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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Shutterstock/New Africa File photo of a mother holding a baby

'I spent 28 years wondering where my child was, they were 45 minutes down the road'

A number of survivors of mother and baby homes have raised concerns about how their requests for personal files are being dealt with by the Department of Children.

A NUMBER OF survivors of mother and baby homes have called on the Department of Children to handle their Data Subject Access Requests (SARs) as a matter of urgency.

Many survivors applied to get copies of their personal records held by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby homes, which they are entitled to under GDPR, prior to its dissolution at the end of February.

However, citing a lack of time and resources prior to being wound up, the Commission was unable to process many of these SARs and, as such, forwarded them to the department which became the data controller of the files on 1 March.

Survivors have called on the department to deal with these requests urgently and make sure the process is as accessible as possible.

Some survivors have raised concerns about how SARs they submitted to the Commission are being handled by the department.

Orla, who spent time in Ard Mhuire Mother and Baby Home in Dunboyne in Co Meath, said survivors feel as though they are being made to “jump through hoops” to get their information.

She said she feels “powerless” all over again due to delays in the process, and that some people will be “put off” re-applying for their records because of the amount of “hurdles” placed in their way.

‘I wanted to keep my baby’

Mary* is another survivor who is seeking access to her personal records. She said she doesn’t trust how her request will be handled because she has been continually “let down” by the State for several decades.

Mary was just 15 years old when she was sent to Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork in the late 1960s. She was from another county but her mother sent her away as soon as found out she was pregnant. 

She and her boyfriend wanted to keep the baby but their families did not support this and put pressure on them to give their baby away. 

“I decided that I wanted to keep the child but my mother didn’t want me to have anything more to do with my boyfriend.

“My mother was influenced by the Catholic Church, let’s put it like that. I’d say she was given no choice but to do what she was told. They made sure that I went far enough away (so people wouldn’t know).”

Mary thought she would get to keep her baby after they were born, but this was not what others had in mind. 

“They had it all arranged that the child was going to be adopted, before the child was ever born, that was the common way they did things.”

Mary’s boyfriend also wanted to keep the baby, she said. 

In Bessborough, the nuns changed her name and made clear from the outset that was there to pay for her ‘sins’.

Mary was about three months pregnant when she arrived at the institution and worked throughout her pregnancy – mainly scrubbing floors and cleaning the place.

“I was held against my wishes, I was just 15. They told me that if I didn’t comply with that, I would be put into a different place and be under lock and key.

“I wasn’t used to being away from home, it was the end of the earth as far as I was concerned.”

Mary said she was in labour for three days and it was a “horrendous” birth, adding that “pain relief was withheld”.

“I was so traumatised afterwards, it was unreal,” she recalls.

Mary got to feed her baby for the first week but only at set times approved by the nuns. Even after the birth, she assumed she would be able to bring her baby home.

“I always thought that I was going to bring my baby home. But I couldn’t leave there until I placed the child in an orphanage for adoption. I was hoodwinked.”

Mary said that once she left the institution, she and her boyfriend planned to get their child back. 

“My boyfriend and I had planned that we were running away and that we would try and keep our child, and that was the only reason I consented.”

Her baby was six weeks old when she left the institution. 

Mary and her boyfriend travelled to London where they hoped to start a new life there once they were reunited with their baby.

Mary hadn’t signed the adoption papers at this point and didn’t plan to, but her father tracked her down and showed up. He demanded that she sign the papers. 

“I wanted to get my baby back and I was trying to find a way to do that, but my father put pressure on me not to.”

Her father was intimidating and not someone you could say no to, she recalled.

’45 minutes away’

At this point in her life Mary, still a child herself, said she was suffering from PTSD and felt “absolutely broken”. 

She signed the form under duress, and was later brought back to Ireland to sign the final adoption papers.

“I had to go back to my mother’s house. One fine day this priest arrived with a guy driving the car and asked me would I come out and sign the final papers.

“I went out and I got in the car with the priest … the final adoption papers were signed in the back of a car.

“That night they told me that my child had been adopted down in the south of Ireland. For 28 years I envisaged my child in this environment and pictured them growing up there.”

For almost three decades, Mary believed her child lived in the south of the country. She wanted to look for them many times, but felt she couldn’t because of the “terrible stigma” and impact it could have on their life. 

