likely to be adopted or fostered – due to their skin colour.

In its official response to the UN experts in June, the Government referred to its State apology on 13 January 2021 following the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

In this apology, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the State recognised that “a lack of knowledge and understanding” impacted the “treatment and outcomes of mothers and children with different racial and cultural heritage”.

He added that “such discriminatory attitudes exacerbated the shame and stigma felt by some of our most vulnerable citizens, especially where opportunities for non-institutional placement of children were restricted by an unjust belief that they were unsuitable for placement with families”.

When asked by The Journal today whether there would be consideration made to extending the redress scheme, the Taoiseach said the Government will engage with UN bodies “proactively and constructively in relation to human rights issues”. 

“We probably have responded, relative to other countries, far more practically,” Martin said. “That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t do better,” he added.

‘They had their childhoods stolen’

In today’s statement, the UN experts say the State apology “is an important element of the restorative justice process, but it is not enough”.

Speaking about the lifelong impact of system racism on mixed-race people who passed through Irish institutions, the experts note: “These individuals had their childhood stolen because of the racial discrimination and systemic racism that prevailed in the childcare institutions at the time.

“We are seriously concerned over the severe and continuing effects that racial discrimination and systematic racism have had on the lives of the adults who are currently seeking redress.”

Under international law, States have an obligation to ensure accountability for past human rights violations and provide full reparation to the victims, when these violations still have effects.

The UN experts are calling on the Irish Government “to take further action to provide those who were subjected to differential treatment in childcare institutions with effective remedies”.

“Any redress scheme must recognise and provide redress for all the human rights violations perpetrated against children during the entire duration of their stay in Irish institutions, including Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools, Reformatories, Magdalen Laundries and analogous institutions, as well as life-long impacts.”

The experts add that the planned redress scheme “provides a unique opportunity to provide redress for the harms caused due to racial discrimination and systemic racism to which children of African and Irish descent were subjected”.

Today’s statement is signed by the following:

  • Catherine S Namakula (Chair), Barbara G Reynolds (Vice Chair), Dominique Day, Sushil Raj and Miriam Ekiudoko – all members of the Working Group of Experts on people of African descent
  • E Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance
  • Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development
  • Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence

‘Vindication’

Speaking to The Journal, Bryan said today’s statement from the UN “has given me and our group validation; someone actually believes us”.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (COIMBH) found “no direct evidence of different treatment or institutionalised racism” in many of the records it reviewed. However, some records detail how mixed-race children were at times deemed unfit for adoption due to their skin colour.

Bryan told us: “The Irish State has denied there was institutionalised racism, despite evidence contradicting this. The UN statement is vindication of what we’ve been saying for years. It gives all of our members, our community, our voice back.

It is appalling that I, an Irish citizen, have had to go outside the country to get this validation. It is an indictment on our own leaders in Ireland.

Responding to today’s statement, the Association of Mixed Race Irish said its members are “pleased that finally somebody believes what we have been saying for years about children of African backgrounds in these institutions”.

WhatsApp Image 2022-09-13 at 15.30.10 Conrad Bryan Source: Órla Ryan

AMRI said the planned redress scheme must be extended to include all survivors and adequately address the racial discrimination many people endured.

The Journal asked the Department of Children and Department of Foreign Affairs if they wished to respond to the UN’s new statement. Both departments said they would not be commenting at this time, referring us to the Government’s statement from June.

Calls to extend redress

The Government has previously ruled out making changes to the new redress scheme – saying it will cost about €800 million and cover up to 34,000 survivors. The Bill is expected to pass in the Oireachtas in the coming months, but amendments may be made to the legislation before this happens.

In recent months there has been much criticism of the fact the planned scheme excludes people who were boarded out, a precursor to fostering, and those who spent less than six months in an institution as a child.

People who previously received redress under the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme (RIRS) are also excluded from the upcoming scheme. This means that many people who passed through the mother and baby home system, including many mixed-race people, will not receive redress.

The RIRS was set up to provide compensation for people who were abused in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions. The scheme, which has been closed to applications since 2011, was established after the Ryan Report detailed the horrific physical and sexual abuse endured by many children in these institutions.

The special rapporteurs are not the only high-profile group to call for the new Mother and Baby Home Redress Scheme to be extended.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Oireachtas Children’s Committee previously did the same.

