Children buried at Tuam site may never be identified

DNA testing on mother and baby home remains unlikely to succeed, says expert group

An investigative team from the New York Times looks at the Tuam babies scandal and how 796 children were buried in unmarked graves. Video: The New York Times

 

An expert group set up by the Government to examine the site of a former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, has cast serious doubt on whether the children buried there will ever be identified.

The group says DNA testing on the remains at the site, as of now, is “highly unlikely” to identify the remains of the children, and the Government must seek to manage expectations of what can be achieved.

Its findings will be considered by Cabinet today.

The relatives of former residents at the home have strongly urged Minister for Children Katherine Zappone to identify the remains.

However, the expert technical group – established to examine options available to the Government to deal with the site in Tuam – also said it may be impossible to identify remains from DNA testing without “samples from living relatives”.

“Even then, identification will be extremely difficult, and will depend on the quality of the remains recovered.”

It also says DNA testing will be difficult because the best source of such data is teeth, which are not sufficiently formed in babies under two years old.

It cautions that “DNA identification is highly complex” and that “individual identification of remains here is highly unlikely without further significant investigation”.

DNA testing can also destroy samples of human remains, which may be acceptable when dealing with full skeletons but not individual fragments that are mixed together, as is the case in Tuam.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes earlier this year announced “significant” quantities of human remains had been found buried under the site of a former institution for unmarried mothers run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours.

The remains belonged to children aged from about 35 foetal weeks to three years.

Death certificates

The commission was set up in February 2015 after a Galway-based historian, Catherine Corless, published research that revealed death certificates for 796 children at the Tuam mother and baby home with no indication of their burial places.

The expert group also outlines a number of options to deal with the Tuam site, such as turning it into a memorial and ceasing investigative work. Other options include exhuming human remains and burying them elsewhere; forensic examination and recovery of the known human remains; excavation and recovery, while examining some other areas in Tuam.

Another option is an exhaustive examination of all potential areas, such as the adjoining car park, memorial garden and playground. This would exclude, however, a nearby housing estate and private gardens.

The group opts for a method known as “humanitarian forensic action”, which would involve further research of available archives and collection of witness testimony, as well as testing and evaluation of specific areas in Tuam and a full forensic examination of all known human remains.

Ms Zappone is open to this course of action but is in favour of first consulting the local community in Tuam and other interested parties before proceeding along a definite course of action.

The expert group noted Tuam is unique when it comes to potential technical examination because of a number of factors.

These include the significant number of children’s remains present; the problem of accessing the remains because of their burial in chambers below ground; and the fact that skeletal remains are mixed together.

Taken together, these cannot be understated, the report says, adding that a the scope for “outcomes” may be more limited than expected.