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Dublin: 16°C Tuesday 9 August 2022

The 'redoubtable' public servant who first raised concerns about the mother and baby homes

Alice Litster was praised for her work that shined “a light on the failings of these institutions”.

Children's socks at the grotto on an unmarked mass grave at the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.
Children's socks at the grotto on an unmarked mass grave at the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.
Image: PA

THERE WERE A number of public servants who raised concerns about the conditions at Ireland’s mother and baby homes, including the high infant mortality rate. 

As well as the concerns raised by public servants, there were also cases where underage girls who had been raped were referred to Gardaí – but the Mother and Baby Home commission report says no evidence of prosecutions were found.

One of the most prominent voices in raising concerns about the conditions in the mother and baby homes was Alice Litster, who was appointed an inspector of boarded out children at the Department of Local Government in 1923.

The Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation report wrote that the work of the first “pioneering” female inspectors of boarded children appointed in 1902, and their successors Mrs Crofts, Miss Kennedy O’Byrne, the “redoubtable” Alice Litster, Fedelma Clandillon, Mary Murray and Margaret Reidy “should be acknowledged; their reports constitute the primary source for this chapter [on boarded-out children].”

The Department of Local Government and Public Health inspectors, and the local health/public assistance authorities frequently disagreed on the standards of care at mother and baby homes.

The Commission report said: “The women inspectors in the Department of Local
Government and Public Health/Department of Health tried valiantly to have conditions improved… This is especially true of Miss Alice Litster.”

The concerns of Alice Litster

Alice Litster carried out most of the inspections of maternity hospitals and mother and baby homes in the 1940s and 1950s, and repeatedly raised concerns about the living conditions for children resident there.

In 1939, she wrote a report and found in the previous year, 227 per thousand of children born in Ireland outside of marriage died before their first birthday – compared with 80 per thousand in England and Wales:

“I have grave doubts of the wisdom of continuing to urge Boards of Health and Public Assistance to send patients to the special homes so long as no attempt is made to explore the causes of this abnormally high death rate.”

The Commission’s report says that this document “appears to be the first criticism of the mother and baby homes by a public servant”.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told the Dáil yesterday that those criticisms were “subsequently watered down by Department officials”.

The Commission’s report continues:

“The war years confirmed Miss Litster’s concerns about the high rate of infant mortality in mother and baby homes. More than three quarters of all child deaths associated with Pelletstown, Tuam, Bessborough, Sean Ross and Castlepollard occurred prior to 1946.
“During these years Miss Litster and the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers produced papers that were critical of existing arrangements, and they proposed a number of changes.”

Alice Litster was one of the Department of Health inspectors who “consistently criticised” the policy of delaying the boarding out of children from Tuam. In 1957 she stated:

“The trouble with the Children’s Home is persistent. The Sisters are not helpful in getting children boarded out at an early age. It is distressing to see a ‘crocodile’ of children going to school from the Home.”

In 1925, Litster said that ”speaking generally, there is a tendency to put the child into the industrial school… Boards of Health seem to think children are better off under the care of a religious institution.”

She disagreed with this.

The Mother and Baby Home Commission report regularly cites Litster’s work in inspecting conditions in the mother and baby homes; raising concerns about the high infant mortality rates, and the high number of children being sent for adoption in the US; and pushing for better care of children and pregnant women at the homes.

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‘Nothing happened’ after reports of statutory rape to Gardaí

Looking at issues raised about mother and baby homes more generally, most of the homes investigated by the Commission did not have a policy of reporting pregnancies in underage girls to the Gardaí.

But even in cases where reports were made, the Commission’s report found no evidence of any prosecutions taken.

In June 1935, the matron of Bessborough wrote to the South Cork board about a 15-year-old resident suggesting that “the child’s seducer should be punished”.

“It appears that the board had never previously considered such an action,” the Commission report noted, adding that “its solicitors advised that a criminal charge could be brought against the putative father”.

The matter was reported to the Gardaí with a view to instituting criminal proceedings. A similar situation arose in October 1935 and, again, the matter was reported to the Gardaí.
The Commission has not found any evidence that prosecutions ensued.

In 1932, a member of the Kilkenny Social Services Committee reported that a 15 year old boarded-out girl had given birth to a premature child. A man lodging in the foster parents’ home was named as the “putative” father of the child.

The report notes: “A Garda Superintendent reportedly took the case in hand with a view to prosecution, but informed the board of health that there was no point in bringing the case to court as there was ‘no corroborative evidence’.”

In another shocking case in the report:

Another witness said that she was just 15 years old when she became pregnant for the first time – and again for a second time following numerous rapes she suffered from a family member who, she confessed to the Committee, had been ‘badly’ abusing her from when she was just 13 years old.

“When she told her family and the local priest of her first pregnancy, she was accused of ‘trying to break up a family’ and that it was ‘her own fault’.

Her father, she said, would ‘try to sell me to any auld lad in the pub’. When in the mother and baby home she told the nuns about the abuse, ‘they wouldn’t listen to me’. Following the birth of her first child, she went to stay with an uncle who did inform the Gardaí about the abuse, but again, she said, ‘nothing happened’.

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