As reported by The Journal earlier this year, a number of survivors are considering legal action if they remain excluded from the scheme.

Polio trial

For several years, Bryan has suspected he was part of a vaccine trial while an infant in St Patrick’s institution. When he gave evidence to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (COIMBH), he asked them to look into his suspicions about what appeared to be references to vaccine trials on his medical records.

Documents released by the Department of Children to Bryan in June of this year, after he submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2021, appear to confirm he was indeed subjected to a number of extra polio vaccines.

According to his medical records, Bryan was given five polio vaccines between November 1964 (when he was six months old) and September 1965 (when he was 16 months old). Bryan’s mother was with him in St Patrick’s for the first six months of his life, but was not present in the institution to give consent that he take part in any medical trials.

“As soon as she left the door and over a period of 12 subsequent months I was subjected to five polio vaccines, and that’s on top of all the other vaccines,” Bryan said.

The COIMBH confirmed that a number of vaccine trials were carried out on children in St Patrick’s mother and baby home (originally known as Pelletstown).

An oral polio vaccine trial is also likely to have been carried out in St Patrick’s institution in 1965, the Commission found. Its final report notes that, following “a trawl” of medical records of over 800 children who were admitted to Pelletstown from 1962 to 1964, a total of 56 children were administered an oral polio vaccine.

“All 56 children were administered the first dose of an oral polio vaccine on 9 June 1965. Fifty of the children were administered a second dose on 5 August 1965 and 42 were subsequently administered a third dose over three days in September 1965: 20 September (22 children); 22 September (four children) and 24 September (16 children),” the document notes.

conrad polio dates Source: Conrad Bryan

Bryan’s medical records, seen by The Journal, state that he received polio vaccines on five dates, including 9 June 1965, 5 August 1965 and 24 September 1965. There is a handwritten word on the document beside these dates that appears to say ‘trial’.

‘Half-caste child’

The COIMBH’s final report states that the 56 children “selected to receive a course of oral polio vaccine were all children who were living in Pelletstown unaccompanied”.

It continues: “At least 44 of these children had already received a full three-shot vaccination against polio. The institutional records show that 53 of the 56 children selected were ‘illegitimate’ children and that the three ‘legitimate’ children involved were either ‘abandoned’ or had a physical disability.

Eight of these children were described as ‘mentally retarded’, ‘backward’ or ‘of low intelligence’. Others had physical disabilities and associated notes which read ‘child won’t walk’, ‘not lifting head’, ‘underdeveloped child’, ‘enlarged heart and partially deaf’ and ‘no teeth, large head’. In 13 further instances, children were described as ‘half-caste’ or ‘coloured child’.

There is a handwritten note saying ‘half caste child’ on the bottom of one of Bryan’s medical records.

conrad 2 Source: Conrad Bryan

Bryan said that reading this phrase in particular was “retraumatising” and made him feel “worthless”. He told us it’s hard to fathom how vulnerable children could be treated in such an “evil” manner.

“When I received these documents it felt very, very humiliating to think I was viewed in such low regard. Racism is literally written into the documents. It is very upsetting and distressing.

“I still can’t get over this, especially when it is so personal. This happened to many other children in other separate trials as well.”

The COI’s final report also notes that Professor Patrick Meenan, from the Department of Medical Microbiology at University College Dublin, “sought permission from the Department of Health to import an oral polio vaccine and to field trial it among children living in Pelletstown”.

Permission was refused but it appears as though the trial went ahead regardless.

The COI’s final report continues: “It is clear from the minutes of Glaxo’s Clinical Trials Meeting that the company was field trialling its oral polio vaccine in 1964 and a Lancet article, authored by Dr Beale of Glaxo Laboratories, showed that Glaxo had evaluated the use of their oral polio vaccine in children already immunised with the Salk polio vaccine in 1965.

“The Commission has found no corroborating evidence to confirm that the administration of oral polio vaccine to children living in Pelletstown in 1965 was a vaccine trial. However, considering the methodology employed and the selection criteria as it pertained to the children involved, the Commission takes the view that there is a high probability that it was.”

