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Mary Donovan and Maurice Patton O'Connell pictured in Dublin in February Órla Ryan
Department of Education

'They're waiting for us to die': Industrial school abuse survivors say they need urgent support

Survivors have criticised the Government’s proposed support plan, saying it doesn’t address many of their concerns.

SURVIVORS OF INDUSTRIAL schools have expressed frustration at a range of support measures proposed by the Government, saying the plan doesn’t address many of their needs.

A number of survivors, including some who had travelled from England, met with Education Minister Norma Foley in Dublin recently to express their concerns.

Survivors of Residential Institutional Abuse (SRIA) are calling for an annual pension of €15,000, access to the Health Amendment Act (HAA) medical card, and housing support.

Members of the group were part of a Consultative Forum set up to ensure survivors’ wishes were taken into consideration when the plan was being developed. However, they said many of their concerns have been ignored.

SRIA member Maurice Patton O’Connell said many survivors needs urgent financial and medical support.

“They’re trying to save money and wait for all of us to die. I’d be lucky if I have five years left because of my emphysema. I’m 55, but I could be dead in my 60s,” he told The Journal.

In June 2023 the Government approved new supports for survivors of abuse in industrial schools, reformatories and related institutions.

Under the plans announced last summer, people who have received compensation under the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) Scheme, or a similar court settlement, will be entitled to a number of health and educational benefits.

Patton O’Connell said the plan agreed by the Government “watered down completely” what the group asked for.

“They had it rubber-stamped before they came back to us. So whatever we said at the meeting, it was a waste of our time because they are not listening to us. The dialogue is finished,” he said.

Under the Government’s plan, survivors will be offered grants to extend their education.

Patton O’Connell said that while some survivors may avail of this, many are older and have health issues so the money could be better used elsewhere like on a pension plan.

Patton O’Connell spent his early years in an industrial school in Kerry before being boarded out to a farm, then sent to a reformatory school in Dublin. He was sexually abused as a child and believes he may have been subjected to a vaccine trial.

William Gorry, who spent time in an industrial school in Westmeath, is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He described the meeting with Minister Foley and officials from her department as a “box-ticking exercise”.

There is really nothing about this that is survivor-led.

Gorry said children like him were “systematically neglected and sexually abused” due to “the failures of the Irish State” and must now be listened to.

Health and housing support needed

Mary Donovan, another member of SRIA, said the Government’s proposals “show a complete lack of understanding” of what survivors need.

She said survivors have asked for a pension “time and time again” as it would recognise the unpaid labour many of them did while in institutions or boarded out as children.

Donovan said many survivors have health issues and this money would give them the “opportunity to manage their own affairs in order to have a better quality of life before they die”.

She said the Government should cover private health insurance for all survivors regardless of where they live, noting that one survivor in the US had to borrow money from their family and friends to pay for health insurance.

Donovan spent her childhood in the Pembroke Alms House Industrial School in Tralee in Co Kerry. She is an intergenerational survivor, her mother Margaret Mary Finn spent years in several different institutions.

Two of Donovan’s siblings are listed among the 923 children who died at Bessborough mother and baby institution in Cork. However, she has been unable to locate their burial records.

She is now a full-time carer for her brother and said she needs more support.

“I’m doing it out of love, but I’ve got no support, no services. He is a survivor too. This is wrong.”

IMG20240215154359 Front row (left to right): Catherine Coffey O'Brien, William Gorry, Mary Donovan. Back row (left to right): Maurice Patton O'Connell, Michael Hanley and Gerard McMahon Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Catherine Coffey O’Brien, who spent time in Bessborough in the 1980s, said survivors need better medical support as many of them have health issues.

“We have an awful lot of conditions, there’s PTSD, anxiety, cancer is rampant, and mental health is a very, very big deal.

“We want to empower our communities by getting the supports in place – healthcare supports, the pension, access to services, access to appropriate housing. A lot of survivors don’t own their homes, they’re in socially disadvantaged areas, they’re living in social housing.”

‘Enormous trauma’

When asked about survivors’ concerns, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said Minister Norma Foley is “very conscious of the enormous trauma which has been endured by all survivors of abuse, including those in residential institutions”.

They said the department consulted survivors about the plans “over a number of years”.

The spokesperson said the range of measures agreed last year “might not fully meet the expectations of some survivors” but “will address many of the key concerns identified in the consultation process”.

Survivors in Ireland will receive an enhanced medical card, while survivors living abroad will be entitled to a €3,000 payment for their health needs.

In terms of education, the department plans to establish a new scheme involving the payment of cash grants to survivors who are engaging in further or higher education. 

The delivery of these health and education supports will require the passage of legislation and this is being “progressed as a priority”, with a view to rolling out the plan from the second half of this year.

The department has hired Sage Advocacy to liaise with survivors seeking to avail of these services.

The Government package was agreed last summer after it was announced that Caranua, the State body set up to help survivors, would be formally wound up as it exhausted its funds.

The RIRB was set up in 2002 to give compensation and support to people who, as children, were abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions. The State has paid around €1 billion to survivors through the scheme.

In addition, the State sought contributions from the relevant religious congregations following the publication of the Ryan Report which detailed widespread sexual and physical abuse in many institutions.

This €98 million collected from religious orders was given to around 6,000 survivors via Caranua.