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Tuesday 3 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Sasko Lazarov
# Discrimination
'Nice-looking girl but her father is Jamaican': Attitude to race impacted on adoption from homes
The Commission’s report also found that physical and intellectual disabilities impacted on outcomes for children.

THE REPORT OF the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found some children were dismissed as ‘unfit for adoption’ due to their race or because of a disability by religious orders who ran the institutions. 

Although this was the case for some children in two homes examined by the Commission, the report states there ‘does not appear to have been systematic discrimination against women and children based on their race or mental or physical disability’. 

The Commission examined institutional records of Pelletstown in Dublin and Bessborough in Cork to determine whether these factors affected the outcome for the child, especially if it prevented adoption or fostering.

In its findings, detailed in Chapter 31 of the report entitled ‘Discrimination’, the Commission said that while race was not a significant factor in preventing all adoption, there were examples in which that was the case. Maternal mental illness or intellectual disability did in some cases prevent or delay adoption, it reported. 

This examination involved the records pertaining to 1,335 women and children in Pelletstown and 727 women and children in Bessborough.

Mentions of race

The report notes that the number of mixed-race children born was much smaller than the number born with a disability, but there are occasional references to mixed-race children in inspectors’ reports.

The reference was generally brief and part of a general description but the Commission found the reports displayed a “cautious attitude to the prospect of mixed race children being adopted”.

One report stated:

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

Another read:

The fact that T is half coloured could affect her chances of adoption.

And one noted that a foster mother was keen to adopt ‘the little coloured boy’, but the inspector asked, ‘but will it work out?’.

There are references to children of mixed race in the records of St Anne’s Adoption Society in Cork. In 1956 it was contacted by a social worker from Southwark Catholic Rescue Society, asking for their assistance:

We have a number of babies where the mother is Irish and the putative father is slightly coloured. Where the child is coloured, adoption is practically impossible.
“There are cases where the child is not coloured, and shows no oriental features. The putative fathers in the latter cases are usually Greek or Cypriot and the child is usually very handsome. Occasionally the putative father is the product of one white and one slightly coloured parent.
I should be most grateful to know whether you think you would be able to accept and place any of the babies with no trace of colour. I would of course let you have photographs, and we would of course have to wait until the child was several months old. Do not be afraid to refuse as I know how adopters react to these on occasion.

The reply from St Anne’s was not available. However in 1962, in response to a similar query from the Crusade of Rescue, the Commission said Fr James Good of St Anne’s replied:

I am afraid the answer there is that where there is any question of blood other than north European there would be very little likelihood of our placing such a child.

He said he thought that some mixed-race children were being adopted in Dublin, but he feared that they would struggle to be accepted in the south as ‘there are still so very few coloured people here that they still excite admiration’.

The Commission said that while records suggest mixed-race children were not treated differently at the homes, this is “at odds” with evidence provided by a ‘small number’ of witnesses who described racism within the homes.

This included the use of derogatory terms, an insinuation that the woman was a thief and prostitute, separation from the child and “placing the child with severely disabled children who would not be adopted”.

“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.”

In the Pelletstown records, race was mentioned in respect of 237 residents.

In the 1970s there were 48 children whose parents’ racial background is mentioned. Where information is available on the putative fathers, their national origins have been indicated as India (7), Nigeria (4), South Africa (3), Zambia (3), with other origins noted. The term ‘negro’ appears on at least three occasions (1972, 1975, 1979), and the term ‘mixed-race’ appears for the first time.

Five mothers were described as ‘coloured’. One mother was described as ‘a Nigerian half caste reared in Institution’. The putative father of a child born to a ‘Nigerian girl’ was also Nigerian, one of two children born that decade with two Nigerian parents. One mother in 1977 was described as ‘half coloured’.

The report notes that in most cases, references to colour are “factual” and part of medical assessments. However occasionally race “appears to influence the decision”, generally made by a doctor, as to whether a child was fit for adoption.

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.

Some of the records relating to whether children were suitable for adoption stated adoptive parents should be made aware of a child’s parentage. 

One such record stated: ‘Normal healthy male baby…Father – Spaniard… Adoptive parents to be told about nationality as they will not take half caste… Infant normal European colour’.

The report states the Pelletstown institutional records reveal that people’s knowledge of geography and ethnicity “was not precise”.

On a 1965 admission card, a father is described as ‘Zamlran studying adm.’, which the report states could indicate he was from Zambia (misspelt), or from Mali (which has a region named Zamlara), or from Nigeria (which has a region named Zamfara).

‘African’ was sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe black fathers and children. And in one case ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ were used interchangeably.

Where information is available, the putative fathers appear to have been either medical students (11 occurrences), engineering trainees with Aer Lingus (three occurrences in the 1970s/1980s), or other students (law, administration or English for example).

