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Opinion: 'She knocked on the door and the nun said her son was gone' - the story of the forgotten foster children

Jamie Canavan is researching the stories of children who were forced into ‘boarding out’, a term given to fostering in the early to mid last century.

Jamie Canavan

THE PUBLICATION OF the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has shone a light on the treatment of women and children in Ireland during the twentieth century and started important conversations across the nation.

Child welfare was managed by the church and state apparatus, in a manner that was akin to a ‘socio-spiritual’ structure, to quote NUIG Professor Caroline McGregor. Ever-present was the mix of religious orders of different Christian denominations and state funding and influence.

The specific circumstances and logistics surrounding foster care or ‘boarding out’ as it was termed, between approximately 1920 and the 1970s, is dealt with in Chapter 11 – ‘Boarded Out Children’ – of the report.

Foster care in the twentieth century

Foster care is currently the Irish state’s preferred method of child welfare intervention after all supports breakdown with direct parental aid. It is now widely accepted that a familial home is more psychologically beneficial to most children over an institutional upbringing (with exceptions for children with unique needs).

This was not always the case in Ireland, as the twentieth century witnessed a heavy reliance on county homes, industrial schools, and other institutions.

Foster care was a minority practice until the 1970s and 80s with institutionalisation being the preferred option.

My PhD dissertation is titled ‘in the best interest of the child’ Foster Care in Ireland 1922-1991 and my research relies on archival materials from Boards of Health, records of former inspectors, church correspondences and depositories from both the Catholic Archbishop McQuaid and Church of Ireland records, and newspaper archives.

In order to reach the voices of formerly fostered children, I conducted oral history interviews. I placed a call for interviewees in different local newspapers around Ireland, spoke about this project on a few local radio shows, and posted the call on local bulletin boards.

I was then contacted by a handful of formerly fostered children who wanted to talk to me about their experiences. These participants were not involved in the commission’s research.

Foster care was known as ‘boarding out’ until late in the twentieth century. The system in Ireland has its origins in the Irish Poor Law. Workhouses were crowded and over-run.

Campaigners fought to get children out of them and placed in the community. The boarding out system began from this practice in 1862 but local authorities did not start utilising it more and more until the turn of the twentieth century.

Children who were fostered out of county homes (former workhouses) fell under the umbrella of the Local Government Board and regional Boards of Health. Children fostered out of religious institutions or by Christian-run organisations, such as St Patrick’s Guild, were under the management of those organisations, who also received state-aid and influence.

The foster parents received a fee for taking in the child or children. If the arrangement was managed by a local board of health, a home assistance officer would visit the household occasionally to check on the arrangement while they also managed all other housing assistance in their part of the county.

Once a child turned fifteen, he or she was no longer eligible to be ‘boarded out’ and they would then possibly be: ‘hired out’ to a member of the community to perform various work tasks, ‘adopted’ by the foster parents (kept in the family without further aid, in quotations as adoption was illegal until 1952), sent to a county home or Christian run institution, sent to another family member, or another route.

The Local Government Board pushed for fostering over institutionalisation but different localities had their preferences. There were benefits to fostering but there was a lot of room for maltreatment and neglect.

Victims of the foster system

Kevin*, one of my interviewees, was born in 1945 in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Navan Road in Dublin. He was transferred from the institution without the permission of his mother and later boarded out in the west of Ireland.

Once Kevin was weaned, his mother was allowed to leave the institution to perform domestic duties for a local civic guard but she would return every Saturday to visit him in St Patrick’s.

Kevin describes: ‘And one of these days on a Saturday she knocked on the usual door and the nun that was there said: “oh, your son is not here.” And she said “well where is he?” and the reply was: “well we can’t tell you but he’s definitely not here.”’

The Garda whom she was working for took sympathy on her case and went with her to three different institutions in search of her son. The religious orders had changed Kevin’s name to his middle name which caused confusion and stifled her search.

His mother knew if they showed her a child, she would recognise if he was her son, but they refused to do so and as he reports, ‘she threw in the towel.’

