Victims haunted by childhood experience


EFFECTS ON LATER LIFE:THE EFFECTS of abuse remained with victims long after childhood, with many giving accounts of troubled relationships, alcoholism, mental illness, aggressive behaviour, social isolation and self-harm in later life.

In its private hearings with 1,090 men and women who reported being abused as children in Irish institutions, the confidential committee heard detailed testimony of the enduring impact of the experience.

While some said they had learned to live with their traumatic memories, and went on to enjoy good relationships and successful careers, many testified that their childhood experience of abuse and emotional deprivation inhibited their capacity to form stable, secure and nurturing relationships in adult life.

Witnesses told of parenting difficulties ranging from being over-protective to being harsh with their children. Half of all former industrial or reformatory school residents reported having attended counselling services. In all, 41 witnesses said they abused their children, including episodes of serious harm and neglect to the point where the children were placed in out-of-home care. Six male witnesses described being physically abusive, which resulted in serious injury to their wives and/or children.

Others described lives marked by poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, mental illness, sleep disturbance, aggressive behaviour and self-harm. Some 30 per cent of the witnesses described a set of ongoing, debilitating mental health concerns, including suicidal behaviour, depression, alcohol and substance abuse and eating disorders, which required treatment including psychiatric admission, medication and counselling.

At the time of their hearing, 51 per cent of former residents of industrial and reformatory schools were aged over 60 years, while a further 38 per cent were aged between 50 and 60 years.

Some 23 per cent of the 791 former industrial or reformatory school residents reported being unable to express their feelings to their partner, while many gave frank descriptions of themselves as unprepared for marriage and family life. “The worst thing was not being able to relate to others, not knowing how to give and receive love,” said one man. “I didn’t know what love was.”

A high proportion of male and female witnesses described marriages or long-term relationships that endured despite often severe difficulties. However, 144 witnesses said their marriages had broken down, and domestic violence, combined with emotional and sexual difficulties, was cited as a factor in most of these cases.

“It’s a darkness that they gave me,” said one former resident. “I live alone, my family don’t come near me . . . My children don’t know me . . . I couldn’t relate in a normal context to my family.”

A number of people said they were in long-term relationships but were unable to make a commitment in marriage, fearing they would be “trapped again”. Other reasons to avoid the commitment of marriage were a fear of being exposed as “illegitimate” and as having been reared in an institution. Significant numbers of witnesses reported life-long isolation and loneliness, often describing themselves as “married loners” despite being in long-term relationships and having children. Some companions described the isolated lives some victims led. “It’s the middle of the night he . . . wakes up with these mad screams,” remarked one. “He spends the greater part of his life in his room, he comes down and brings his meals up. If he falls asleep the children can hear him scream.”

With little or no preparation for the jobs market and life outside the institution, the initial experience of being discharged was a shock to the majority of former residents. Emigration was what awaited many of them. At the time of their hearing, 37 per cent of witnesses were living in the UK.

Alcohol abuse was a dominant feature in the lives of 39 per cent of former industrial and reformatory school residents who testified. Some 51 per cent spoke about their own suicidal thoughts and/or attempts and the death by suicide of their friends and siblings.

In later life, poor literacy, combined with the stigma of having been in an institution, led to many victims “keeping their heads down” to avoid criticism or the shame of being “found out” as having been in an institution.

Many found it difficult to progress beyond unskilled labouring, factory or cleaning work and had poorly provisioned retirements. “They described their working lives as a constant struggle to survive without drawing attention to their perceived shortcomings, both educational and social,” the report noted. Some 41 per cent of 791 witnesses said the memories of the abuse they experienced remain with them to the present day.

One former resident told a hearing: “I work nightshift, which suits me grand because they leave me alone, nobody bothers me.

“I can just get on with my work, they know Im a good worker. I always keep busy myself, that’s how I cope.”