Last week we learned the Government believes children born into mother and baby homes didn’t suffer from real or lasting harm, so long as they were adopted out within six months of their birth.
That is why it opted to exclude those children from the controversial redress payment scheme announced by Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman. You don’t have to be a developmental neuroscientist to understand why this assumption is wrong.
Survivors of mother and baby institutions like Beth Wallace know it is wrong, because of how poorly it reflects their lived experiences, many decades on.
She said it showed “zero understanding of trauma and its long-term effects, including the trauma of all infants separated from their mother, regardless of reason”.
Indeed most parents probably feel its fundamental wrongness on a cellular level.
They understand that to systematically separate newborn babies at birth from contact with their mother, depriving them of nurture in their earliest, most vulnerable state, is a savage, sadistic act.
That it must cause significant long-term harm is a truism grasped on a pre-rational level — deeply felt as much as it is intellectually understood.
If babies as a group could advocate for themselves, they would no doubt tell Mr O’Gorman this assumption is wrong. Newborns come into the world as nurture-seeking missiles.
They are pre-programmed to pursue comfort, love and human warmth with just as much urgency as they demand nutrition. Sometimes even more so. Their capacity to survive and thrive depends on it.
But developmental neuroscience helps to elucidate and substantiate our gut feelings about this issue — especially recent advances in our understanding of how the quality of early life bonding defines outcomes in both mental and physical health that last a lifetime.
Evidence is now unequivocal that early life stress has a profound and lasting negative impact on the developing brain, impacting future learning, socioeconomic outcomes and increasing susceptibility to disease.
It’s because of this that I’d be interested to know the scientific basis for Mr O’Gorman’s six-month cut-off decision.
He has since apologised for his clumsy remark during a radio interview after the announcement, that in terms of the six-month period “children who were in there less than six months wouldn’t have been aware of their experiences, they would have been too young to remember their experiences”.
But there must have been some logic for the six-month cut-off. Or was it just arbitrary? Was it a simple number-crunching exercise grounded in the fact that to extend the scheme to the 24,000 children who reportedly spent less than six months in mother and baby institutions — including those fostered out into families where they may have suffered physical and sexual abuse and neglect — would have cost the State a whopping €1.6bn?
Dr Jane Mulcahy is a research fellow at Limerick University School of Law and a campaigner seeking to incorporate an understanding of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress into law reform. She has called the redress scheme’s decision not to cater to children who were institutionalised for less than six months “unscientific”.
When I asked her about it, she cited findings from research carried out in 2019 by The Child Trauma Academy in Houston into the timing of early life stress, which found stress occurring in the first two months of life — specifically a severe lack of positive relational experiences, such as caregiver neglect of lack of caregiver attunement — “was a stronger predictor of negative outcomes” for children than “adverse experiences in later developmental periods”.
The Government has an unenviable task. I have sympathy with a minister who must attempt to reconcile the inexhaustible wellspring of trauma and pain that continues to pour out of Irish Catholic medico-social institutions, decades after their doors were finally closed, with the limited provisions of available budgets.
But the children born into mother and baby institutions in Ireland have already had their lives and futures irredeemably scarred by decisions, based on cold financial pragmatism, taken on their behalf by authorities without any concern for their individual well-being.
The mother and baby redress scheme, and the commission whose findings it was based on, was supposed to be an exercise in accountability. An opportunity for those in authority to atone for the harms caused to society’s most vulnerable. In that respect both have been a failure.
There has been no accountability for the thousands of deaths of babies and toddlers who died at the homes. No legal redress for the families of those who were starved, neglected and maltreated.
And now the lion’s share of those children who survived, (24,000 of them, compared to the 19,000 covered under the scheme) have been similarly left in limbo.
After a preliminary excavation, the septic tank grave in the Tuam mother and baby home, the discovery of which began all of this, has been covered over again with earth. The human remains were reburied, the stories they could tell unresolved.
Now, following the announcement of the redress scheme, over half of those children who survived the homes are being asked to effectively rebury their trauma, to pretend it’s not there. It’s hard not to see this as anything other than a backward step.