Government must not forget Tuam mother-and-baby home scheme, say relatives

Support group says proposed DNA collection must happen as soon as possible

Historian Catherine Corless at the site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother-and-baby home, Co Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Historian Catherine Corless at the site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother-and-baby home, Co Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

Relatives of children and women from the Tuam mother-and-baby home have called on the Government not to lose sight of a proposed DNA collection scheme during the general election campaign.

The Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance says samples must be collected as soon as possible to ensure relatives can participate in the programme. “Our members are elderly so there is limited time in order to retrieve their DNA while they’re still with us,” said Breeda Murphy from the Galway support group. “We need to tackle this in the short term to allow for closure and healing. But the election throws everything into doubt.”

The call comes amid fears that proposals laid out by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone to develop a voluntary DNA collection scheme, following an independent report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon, risk being severely delayed with the formation of a new government.

Dr Shannon stated it was legally possible to collect DNA samples from family members and to develop a voluntary administrative scheme before the enactment of legislation. This administrative scheme could then be subsumed into the legislation once it is ready, he recommended.

In December Ms Zappone announced the Cabinet had approved legislation which would provide a legal basis for the phased forensic excavation, exhumation and re-interment of remains at the Tuam site.

Historian Catherine Corless, who has gathered death certificates for 796 infants linked to the Tuam home, says excavations must also start if DNA testing is to take place.

Both Ms Murphy and Ms Corless were due to present to the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs last week to discuss the general scheme of the certain institutional burials (authorised interventions) Bill. However, the hearing was cancelled following the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

Ms Corless remains optimistic that legislation enabling the excavations to take place will be carried through by the new government without delay.

“Dr Shannon and the UN have declared it [the burials] illegal and that the babies were denied justice. The Government knows the world is looking at us.

“Those babies are just lying there. It’s a huge message to Ireland’s future generations how the most vulnerable were treated, we have to undo what was done to this society.”

Methodology

Regardless of when the DNA scheme begins, a methodology must be used that is “actually capable of identifying the remains”, barrister Colin Smith told The Irish Times.

“This investigation has to be prompt but it also has to be effective, that’s crucial. If the wrong methodology is used the whole system will be susceptible to challenge. The most advanced modern techniques capable of identifying the remains taking in account the conditions of the grave must be used.”

While the current scheme is focused on Tuam, it is understood the template could be used at the sites of other former institutions including Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary and the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork.

The Government should remember that Tuam is just one of more than 182 institutions, agencies and individuals that interacted with unmarried mothers in the 20th century, said Claire McGettrick, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance.

A detailed investigation of death records and the number of children who were illegally adopted is also needed, said Ms McGettrick.

“Time is of the essence, this has been dragged out long enough. We’re still replicating history in other ways because we have failed to learn from what we did. We’re incarcerating people in direct provision and people are coming out of care utterly failed by the State. Until we understand the past we cannot address the present.”

A spokesman for the Department of Children said a proposal for the establishment of a “legally and ethically sound” voluntary administrative scheme was at an advanced stage and being finalised as quickly as possible, adding that a “detailed costed proposal” was anticipated to be brought to government early in the spring.

In the absence of specific enabling legislation, there is “no legal basis on which the Minister, or her department, can investigate the difficulties that may arise in respect of taking samples from remains and generating DNA profiles,” he said.