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Opinion: Abuse and neglect are being hidden in plain sight – but will we open our eyes?

History will judge us every bit as harshly as we are now judging the society which condemned women and children to mother-and-baby homes.

Donal O'Keeffe

“My first reaction was one of enormous sadness. These are children who while they were alive had rights, the rights to protection, and who, if dead, had the right to be looked after with dignity.”

– President Michael D Higgins

IN REACTING TO the Tuam Babies scandal, President Higgins has spoken for us all. We should worry deeply that a future president might have to address tragedies of abuse and neglect which are happening right now.

The President’s intervention added to the pressure, national and international, which forced Government to announce a Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby homes.

We await the findings of the Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby homes but there will be no saying a few prayers and covering this up again, as was done when Tuam’s mass grave was first discovered in the 1970s.

Teams of forensic archaeologists should investigate the Tuam grave and all the other graves too. A battalion of forensic accountants should look into the ledgers of the religious orders. The mother-and-baby homes were part of a sophisticated child-trafficking ring and money was at the root of that evil.

We’re all familiar now with the 1944 Health Board report on the kids in Tuam: emaciated and pot-bellied, flesh hanging from their arms. The nuns received a headage payment for each child so no more pleading of poverty on their part, thank you. The infant mortality rate in mother-and-baby homes was five times that in the general population, with malnourished children housed in close quarters, with disease spreading like wildfire.

It’s hard to get those children out of your head. Dachau imagery. Babies let to die, green diarrhoea running through their little bodies.

Preventing the bond between mother and child

Another image: babies passed along a battery of women for breast-feeding. Any woman producing milk fed several babies at once. The nuns ordered this because they did not want mothers bonding with their babies.

Think about that for a second.

My friend has a new baby. She asked me “What kind of a person could even think of preventing a mother and her baby from bonding?” Imagine setting out to deliberately thwart the most primal love of all, the love of a mother for her baby.

How would Jesus of Nazareth, reportedly not the son of his mother’s husband, have fared in an Irish mother-and-baby home? How would his mother, a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, have been treated?

There’s an old truism that nothing is harder than having to bury your child. Imagine not even getting to bury your child. A woman called Bridget contacted me last week. What she wrote was heartbreaking.

I had a beautiful baby boy, born in Bessborough in 1960 died at six weeks, myself lucky to have survived with the same infection, was told a dirty needle [caused it]. I hadn’t known where my son was buried until 15 years ago, when I had plucked up enough courage to confront the nuns at Bessborough.Although I was a so called inmate in Bessborough at the time of his burial, I was not allowed to be at his burial. It breaks my heart not knowing if he was dressed in a gown or even if he was laid in a coffin.Having read these horror stories nothing would surprise me. To this day, 54 years after, still trying to come to terms with the horror of it all.May God forgive them.

We must ask: who is being failed right now?

What could we do to best honour all those children who lie in unmarked graves? How can we even begin to atone to those women whose lives were destroyed by Church and State and, yes, society?

Maybe we could start by asking if Ireland is failing its most vulnerable right now.

In 2014, Traveller children have an infant mortality four times that of the general population. Statistically, they wouldn’t be much worse off in a mother-and-baby home. Maybe the Gardaí should note that on Pulse.

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In 2014, Ireland is warehousing over 4,700 asylum seekers in direct provision, 1,791 of them children. Direct provision crams families into single rooms, hundreds of people into close proximity, adults living on €19 a week. Some 60% of applicants have been in this limbo for over three years, some waiting seven years. This is a recipe for horrors.

In 2014, like every other year, over 3,000 children will report that they have suffered sexual abuse. Large numbers of these children never access therapeutic services. We are failing children who have already been brutally mistreated and who are in desperate need of help.

History will judge you and me

I haven’t even mentioned my friend, the teacher. She’s not well-off. She was too young to be on the right side of the deal her union leaders cut to secure their own benefits, but every day she brings extra food to her senior infants’ class. That’s because she’s feeding children who would otherwise go hungry.

History will judge us, you and me, every bit as harshly as we are now judging the society which condemned women and children to mother-and-baby homes.

President Higgins was heartfelt and eloquent and he spoke for our very best nature. Surely a fitting memorial to those poor souls that Ireland failed is to act now, so no future president has to lament tragedies of abuse and neglect hidden in plain sight in 2014.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer and artist who sometimes contributes to the Evening Echo. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe

Read: “We’re the ones who lived this our whole lives”: Mother-and-baby home residents have some advice for the Government

Read: Bethany Home, where 222 children died, to be included in mother and baby home investigation

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