Kevin’s mother ended up moving to the United Kingdom where she became very successful in the service industry but never stopped thinking of him and they were later reconnected in her old age.

She would have been a capable parent had he not been removed from her care. Kevin faced severe abuse in his foster home and described how there was nobody that he could report the abuse to as the local authorities who inspected his fostering arrangement never spoke to him.

This lack of communication between the child and the authorities occurred across the board. Dermot*, another one of my interviewees, was fostered out of a county home in Donegal in the 1950s.

He also received horrific treatment by his foster mother. He was forced to sleep outdoors, which raised the alarm for his neighbours but never resulted in any remedying of the situation.

Dermot describes, similarly to Kevin, how he felt that there was nobody to report his neglect and abuse to because when the local authorities arrived to inspect the arrangement, he was sent out of the house while the inspector was ‘given tea and cake.’

Dermot has felt let down by the state even when he sought psychological support given under the Ryan Report (CICA) recommendations. He was denied assistance as his abuse did not occur within an institution.

Some successes

From my archival research, it is evident that when neglect or abuse was flagged, it was mainly due to medical staff or educators raising an issue to the local housing assistance officers. In these cases, the child was typically moved to another home or sent to the county home. There was a big gap which left space for mistreatment.

In agreement with what the commission reports in the conclusion of the chapter on boarding out, not all of my interviewees reported abuse by their foster parents. One interviewee, Sean*, also born in the 1950s, felt that he had a relatively positive experience in the care of his foster parents.

Fostering was more normalised in his area of the east of Ireland. He found engaging in local sport also helped him to be united with his community.

Sean’s turmoil with the system stems from a lack of information and clarity given to him about his parents and his early life, and in relation to the system which causes his mother to have to make the decisions that she did.

The professional social work field began to develop in the 1970s and 1980s in Ireland. Social work theory, practice, child psychology all started to shape this new area of expertise. Foster care practices changed as social workers became in charge of the process.

However, with these developments, fragments of the past remained. Anthony* was put into foster care in a southern county of Ireland after his birth in a Dublin hospital in 1980. Similarly to Sean, Anthony was not maltreated by his foster parents but he has been deeply affected by the system.

He described a veil of secrecy that stood between him and his social worker. Once he had grown up, his biological mother’s family member informed him that they were related.

He was shocked to his core to discover that the family of his birth mother were very nearby to where he was placed and grew up. He was infuriated by this hidden fact that disrupted his mental health and personal life to a great degree.

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Importance of transparency

Even into 2021, we still see people that are fighting for transparency, access to information, and a clear digestible understanding of their rights. It is important to treat children as the autonomous humans that they are, who need information and deserve respect.

I will never forget Kevin’s description of being given no information about his move out of a children’s institution in Dublin into his foster home in the west.

He detailed his shock of being in a car for the first time, seeing a dog for the first time (unaware of what a dog even was), seeing his shadow at night time for the first time, and waiting months for ‘the nuns to come back and get him’ before he finally understood what was going on.

All of the men described in this article have all gone on to live very full lives, some of whom have been able to form positive relationships with their biological families while others have faced stonewalls in that respect.

A common theme from them all is a desire for information and recognition and support for the trauma that has been endured. Direct financial aid today prevents many families from needing state child welfare intervention, while it is clear that this is an area that still needs significant improvement.

Many of the cases which I read and heard about in the twentieth century could have been handled this way, or even without aid at all if it was not for the powerful stigmatisation of single parents and ‘illegitimate’ children. This all stemmed from the strong influence of the Christian churches’ morality doctrines.

The competition between the Protestant and Catholic institutions and fear of proselytising heavily influenced how maternity and child welfare was handled in Ireland until relatively recently. It was more convenient for state authorities to allow religious orders to manage and influence this sphere.

It is important that we keep moving forward and away from the shame and pressure of the past. By looking at how foster care developed in this country and how it works today, we can fight for a better system in the future.

Jamie Canavan is in her final year of her PhD in History at NUI Galway, working under Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley. Her PhD is funded by the Irish Research Council’s Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship. She is originally from the Boston area of the United States and moved to Ireland in 2012.

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Jamie Canavan

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