One Family Statement on the Mother & Baby Home Commission Report
One Family is shocked but not surprised at the overwhelming cruelty that so many unmarried mothers and their children experienced in Mother & Baby Homes over decades as detailed in the recent report from the Commission. We are not surprised because we have hundreds of letters from parents, mostly from mothers, from the 1970s onwards with similar stories as they struggled with their own pregnancies.
We believe the state and the dominant Christian churches funded and supported structural discrimination of mothers and their children, non-consensual adoptions, and shamed families. We believe that this led to lifelong difficulties for many mothers and their children; difficulties that we can trace down through some of the families we work with today.
We know that this is the time for the survivors of these homes to be listened to, supported and respected. Despite the shortcomings of the Commission Report, and the way it was delivered to survivors, the report does provide an extensive body of work clearly showing that such cruelty was permitted by society and state. We are conscious that today, one-parent families are still four-times more likely to live in consistent poverty and are disproportionately homeless compared to other families. We believe that the attitudes and conditions that permitted the cruelty of the Mothers and Baby Homes are still prevalent. It is our job now to ensure this can never happen again to anyone else in Ireland.
One Family was established in 1972 as Cherish. At that time Cherish was Ireland’s first organisation for single mothers, organised by single mothers, and run on a human-rights, rather than charity/ ‘benevolence’ based model. The organisation’s early work was concerned primarily with providing direct support, information and advocacy to thousands of women in crisis who were unmarried, pregnant and who had very limited options. Often, they had no choice but to hide their pregnancy, frequently having their babies removed for adoption. Over time the organisation was able to provide visibility, social supports and legal protections to these families in partnership with others resulting in more unmarried mothers being able to decide to keep their pregnancy and parent their own child.
The work of our organisation has been described in the Social History chapters of the Commission Report, particularly in Chapter 12 ‘Unmarried mothers and their children in the late twentieth century 1960s to 1998’ page 44 on.
One Family Submission to Commission
Because of our long history and involvement with women and their families negotiating the difficulties of unmarried pregnancies, we felt it was appropriate to contribute to the work of the Commission. Therefore in January 2020, One Family made a brief submission to the Commission although public submissions were not called for. We made commentary on the Terms of Reference of the Commission; drew a connection between the treatment of one-parent families in 2020 in Ireland with how unmarried mothers were treated in past decades; and we made a number of recommendations to the Commission to consider for reparation.
We note that overall, our recommendations were not included in the Government Action Plan or the Report’s Recommendations. We remain concerned that the Commission did not use a pragmatic definition of consent and this is reflected in their findings that there was no evidence of forced adoption:
“We note the Terms of Reference which were provided to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission. We note the mandate on consent where you are directed to consider the extent of mothers’ “participation in relevant decisions … (and) … whether these procedures were adequate for the purpose of ensuring such consent was full, free and informed.”
“In relation to this, we strongly caution against interpreting consent as being fully and freely informed on the basis of signed documentation given the direct experience of many of the women we supported. As has been well discussed elsewhere many women were not aware of what they were signing, were not aware they had a choice and did not consciously consent to the adoption of their child.” (Submission to the Mother & Baby Home Commission, One Family, January 2020, page 1)
One-Parent Families in 2021
Based on our decades of working with people living in one-parent families, we believe that the adverse policies and laws that exist today that negatively impact on people parenting alone and their children are based on the society that required and permitted Mother & Baby Homes to function in the ways that they did. We believe that stereotypes, negative attitudes and prejudice against lone parents are still widespread in Irish society, policies and laws. We believe that this is a direct path from previous decades where discrimination was enshrined and that we are on a slow and torturous journey of change. We are now faced with an opportunity to accelerate that process so that we can fully support families that are not ‘traditional’ two-parent married families and their children.
Widely available research and census data consistently show, that living in a one-parent family in Ireland is extremely disadvantageous economically. Most poor children in Ireland live in one-parent families and they struggle with the ongoing demands of accommodation and childcare particularly on one income. Having said that, when economic and poverty issues are accounted for; children in one-parent families do just as well as other children. Therefore, issues related to structural poverty, economic exclusion and inequality can be resolved with political will.
It is our experience that some of our legal, social and policy institutions continue to work against both mothers and fathers who parent alone, or who parent outside a ‘traditional’ married family. We still have significant historical structures that preference a two-parent married family over a one-parent or unmarried family. These structures range from the highest legal levels of our Constitution through to systematic unequal treatment between one and two-parent families by various Government departments and agencies.
There is much urgent work to be completed by Government to ensure appropriate redress for living mothers and children who were in Mother & Baby Homes; redress must include all mothers who had their babies in these institutions up until they closed. Whilst we were centrally involved in securing the first social welfare payment for unmarried mothers in 1973, we know from our work in the following decades that this payment did not entirely eliminate the pressure some women experienced from society and family to hide their pregnancy and have their children adopted.
There is urgent work required to ensure that all children who were born into Mother & Baby Homes or who were adopted can have full and appropriate information about their origins, birth families, places of residence, health or medical issues and more.
While we believe the needs of survivors are paramount and must now be prioritised by all parties, we also believe the state should make a solid commitment to honour the legacy of children born into Mother & Baby Homes and make practical positive changes for disadvantaged children now.
Action 18 of the Government’s Action Plan states the following: “Children’s Fund: We will honour the memory of the children who died in Mother and Baby Homes through the creation of a specific fund which supports children who experience disadvantage in the present day.”
We believe that this fund should be used to work to ameliorate the longstanding, well-documented, systemic high poverty rates that children living in one-parent families experience. These significantly higher rates of poverty are due to numerous structural barriers mitigating against people parenting alone.
We believe that an evidence-based and adequately resourced action plan to combat child poverty is required. This would be a powerful, practical and long-lasting legacy that could serve to honour the institutional cruelty and neglect experienced by children of single parents in previous decades.
We also believe there should be symbolic reparation at a national level to recognise and celebrate unmarried families through a National Family Day where the State can work to remove the veil of shame and celebrate all families including non-traditional families. This day could be used to both commemorate and celebrate raising public consciousness so there is ongoing recognition that all children and their families need respect and support.
We also call for a Referendum on Article 41.3 of the Constitution to expand the definition of the family to provide rights and protection for all families including unmarried families and in particular unmarried mothers and their children. This will provide a significant symbol of inclusiveness and reparation on behalf of the state and the Irish people.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights indicates how a new definition of family in Ireland could be interpreted and provides a robust solution to a Constitutional amendment.
The single mothers who founded Cherish (now One Family) in 1972 and who campaigned for many years for rights for their children including the abolition of illegitimacy, the introduction of a social welfare payment, housing and much more, still feel the sting of a lack of recognition for their families. They are also acutely aware of all the mothers who wished to raise their children themselves but were unable to do so. The pain of the shame and judgment of the time can still be felt in the present day and so action is urgently required to atone and allow healing. We urge Government to adopt our recommendations in full now.