Thursday 27 October 2016

Let's not forget baby Maria has rights also

Emer O'Kelly wonders if we have forgotten that abandonment is a crime, whatever the circumstances

Emer O'Kelly

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Plea: Rita Byrne, from Tusla, and Sergeant Maeve O’Sullivan speak to the media about baby Maria
Plea: Rita Byrne, from Tusla, and Sergeant Maeve O’Sullivan speak to the media about baby Maria

Thirty years ago, a newborn baby boy was found stabbed to death on a Kerry beach. A woman called Joanne Hayes was accused of being his mother, and of having murdered him. She admitted it, but later withdrew her statement, claiming garda intimidation in obtaining it. Joanne Hayes had indeed given birth: her baby was dead soon after, and because of the shame of the times (its father was a married man) her family had buried that baby in secret on the family farm. That baby had the same blood group as both its mother and father. The murdered baby on the beach did not.

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Evidence which many people regarded as bizarre was brought forward to claim that the babies were twins… but by different fathers. During the subsequent enquiry, one medical opinion called Joanne Hayes a sociopath, but later admitted that under the definition used, half the people in Ireland were sociopaths.

The dark facts of what is called the Kerry Babies case have never been fully resolved.

The same year, a 15-year-old girl gave birth in a Longford churchyard; she died there shortly afterwards, alone, presumably in pain and terror. Her name was Ann Lovett, and nobody save her abuser had known she was pregnant. Some of the sanctimonious and secure in our society were heard to say smugly that "at least" she'd had the comfort of dying beneath the image of the Virgin Mary that surmounted her cold and unyielding deathbed.

Some people in Ireland, though, said "never again". And we thought we were trying… until the pages were turned of the lists of women incarcerated in the supposed refuge of the Magdalene homes. We are still arguing about compensating those women for their long anguish.

And on May 8 this year, we were brought back to those horrors when a man mundanely relieving himself on the side of a lonely road near Rathcoole in Co Dublin heard a baby crying. She was probably a day old, was wrapped in a blanket and a bin liner, and had been placed in a shopping bag. When the little girl, who wore no clothes, was taken to hospital, the authorities reassured the public that she had been "well looked after" during the few hours since she was born. The gardai are still saying that.

They also report that she needed urgent medical attention, and due to the circumstances in which she was found, is likely to need it for some time to come. How could it be otherwise? The weather is unprecedentedly cold for May, with temperatures dropping to freezing in the evenings.

The nurses, doctors, social workers and gardai now responsible on our behalf for the little girl, are calling her Maria. Nobody knows if her mother, even in her head, gave her a name. There have been repeated calls for Maria's mother to come forward, the calls emphasising that she is probably in need of medical attention herself. As an afterthought, almost, the calls also use the word "parents", acknowledging the role of a man in the existence of this little scrap of humanity.

But nobody has come forward on Maria's behalf: neither mother, nor father, nor anybody who might be able to shed light on the obviously traumatic circumstances of her birth. So the authorities have taken the step of photographing her and releasing that photograph to the media. They have done so reluctantly, in sad comparison with cases of most newborn babies, whose adoring parents inundate friends and relations with images of their much-wanted angel.

Maria is asleep in her photograph; heart-rendingly, one fat little fist carries a huge bruise, silent testament to the cannula which will have kept the drugs dripping into her tiny, valiant system to help her recover, and hopefully thrive, after the ordeal of her first day of life.

The circumstances of Maria's birth force us to confront the unimaginable. Joanne Hayes and Ann Lovett haunt the memories of those of us old enough to remember. And cast no credit on the authorities of the 1980s or indeed, on Ireland's judgmental and cruel sexual attitudes at the time. Young and old, we say: may her god (if she acknowledges one) and our society help Maria's mother. She is not to blame.

That is progress, surely? The gardai keep saying that Maria's mother has nothing to fear by coming forward. THIS IS NOT A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION, they emphasise.

But Maria was abandoned. She was abandoned, not in a shopping centre where her wails would have been heard within minutes. She was not bundled up in warm wrappings against the bitter cold of our climate change weather. It is important to state that we do not know anything of the circumstances that led to the abandonment of baby Maria. Nor do we know who was responsible. We cannot just assume it was the mother. But what we do know is that she was left, hideously, where, but for the purest chance, she would almost certainly have perished. But any abandonment of a child, even on the steps of a hospital, even (as was the tradition) at the door of a convent, even at the offices of Barnardos, is a crime.

So why are the gardai and Tusla, the child protection agency, emphasising that this is not a criminal investigation? If they hope that the declaration will entice Maria's mother (or father) to come forward, they may ultimately be accused of entrapment: if the abandonment was the result of brutal indifference and conscious indifference to the fate of another human being, they will have to bring charges under law, making a mockery of their promises.

Maria's mother may be 14 years old; she may have been the victim of rape by a rank-smelling stranger in a back lane at three in the morning; or by her father, or her brother, in what should be the safe haven of a family home.

She may have been put on the streets by a predatory boyfriend to earn him enough money for his next fix. She may be 25 years old, and raddled with heroin, unable to remember the encounter which resulted in her pregnancy. She may be a wife with a paranoid husband who has accused her of betraying him, and beat her insensible on learning that she was pregnant.

Maria's mother may lie somewhere tonight, stuffing a sheet in her mouth to stop the screams of grief because her baby was taken from her as an "inconvenience", and dumped in a rural back-lane by an indifferent brute.

Any or all of those are reasons for the authorities, speaking on our behalf, to find that Maria's mother is an innocent victim. And we must give thanks that they speak in this way, rather than the way they spoke of and to Joanne Hayes and Ann Lovett.

But Maria too is the child of the State, a citizen and a human being. She too deserves that her plight receives the due processes of law. All we know now is that Maria was left, unsheltered from the elements, in a lonely rural laneway. And until we, and the authorities, know the circumstances of Maria's abandonment, the situation in which she was found constitutes a crime. To deny it betrays Ann Lovett, Joanne Hayes and the Magdalene women still seeking justice.

Sunday Independent

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