The report states race does not seem to have been a “significant factor” in preventing adoption. Out of the 237, 128 (54%) were ultimately placed for adoption.

Race is mentioned in respect of 38 women and children in Bessborough. Twenty-three of the 38 children were placed for adoption (two were fostered initially and 15 were later confirmed adopted); six went to ‘parents or other family members’ (and may well have been subsequently adopted); one was boarded out and later adopted informally; one went to another institution and was subsequently adopted.

Children with a disability

The report notes that there were difficulties in finding appropriate places for children who had a disability.

“In 1963, the department was pressing the Waterford health authority to remove a mentally disabled boy from the county home; the health authority explained that there were 20 children in their area seeking admission to homes for ‘mentally-deficient’ children. They had contacted as many as ten institutions seeking to place one particular child,” it stated.

“Two children who were severely mentally disabled were sent to an industrial school when Tuam closed in 1961 and were still there in 1964 in spite of extensive efforts by the Sister in charge of the industrial school to find more suitable accommodation.

“In 1971 the Department of Health noted that a young child, who was born in Bessborough with both physical and intellectual disabilities, was being sent to the county home because there was no alternative place available.”

Some of the inspection reports and records in the mother and baby homes use terms that the Commission noted would be regarded as inappropriate and offensive today.

The report states that during the earlier decades of the investigation, “degrees of intellectual disability were classified as ‘idiot’, ‘imbeciles’, and at the milder end of the spectrum, ‘feeble minded’”.

In 1959, the Department of Health wrote to the Waterford health authority in relation to a girl who had been moved between foster homes without the minister’s permission and was then sent to an industrial school.

The local authority claimed that she was ‘mentally subnormal’; the department inspector who had met this girl on several occasions disputed this diagnosis and went on to state that ‘an industrial school is no place for a subnormal child’.
The inspector demanded that she be examined by a ‘mental specialist’, and if there was no evidence of ‘retardation’ she should be boarded out; if not she should be sent to a specialist institution. The medical examination did not confirm an intellectual disability.

A total of 325 children in Pelletstown are recorded as having a physical disability; 153 children had an intellectual disability and 65 had both.

  • 74 were discharged to an institution
  • 24 were discharged to their parents or a family member
  • 22 were placed for adoption
  • six were boarded out or placed at nurse
  • 10 children died 
  • No information is available about 17 children.

The report states it is “of note” that a large proportion of unaccompanied ‘legitimate’ children with intellectual disabilities were placed in Pelletstown. ‘Legitimate’ children constituted 35% of all children with intellectual disabilities at this home. Some were sent there for palliative care or abandoned at the home. 

While the report found that there appears to have been no systematic or large scale discrimination at these two homes based on physical or intellectual disabilities, it acknowledges that this did impact on the outcome for some children. 

But the Commission also noted that no submissions were made to it either by individuals or groups on the issue of disability or mental illness in the homes “so the voice of those affected residents has not been heard”. 

In 1970, Dr Declan Meagher, master of Holles Street maternity hospital, presented a paper on the experience of 400 women who gave birth there. He spoke about the discrimination against ‘illegitimate’ children who were born to mothers who were mentally ill or who themselves had a disability.

The Commission identified 941 institutional records of women in Pelletstown and Bessborough where it is recorded that they had a mental illness or intellectual disability.

The largest number, 309, are described as having an intellectual disability; 263 women were recorded as suffering from depression, anxiety and nerves; 161 had a serious mental condition such as schizophrenia; 88 women had a previous psychiatric condition. Fifty women were recorded as having attempted suicide, or taken an overdose of drugs, and 70 were recorded as addicts.

References to mental health or mental disability were found in the institutional records of 332 women in Bessborough. Of these, 100 had a condition that was medically verified.

Dr Meagher wrote that he was often asked whether a mother’s psychiatric condition was “transmittable”.

“The implications of this of course is that if the mother has suffered from some psychiatric illness then it is felt that this automatically debars the child from being placed for adoption and presumably he will go for foster care instead. All this despite the fact that nothing is known of the mental health of the father,” he wrote.

Dr Meagher also wrote that the “general rule” seemed to be that children with a mental or physical disability should not be placed for adoption “despite the fact that these are the children that clearly need the best possible adoptive home”.

The contrary opinion is one that would condemn a child, already handicapped, though no fault of his own, to the vicissitudes of institutional life and compound his handicap further by denying him the benefits of adoption… if I interpret the climate correctly it seems to me that adoptive parents are consulted as to their requirements in the case of adoption, and if a child is handicapped or of another race then they are informed beforehand and so they have the right of refusal if there is an expectation that the child would be handicapped, or otherwise ‘undesirable’.

The full report of the  Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes can be found here

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