“I was afraid of upsetting them and the people who adopted them.”

When her child was 28, she enlisted the help of a solicitor in a bid to find them. 

After contacting the adoption agency in question, they were able to find Mary’s child within a week. Mary and her child lived about 45 minutes away from each other in the northwest of the country. 

I spent 28 years crying, looking for my child, and they found them within a week. They lived 45 minutes away from me.

Mary and her child now have a relationship, for which she is very grateful. She said her child’s adopted parents were “wonderful” and supported her getting to know her child. 

Mary went on to have other children and they also now have a relationship with her first-born. 

‘Commission should have been extended’

Mary is among the survivors to give testimony to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

When she found out that her audio testimony had been destroyed, before it was later recovered, she contacted the Commission in early February looking for the records it held about her. 

As was the case with several survivors, Mary received an email in late February stating that the Commission had “received a very large number of such requests in the last few weeks”.  

The email continued: “We have tried to reply to as many of these as possible in a timely manner. This has been difficult because of our reduced staff numbers,  the restrictions imposed by  Covid 19 and the fact that the Commission is winding up on 28th February. 

“We will not be able to deal with your request before then. However, your request will be delivered to the Minister for Children before our wind-up and we will ask the Minister to give it his urgent priority.”

Mary believes the Commission should not have been wound up until survivors’ subject access requests (SARs) were dealt with, but she contacted the department as requested. 

She has been asked to provide a form of ID and proof of address in order for her SAR to be processed. She said the Commission had already confirmed who she was so she does not understand why she has to re-submit information, but will do so in order to progress her request.

Mary wanted to send copies of the documents via post but was told this would further slow down her request being processed. She is going to get help from one of her children to do this, but said not all people will be in the same position.

Mary plans to take part in the consultation process for the redress scheme for survivors. She hopes to attend one of the online meetings next week.

She said financial compensation and health supports for survivors will be welcome as it will acknowledge what happened, but “won’t make it right” as nothing can change what women and girls like her, and their children, were put through.

“I just want justice, I want this to be the last time I’ve to share my story like this.”

Tech issues

Derek Leinster, who was born in the Bethany Home in Dublin in 1941, has also raised concerns about the SAR process.

For over 20 years, Derek has campaigned for the inclusion of Bethany Home and other Protestant institutions into State inquiries and redress schemes.

He said the department needs to be aware of the fact that many survivors are in their 70s and older and may not be “up to speed” on technology such as email, or even what an SAR is. He said supports need to be put in place so that all survivors who wish to get access to their files can do so.

“Many of us survivors did not go to school, we will need help with this. A lot survivors like me weren’t educated. No matter what age I was, any of this would be difficult,” he said.

When asked by The Journal about the concerns raised by survivors, a spokesperson for the department said that “a guide (FAQ) on how to request access to personal information is available on the department’s website”.

“In addition, a phone line provides information for callers on procedures for accessing personal information,” they added.

The spokesperson noted that subject access requests that were submitted to the Commission of Investigation were “transferred to the Department and these are currently being processed”.

“Given the sensitive nature of personal data, the department must validate the identity of every requester seeking their personal data.

“The department requests proof of identification, in the form of a scanned copy of one of the following – a Passport, Driving License, or other Photo ID. This is a reasonable measure for a data controller to take, to satisfy itself that the requestor is who they say they are, and that the personal data is being provided to the person it relates to.”

In accordance with GDPR requirements, the spokesperson said the department “will provide individuals with a copy of their personal data within one month of the subject access request being validated”.

“In situations where we are unable to provide individuals with the data within this timeframe, we will inform them within one month of receipt of their request, explaining the reason for the delay and we will commit to delivery of the data within a further two months.”

When asked by The Journal if the department is fully equipped to handle SARs from survivors in a timely manner, the spokesperson said the department “has worked intensively to ensure that it is properly resourced to handle subject access requests”.

“The department is processing requests from individuals in a timely manner consistent with its obligations as a data controller which also includes ensuring that the identity of the requester is sufficiently clear.”

Survivors who wish to contact the department about files related to them, can email, or call 01 647 3200 from Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 6pm.

More information on the redress scheme can be read here.

Information on the support services available for mother and baby homes survivors can be read here.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request