‘Unfit for adoption on account of colour only’

Bryan believes he was not adopted, despite a family wanting to do so, because of his skin colour. He stayed in St Patrick’s until he was four years old before being sent to an industrial school also run by the Daughters of Charity, where he remained until he was 18.

A section of the final report that appears to refer to him states: “A male mixed race witness told the Commission that, when he sought information about his time in Pelletstown, he discovered that his mother’s consent to his adoption had been mislaid and this led to him being deprived of a potential family who had a serious interest in adopting him.

“In this case the Commission was able to interview the potential adoptive mother. She told the Commission that she had been told by the Daughters of Charity that his mother did not sign the final adoption papers.”

Bryan still has a close relationship with the family who fostered him and wanted to adopt him.

“Not being adopted is the big thing for me because it resulted in my long-term institutionalisation. Mixed-raced children were often in institutions for much longer than anyone else and therefore put at more risk of other human rights abuses. The path of our whole lives was based on the colour of our skin,” he told The Journal.

The Commission’s final report states that race “does not seem to have been a significant factor in preventing adoption”, adding: “There were families in Ireland who specifically sought to adopt ‘mixed race’ children.”

However, it acknowledges that the “picture emerging from the records that ‘mixed race’ children were not treated differently is at odds with the evidence provided to the Commission by a small number of witnesses who describe racism within the home”.

The Commission has no doubt that there was casual, unthinking racism on the part of some people but the evidence suggests that the future of mixed race children was considered in the same way as the future of all children in Pelletstown

The final report notes that some mixed-race children were adopted but, in other cases, the colour of their skin was a factor in whether or not they remained in an institution.

The report states: “The decision as to whether a child was fit for adoption was made by a doctor attached to Pelletstown. Most of the time, this was a straightforward procedure. The record of a child born in Pelletstown in 1964 is representative of the way children were described on their medical records and certified fit: ‘Nigerian. Coloured child’, signed fit for adoption in 1964 and adopted the same year.”

The COI’s final report notes that race “occasionally” seemed to “influence” whether or not a child was adopted. 

The below statements are how a number of children who passed through St Patrick’s were described in the 1950s and 1960s: 

‘Healthy coloured infant’, certified fit for adoption, and adopted in 1968. In most cases references to colour are factual: ‘normal healthy male child (half-caste)’, certified fit for adoption in 1967.
Coloured child. Healthy. Medically fit for adoption but owing to colour this would be difficult. Healthy. Half caste child. On account of above will be unfit for adoption. Boarding out (this child was, however, adopted).

Healthy. Coloured child. Unfit for adoption on account of colour only.

‘J is big for her age and looks well. Nice-looking girl but father is Jamaican’.

The Commission noted that inspectors’ reports about St Patrick’s displayed “a cautious attitude to the prospect of mixed-race children being adopted”.

One inspector said the fact a young girl was “half coloured” could affect her chances of adoption. Another inspector wrote that a foster mother wanted to adopt a “little coloured boy” before asking, ‘but will it work out?’”

Despite these remarks, the Commission found there was “no direct evidence of different treatment or institutionalised racism in the records”. However, the Commission acknowledged “a number of sources suggest that individuals may have had a negative bias”.

‘Deeply committed to responding’

In the Government’s official reply to the rapporteurs on 10 June, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said: “The Government is deeply committed to responding to the needs and concerns of all survivors of residential institutions, including Industrial Schools and Mother and Baby Institutions.

“As a nation, it is important not only to understand the failings of our past – we must also learn from them. We have adopted national and international laws which oblige us to follow a different, more humane and right-based approach.

“Today, there is in place, and being further developed, a wide range of social services completely absent for much of our history.”

Coveney wrote that the Government is “committed to recognising the failings of the past, providing survivor-centred supports, offering opportunities for reconciliation and healing, rebuilding trust, and, at the broadest level, promoting the development of a progressive, respectful and equal society”. 

His letter also stated that, following the completion of the COIMBH’s work, the Government has committed to a number of actions including redress and memorialisation.

It notes that the payments offered to people via the planned redress scheme “will depend on the amount of time spent in a relevant institution, with those who spent longer in the institutions receiving greater financial payments”.

“This will allow for a simple and non-adversarial application process, in which applicants will not have to prove abuse and the State can shoulder much of the burden as proof of residency is all that will be required to determine eligibility.”

With reporting by Christina Finn

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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