Tuam babies: the case for exhumation

Building a DNA databank will be difficult and painful for many, and must be done with sensitivity

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The “lost children of Tuam” are buried in an unmarked grave, a vault adjoining a septic tank on the site of a former mother-and-baby home. Decades after its closure, there are still unanswered questions about a facility supposedly designed to look after vulnerable unmarried mothers and their offspring.

After a long delay in responding to emerging evidence, the State commissioned a report on options for dealing with the site, which was produced by an Expert Technical Group (ETG) and published last year. Commissioned by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, it spelt out complications including the amount of commingled remains which, it said, would make identification “challenging”. It emphasised the importance of “realistic expectations” given the need to match extracted samples with those of living relatives, and the likelihood they would be of poor quality.

Exhumation and DNA analysis are of critical importance in finding answers and possibly ending the uncertainty for those with relatives in the grave. ETG analysis was largely based on use of standard short tandem repeat (STR) DNA profiling – 20-year-old technology used mostly in criminal trials. That approach has been questioned by experts in DNA extraction and verification of human remains in University College Dublin and Trinity College. They have outlined how most of the challenges can be addressed using newer advanced DNA technologies.

The controversy has exposed the inadequacy of the State’s forensic analysis apparatus. In spite of this, Ireland has the expertise to fill that gap. Members of the UCD-TCD team are leaders in their field and have proven the approach works.

Based on their considered opinion, exhumation combined with forensic DNA analysis and building of a DNA databank must now be pursued, according to Tuam Babies Family Group. Implementation will be difficult and extremely painful for many. It will need to be handled sensitively. But a compelling case for taking this arduous course has been made and, morally, it is the right thing to do.

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