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Over 30 experts ask O'Gorman to change redress scheme so it considers 'impact of early trauma'

People who were born in a mother and baby institution but spent less than six months there are excluded from the scheme.

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman (file photo)
Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman (file photo)
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

OVER 30 CLINICIANS working in the area of childhood trauma have written to Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman asking for the parameters of the Mother and Baby Homes redress scheme to be changed to take into consideration “the impact of early trauma”.

Many survivors and clinicians have in recent days criticised the fact that people who were born in an institution but spent less than six months there have been excluded from claiming redress.

People have pointed out that the length of time they spent in an institution was irrelevant – whether it was one day or one year, they were still separated from their mother, often against her will. Children were generally adopted, sometimes illegally; boarded out; or sent to an industrial school.

In some cases, they were physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Many of those children also went on to experience separation anxiety, PTSD or other mental health issues later in life as a result of the circumstances of their birth.

A report compiled by Oak Consulting on behalf of the Government following focus groups with relevant stakeholders earlier this year found that the most frequently identified criteria that survivors stated should be used to assess payments were forced family separation, disappearance of individuals and psychological trauma – not length of time in institutions.

In a letter sent to O’Gorman yesterday, 34 clinicians question whether or not any research in the area of early childhood trauma was referred to when officials were drafting the redress scheme.

They write: “In reading the details of the scheme what strikes us is the lack of integration of the latest research regarding childhood trauma and brain development, which in turn lead to erroneous conclusions and pathways for those with lived experiences of Mother and Baby Homes. The issues are complex but there are a couple of important points to make here.

Firstly, childhood trauma, which includes separation from primary caregiver and exposure to multiple caregivers in an institutional setting, has the greatest impact early in childhood. This is due to the rapid growth in brain development at this time and the importance of consistency of adult-child interaction to ensure adequate stimulation for optimal brain growth. We are so fortunate to know so much about this area now thanks to recent developments in neuroscience and attachment and indeed to have clinicians in Ireland who are informed by these principles. However, some information is not entirely new.

“For instance, we know that early separation from a caregiver is intrinsically stressful and has long-lasting impact throughout the lifespan. Thus, to state that young children, who might have been in Mother and Baby Homes for a period of 2-3 months early in life were less impacted by those who spent longer, is simply not scientifically correct. Indeed, the opposite is true. The earlier the impact of trauma the more long lasting the effects.”

Dr Sara O’Byrne, who drafted the letter, said that she and her colleagues are seeking a meeting with O’Gorman to discuss relevant research which could improve the redress scheme and make it more survivor-focused.

O’Byrne and a number of the clinicians who signed the letter have direct experience of working with people impacted by the fact they were born in a mother and baby home. She told The Journal she felt compelled to write the letter after speaking to survivors with lived experience in the last week.  

“It is simply wrong to say that people are not affected by trauma that happened in their early childhood. The redress scheme ignores the lived experience of those people.

“In fact, as we say in the letter, the earlier the impact of the trauma, the more long-lasting the effects.

“We’re not trying to throw stones from the sidelines here. We want to engage with the minister. We want research to inform policy. It’s not too late to reframe the parameters of the scheme.”

O’Byrne said that since she published the open letter online, about 50 other experts have asked if they can add their names to it.

There was controversy during the week after O’Gorman said children who spent less than six months in an institution “would have been too young to remember their experiences”. He apologised for this remark the next day.

As reported by The Journal last Tuesday, he told the press conference: “We’re providing these payments in recognition of the trauma experienced by survivors, mothers and children, in recognition of the harsh conditions that took place in these institutions and in recognition of the stigma that mothers and children experienced.

“And in terms of the six-month period … children who were in there less than six months wouldn’t have been aware of their experiences, they would have been too young to remember their experiences.

“Women who were in there for a period of less than six months would have been there solely around the time of their pregnancy and subsequently the birth.

“We tried to design this scheme in terms of the longer a person was in there, the greater the degree of benefit that we’re providing for them. So the longer the time a person was in these institutions, the greater the financial payments that they will receive,” O’Gorman stated.

‘Houses of horror’ 

Separately to the other clinicians, psychotherapist Maria Ryan has also written to O’Gorman about the redress scheme. As well as her professional expertise, Ryan spent the first three months of her life in Bessborough mother and baby home.

Like thousands of other adopted people, she has spent years trying to get information about her early life and relatives. It took her over four years to get her birth certificate, for example.

However,  she is among those excluded from the redress scheme as it stands.

