By Elizabeth J Lomas, on 7 November 2020
Across many countries, religious houses have been part of the patchwork of national childcare provision. The reality of this care is that it has been both positive and negative and religious organisations should own to the strengths and failures of the systems they have built. This includes taking responsibility across Ireland for the Magdalen Laundries. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, right up until the 1990s, the Magdalen Laundries took in expectant mothers (so called ‘fallen women’) with the outward goal of caring for these women and the children born to them. However, the reality of the experiences of many of these women and the babies born to them has cast a shadow on the care provision across the island of Ireland. The conditions for many women within the Laundries was little short of slavery. Furthermore, tragically many mothers and children died. In regard to the surviving children, they were often taken away through forced adoptions and sent overseas, with records being withheld to limit any chance of the child and their mother reuniting. Recently, it has further emerged that the children were exploited, for example for through their use in vaccine trials. Separately in Ireland, a Mother and Babies home Inquiry was launched to investigate specific abuses. However, whilst this has acknowledged failings, nevertheless this Inquiry itself has been mired in controversy. Initially the Department of Children, announced that its entire copy of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission archive would be archived and sealed from access for 30 years. Last week, under pressure, this decision was reversed. We have yet to fully understand what will be released and what may be withheld and/or redacted.
In Ireland and across the world, systematic failings have called into doubt many lauded institutions. Despite the institutions knowledge of their own failings, there has still not been full disclosure and accountability for past practices. This raises the questions, why do current administrations seek to cover the horrors of the past? This only further damages the reputation of Government and institutions and their relationship with citizens today. In addition, why does it need an Inquiry to force changes the need for which is often recognised long before the full findings of an inquiry are released? As part of this restoration of justice, we know that around the globe, care leavers are still denied access to the full set of records that can help them make sense of their childhoods. This is in spite of the case law decisions that have highlighted their rights to access these records. Whilst not all crimes of the past can be remedied, some very simple steps to provide accountability and information access can assist in restoring trust today and providing care leavers and current children in care with the rightful information that helps them make sense of their pasts.
In Ireland, the case for change is being made from the grassroots up. In addition, last week the Republic of Ireland wound up a consultation on the new strategy for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth aiming to better resource and mange critical agendas. The MIRRA Research Group submitted a response arguing for accountability and better recordkeeping for children in care. The submission relates to the need to properly recognise the recordkeeping responsibilities regarding children in care and the need to support access to their records throughout their lives. MIRRA has found that records are the only means for many care leavers to make sense of their childhoods, given the disconnect with family. The provision of well-crafted records can be life-changing to a person’s long-term wellbeing into adulthood. In addition, when there are investigations, such as the Magdalen Inquiry, these are often hampered, contested and called into doubt when recordkeeping systems are poor. The need for records in the Magdalen Laundries investigation, which has shown that the omission of records and poor management has had serious consequences, has impacted citizen trust in childcare processes. Holistic systems with some independence are key. The MIRRA submission can be read at https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mirra/files/2020/11/MIRRA_DCYAStrategyStatement_6Nov2020.pdf.
In the UK we are still awaiting the findings of the IICSA inquiry. MIRRA also provided a policy briefing to IICSA which can be read at https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mirra/files/2020/11/IICSABriefingPaper_MIRRA_UCL_August2019-1.pdf. We hope that the report from IICSA will acknowledge the failures of the past and make strong recommendations to address and remedy these failings into the future. Part of this adenda needs to include a recordkeeping provision.
We are all on a journey. However, we know many of the solutions that are needed to provide for better lives and outcomes for the children in care today. Let us hope that the authorities of today, own to the failings of their predecessors, and improve the outcomes of children in the future. Recordkeeping is a key part of this agenda. Records made with children, centering their voices, can help build better trusted systems that enable organisations to be accountable to future generations.
Let us hope these inquiries do make concrete changes for the future.