Separating Tuam skeletons nearly impossible, expert warns

DNA techniques unlikely to help due to condition of bones, claims Dr René Gapert

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

 

Even separating the bones found at the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home into individual sets of remains could be an impossible task, a leading forensic expert has warned.

A report was presented to the Government this week stating DNA analysis of the hundreds of remains found buried at the site will be all but impossible due to several factors, including the lack of viable DNA material and the difficulty in finding living relatives to match it to.

The report outlined five options for how to proceed, including creating a memorial and continuing examinations on the site. The Government is expected to take a decision next month.

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

Dr René Gapert, a forensic anthropologist, said the use of DNA is unlikely to help identify the remains.

One of only two forensic anthropologists operating in Ireland, he consults with the State Pathologist’s Office on suspected murder cases and is currently assisting UK authorities with the identification of remains from the Grenfell Tower fire in London.

Skeletons for burial

He said even “individualising” the remains at Tuam – matching the bones to create whole or semi-whole skeletons for burial – will be nearly impossible.

He said there is no scientific way to tell which bones match each other. “If you have hundreds of neonatal and one- and two-year-olds and they are all co-mingled then you have a serious problem with individualising them. I don’t think it’s something that’s really feasible,” Dr Gapert told The Irish Times. “There is no scientific way of separating the bones without using DNA.”

But there are some questions a thorough forensic examination of the site may be able to answer, Dr Gapert said, the most obvious of which is how many children were buried there. Estimates vary but as many as 800 children, aged from about 35 foetal weeks to three years, could be buried there.

If the number of remains matches or is less than the number of death certificates, it would indicate all the remains have been found, Dr Gapert said. If it is more than the number of death certificates, it could raise questions about the completeness of the death records.

Possible detections

He said an examination may also be able to determine, to a limited extent, what conditions the children lived under in the mother and baby home.

“We could detect things which leave a mark on the bone, things like tuberculosis or dietary deficiencies in older children.” He said malnutrition could be detected but it would be difficult.

An examination should also be able to detect trauma to the bones and to tell whether it occurred before or after death.

“It is a difficult process, it requires time. It won’t be solved within weeks once you go down the road of investigation. And it will require a team of experts.”

Dr Gapert suggested the investigation should be based on techniques used for mass fatality incidents such as the Grenfell fire. He said although Tuam is an obviously different situation, the template could be adapted to suit it.

“There are protocols available for that, for when you have a situation with a lot of remains which might or might not be co-mingled.”