Speaking to The Journal today, Ryan said she felt compelled to contact O’Gorman’s office because she was so “dismayed” by the details of the plan.

She said O’Gorman’s comments about young children not remembering their experiences left her “hurt and confused”.

“I actually thought I heard it wrong. I was working that day and it was only in the evening when I went back and listened to it properly that I realised what he said. 

“I was hurt and confused, I was really confused. So I penned a letter to Minister O’Gorman asking where he got his research from. I was wondering where his watershed of six months came from, where he mentioned that the children wouldn’t remember.

“All the research that informs my clinical practice – I’ve been working with trauma-related clinical practice for about 15 years – goes against that. It goes against everything that I work on in my professional life.”

Ryan said the “primal wound” a person suffers from family separation has a “lifelong” impact. She added that the exclusion of her and thousands of others from the redress scheme invalidates their experience and “takes away” even more of their identity.

It’s been nearly a week (since the scheme was announced) and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I feel invisible. I feel the identity that I had as part of being a mother baby home survivor has been taken away. It’s as though they’re not seen as mother and baby homes any more, they’re mother and older children homes.

“There is no apology for the babies that were forcibly separated from their mothers. We didn’t ask to be born.

“Women went into these homes – and I struggle to use that word, home, because they were houses of horror. Their babies were taken away from them. It was nothing other than incarceration and primal separation. And there just seems to be no recognition.

“I felt like if this is the redress, and this is what we get, there is no accountability. There’s barely an apology. And I feel like I think it’s done more harm than good, to be honest. This is actually very re-traumatising.”

In her letter, Ryan notes that much research shows that when a child’s needs aren’t met, particularly in the earliest days of child development, “that can have a profound and long-lasting effect on the child reaching milestones and long into their adult development”.

She wrote: “We also need to consider that when someone is in trauma, their brains get overridden by their body responses which are rooted in survival, you may have heard the term fright, flight or freeze. This is not a brain thinking its way to protection, but it’s a body’s way of fighting to survive.

“Even before they are born, the babies are habituated to their mother’s stress response system. I may be wrong but I cannot imagine being ostracised from your family of origin or becoming pregnant outside marriage and then being sent to a mother and baby home to have your child knowing that your child will be taken from you could create a warm, nurturing and caring environment.”

‘Most effective remedy’ 

When asked about the issues raised by Ryan, O’Byrne and others, O’Gorman today said: “First and foremost, it is important to note that free counselling support has been in place since before the publication of the Commission’s report through the HSE National Counselling Service.

“All survivors and former residents of Mother and Baby Institutions have priority access to this and the service has been strengthened with additional investment and an expanded out of hours support.”

In a statement, the minister said that “in the context of providing an overall response grounded in a wide variety of differing needs, the Government considered what would be the most effective remedy for all survivors”.

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He noted: “For children who were adopted or otherwise separated from their birth family, the overwhelming priority need which has been expressed, through extensive engagement with those concerned, is access to records. So for those children who spent short periods of time in an institution during their infancy, the Government’s Action Plan provides a response to their needs in the Birth Information and Tracing Bill and the investment which has been made available to support implementation of this legislation.

“The legislation will provide guaranteed access to birth certificates, as well as wider birth and early life information for those who have questions in relation to their origins. The Minister is keen to advance that legislation as quickly as possible.

“It is also important to stress that it has been made abundantly clear that survivors want a scheme that is non-adversarial, simple and based on trust. This is what the proposals for the Mother and Baby Institutions Payment seek to deliver.

“Through extensive and challenging deliberations, it was concluded that the only way of delivering this is through an approach that does not require applicants to bring forward evidence of abuse or harm suffered, risking further re-traumatisation and perhaps generating a sense of not being believed.”

Speaking at the redress press conference last Tuesday, O’Gorman said: “I’m very conscious that the separation of a mother and a child is a deeply, deeply traumatic event.

“That’s why every mother who was in one of these institutions will be able to qualify for payments … that’s a very significant increase in the scope of this scheme.”

O’Gorman said he recognises that people who were born in the institutions would be “disappointed” with the six-month limit. However, he added that these survivors have indicated to him the priority for them is access to their information and birth certs.

The comment stating that children who spent less than six months in an institution not remembering their experiences caused particular upset among survivors.

When asked about this particular remark on Morning Ireland on Wednesday, O’Gorman apologised “if” he said it. “If I said that in the press conference yesterday that’s a very inartful way of me to describe the experience and I apologise for that,” he stated.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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