When describing her experience in an Irish mother and baby home, Anne Harris feels privileged compared to what others went through.
“I feel almost guilty that I got off so lightly, to be quite honest,” she told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.
Harris was 19 years old when she was put into a mother and baby home in August 1970. The institution was just one of 18 Irish Catholic Church-run homes meant for unwed expectant mothers.
There, Harris gave birth to and was separated from her first child, who was taken away by an adoption society.
Though she only spent two months in the institution — daughters from families that had enough money to pay for their stay were entitled to leave immediately following the baby’s birth — Harris describes the experience as unimaginably cruel and traumatic.
“I did what I was told, which was you must put this behind you and that you’ve made this wonderful sacrifice and you’ve given your child great opportunities which he wouldn’t have had with you,” she said. “That was the narrative that we were given.”
Harris said she felt she had to be secretive about her experience in the mother and baby home.
In Ireland, the institutions were not discussed, and abroad, Harris feared people would “think I’m a horrible person, because I’ve given him up for adoption and they won’t understand.”
High infant mortality rates
Harris would eventually reunite with her son 25 years later — she said it took six years of badgering the adoption society to allow them to leave a letter for her son.
But other mothers weren’t so lucky.
According to a report by Ireland’s Commission of Investigation, which was released on Tuesday, 9,000 children died across the institutions, which were open from the 1920s to the 1990s. The investigation also found that infant mortality rates at the homes were nearly double the overall national rate.
WATCH | Survivors of Ireland’s mother and baby homes react to report:
Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland, says the report confirms what survivors have been saying about treatment and abuse for years.
“You’re talking about forced labour, about physical and emotional abuse of children, about adoptions without consent,” he said. “You’re also talking about a situation where victims of rape and sexual assault, including underage girls, were hidden away in these institutions and there was no intervention.
“Rather than being given the support that they needed because of the crimes that have been perpetrated upon them, they were punished as victims of those crimes and further brutalized.”
O’Gorman said that the trauma extended to the babies born in the institutions as well. Given the mortality rate, he said that mother and baby homes were “the most dangerous places for babies to be born in this country at that time.”
‘Never your shame’
Speaking a day after the report was published, Ireland Taoiseach or Prime Minister Micheál Martin apologized to the women and children of mother and baby homes for a “profound and generational wrong.”
“The State failed you,” he said. “Each of you deserved so much better.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin apologises for the “profound and generational wrong” to survivors of mother-and-baby homes. | Read more: <a href=”https://t.co/LHm8XVVo3A”>https://t.co/LHm8XVVo3A</a> <a href=”https://t.co/ICBNUdndTU”>pic.twitter.com/ICBNUdndTU</a>
Harris says the blame lies with the church, the state and the society, all of which are intertwined.
“They shaped people’s attitudes. The society was extremely judgmental,” she said, and many were afraid to step out of line.
O’Gorman said some survivors still fear that the trauma they carry from their time in the homes will one day resurface, and that women shouldn’t have to live with that shame.
“What we need to say to those women is ‘this was never your shame, you should not have been forced to carry it for this long,’ and we must now address that,” he said.
With the issue now officially recognized by the government, O’Gorman said there’s a lot that must be addressed in future steps.
“The government has to make good on its commitment that victims and survivors will be able to access their personal records and data,” he said.
“It must put in place a full and proper redress and reparation system and process … and all aspects of this particular investigation have to be transparent and have to be made public.”
For Harris, who has since written a book about her experience, the hope is that the report will spark legislation that would help provide information and help trace birth parents and children.
“You have a lot of women whose babies died and they don’t know where they’re buried, and I think that is appalling and cruel and that needs to be dealt with now, not in 10 years time,” she said.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Ines Colabrese.