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O'Gorman confirms research into long-term health impact of living in mother and baby homes

The minister has said survivors will be at the centre of the government’s approach after criticism of how it has handled the situation to date.

Minister Roderic O'Gorman speaking in the Dáil in December.
Minister Roderic O'Gorman speaking in the Dáil in December.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

MINISTER RODERIC O’GORMAN has said survivors will be consulted extensively and given access to support to help them deal with the release of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

The Department of Health will also carry out research examining how living in the homes impacted people’s health.

The minister confirmed to TheJournal.ie that the research will look at the “long-term health outcomes” and “the wider implications of time spent in the homes” on individuals’ health.

“That’s a more long-term piece of research but I think it will be valuable,” O’Gorman said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the work will be carried out in collaboration with the Health Research Board.

“Many women and people who were born in mother and baby homes have shared their stories about their time in these institutions, and the impact it had on their physical, mental and long-term health.

“It is important to gather information on this to ensure that any actions or supports that are needed can be identified and supplied to support them,” the spokesperon told us.

They added that the department has engaged the Health Research Board to “commission a targeted programme of health research to help inform the development of measurable health indicators and, where possible, identify the general health profile, including prevalence of any particular health conditions, of a women and people who were born in  a mother and baby Home or related institution”.

Controversy over records

The records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes – and whether or not they will be sealed for 30 years – have been the subject of much debate in recent months.

Survivors have previously been critical of a lack of engagement with them in relation to the report and the commission’s records.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, O’Gorman said he regrets how he handled the situation.

“I wish I had handled it differently. I should have reached out to survivors’ groups as soon as I became minister and engaged with them and let them know what I was planning to do on the legacy issues.”

In relation to the legislation that was passed in the Oireachtas in October, O’Gorman said there was “some confusion” over the purpose of it, something he said was not helped by poor communication from the governement.

The Bill, which can be read in full here, allows the transfer of a database of 60,000 records compiled by the commission to Tusla. Many survivors and legal experts expressed anger at the Bill, but the government said it was needed to safeguard the records after the dissolution of the commission.

The government maintained it had to seal the records under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. However, a number of legal experts said that General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into law in 2018, supersedes the 2004 Act and would not allow for the records to be sealed.

The government later did a u-turn, saying the Department of Children, along with Tusla, would continue engaging with the Data Protection Commissioner to ensure peoples’ right to access their own personal information about themselves, under data protection legislation and the GDPR are “fully respected and implemented; additional resources will be provided where necessary”.

‘I made a mistake’ 

In an interview with TheJournal.ie in October, survivor Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949, questioned why the records were being sealed, asking what the government was “covering up“. Similar sentiments were expressed by other surviors at the time.

“We don’t know what they are protecting, who are they protecting? They say they’re doing it to safeguard and preserve [records]. From whom?

“What is the government afraid of? That government agencies, people in the government, would be named? That Catholic authorities would be named?”

Mary noted it’s already common knowledge that abuse of children and women was common in the homes, as were practice such as illegal adoption, forcing residents to participate in vaccine trials, and making bodies of the deceased available to medical students.

If all of this is already known, why the secrecy, she asked. Sealing the records amounts to “denying survivors a part of their own identity”, she added.

O’Gorman said if he had reached out to survivors sooner, he believes some of this anger would not have happened and survivors would have they would have been “in a better situation to engage with me directly” in relation to the legislation.

“I made a mistake in not reaching out to groups first, and that’s what I’m seeking to avoid (happening again).

“I apologise for that. Since the legislation was passed I’ve engaged extensively with survivor’s groups and with individuals.

I’ve had a lot of really valuable conversations with survivors and adoptees, getting their perspective, hearing from them how they feel they’ve been ignored by the State in the past.

Despite the anger it caused at the time, O’Gorman said he still believes that passing the legislation “was the right thing to do”.

He said the database of records “will be really valuable for linking mothers and babies”.

“That was at risk of being effectively destroyed, of being redacted. And I think if I hadn’t acted, I would have faced huge criticism for allowing this really valuable resource to be destroyed.”

O’Gorman said the database legislation is “just one step in a much wider range of measures” that the government plans to implement to assist survivors. He said the long-awaited information and tracing legislation, due to be published in 2021, will be a big step in “providing proper access to birth certs and the like”.

Campaigners have long called for greater access to information about their birth and family history for adopted people, and the new legislation aims to give this.

In a recent interview with TheJournal.ie, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said there was ”engagement” between her office and the Department of Children in the run-up to the database legislation being introduced.

“There’s always learning in all of these big projects,” Dixon said.

“As we know, some of the confusion here arose out of the fact that the Commission of Inquiry was set up under a 2004 Act, which predated the GDPR, which predated the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“And so I think, wrongly, there was an assumption that data subject rights simply could be closed off full stop and didn’t have to be entertained if there was a commission of inquiry.”

Dixon added that a senior member of staff at the department is now liaising with her office “in terms of how rights of access will be given effect”.

“There’s a whole range of complexities to it. But the important thing is now we’re engaging at a senior level in that department and we’re satisfied they are very much aware of the complexities of the task, but also willing to listen and allow us input in terms of guidance we can offer on how this should be done.”

Legacy issues

O’Gorman said he will work to ensure survivors are at the centre of government action on this issue going forward.

“Everything else the government does, particularly when it comes to the launch of the commission’s report, but in everything we do as regards legacy issues, ensuring that survivors are at the centre of what we do is is my priority.”

The commission’s final report is due to be published on the week of 11 January.

O’Gorman previously confirmed he will bring a memorandum to government that week seeking approval to publish the final report immediately. The sixth interim report will also be published, he added.

Survivors will be briefed on what’s in the report before it is publicly released.

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The commission was set up in 2015 and the submission of the long-awaited report, which is about 4,000 pages long, has been delayed a number of times.

Support for survivors

There was speculation the final report would be published shortly before Christmas. However, after a number of survivors raised concerns about the timing, it was decided to publish the document in January.

“I’ve engaged extensively with survivors. And one of the points they made was that they didn’t want [the report] to drop over the Christmas period or close to Christmas. And that’s something we definitely bore in mind.”

O’Gorman said the report will be shared with survivors before being publicly released.

“We also are ensuring that they’ll hear about it at first. That was something they asked for, they don’t want to be reading details in the media. We’d be very clear about that, that won’t happen.”

An online briefing between O’Gorman, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and survivors will take place prior to the report’s publication.

“Through online methods, we can let them know the information or a broad overview of the information in the report first. I think that’s respectful and outset and that’s right.”

O’Gorman said the government will also provide counselling and other supports for survivors, particularly around the time of the report’s publication.

“It is going to be an incredibly emotional time, for many people it will re-traumatise them, elements of the report.”

A wider range of health supports for survivors were originally announced in 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic delayed some of the measures. 

O’Gorman said survivors will be able to “link in with and be directed to specific health services”, in addition to counselling. 

With reporting by Cónal Thomas and Orla Dwyer

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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