Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Ann Lovett: Silence that will never be broken

http://www.irishexaminer.com/media/images/e/exam310114AnnLovettGrotto_large.jpgSHE was a darling daughter, her death notice said, and a happy, intelligent, interested girl, according to her school.

Yet whenever the name of Ann Lovett comes up, the words used to describe her are heavy with tragedy, and, 30 years on from her death, little has changed in the way her story can be told.

It remains a painful, shameful episode in the country’s social history.

Just 15 years old, Ann left class at the Mercy College in Granard, Co Longford, during a wet and windy lunchtime on Jan 31, 1984, made her way to the local grotto and gave birth to a baby boy under the watch of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

She was found several hours later by some boys on their way home from school, the stillborn infant wrapped in his mother’s coat and Ann near death from cold and shock.

She died shortly after being brought to hospital, was buried a few days later and became an international news story before the flowers on her grave had begun to wither.

Everyone wanted to know how a girl from a family of nine siblings in a town of barely a 1,000 people could have carried a baby to term without anyone finding out, if indeed her pregnancy was the secret the community claimed it to be.

Questions were asked about what kind of society made a bright girl feel unable to ask for help or undeserving of support at what must have been the most frightening time of her life.

Demands were made for action to ensure nothing like it happened again.

Three decades on, Ireland is a different country to the one in which Ann Lovett lived and died.

Much of the secretive, subservient nature of society has been cast off by the child abuse scandals that shamed Church and State.

There is a far greater openness to discussion of sex and sexuality, and a far less judgmental attitude to unplanned pregnancy.

Children of unmarried parents are no longer denigrated as “illegitimate” since the Status of Children Act abolished the term and the legal inferiority it conferred.

The Unmarried Mothers’ Allowance, and the antipathy it attracted, has vanished, to be replaced by the One Parent Family Payment.

The complexities of relationships, relationship failure, and the right to move on from it, has been acknowledged by the introduction of divorce.

It is compulsory for schools to provide sex education, same-sex couples can be legally recognised through civil partnerships, the morning-after pill is available over the counter in pharmacies, and GAA stars and aspirants to Áras an Úachtaráin can let the world know they’re gay.

There are also far fewer teenagers having babies than there were in 1984. According to the HSE’s Crisis Pregnancy Programme, the fertility rate among girls aged 15-19 was around 23 for every 1,000 in that age group, a figure that has fallen to 12.

In the years 2001 to 2012, the actual number of births in this age group fell from 3,087 to 1,639 — a drop of 47%. The reduction is not, as some might presume, made up for by a rise in the number of abortions, as the number of Irish teenagers opting for termination has always been very low and halved over the 10 years to 2012.

That’s the good news. However, a fertility rate of 12 is still quite high by OECD standards. The Netherlands, which has the lowest rate, is at just 3.5. And there were still 115 births to girls aged 16 or under in 2012 — one every three days — and 36 of those were to girls aged 15 or under.

A report published this week by the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland on alcohol, sexual activity, and consent also found worrying evidence that teenagers struggle to assert themselves in resisting pressure to have sex, have a poor understanding of what constitutes consent, and are made extremely vulnerable by their overwhelming tendency to link sex with alcohol.

The findings moved Youth Affairs Minister Frances Fitzgerald to say: “The RCNI research questions whether we are giving our young people the skills to negotiate their adult relationships.

“Is the education system reaching out to them enough so that they can make informed choices about their sexual activity, as opposed to uninformed or pressurised choices, which in some cases, as the report examines, leads to sexual violence and rape?”

Niall Behan, CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association, echoes those concerns, particularly around sex education which, while mandatory in schools, is of varying quality.

“There are serious issues around sex education, in that it’s so inconsistent and so uneven in terms of how and where it’s implemented,” he says.

“You can have schools in the same town taking very different approaches to sexuality education. There is a very good programme there but the word that keeps coming up about how it’s implemented is ‘patchy’.

“What teachers will say is that it’s a crowded curriculum, they will say it’s difficult to teach, and it certainly needs a different approach to teaching standard subjects.

“The other concern is access to contraception. We know that access to contraception has improved immensely but, for young people in particular, there are two stand-out issues.

“One issue is the cost — it’s expensive. The other issue is the law. It’s still very unclear for young people what the reaction of a doctor or a pharmacy might be if they go to access contraceptive services.”

The age of consent for sex is 17, so medics must use discretion if a person under 17 seeks contraception, using health professional guidelines that have no legal basis to assess whether the youth is mature enough and is making decisions of their own free will.

That’s unfair on both parties, says Behan, and discourages teenagers from making wise choices around contraception, because they fear both being refused and having parents notified.

“What we’ve done is we’ve used the criminal law to try to regulate the behaviour of young people and it’s so unclear at the moment that young people don’t know where they stand,” says Behan.

Another focus of the IFPA’s work is helping parents educate their children about sex and sexuality.

Despite all the changes over the past 30 years, today’s parents can still find themselves utterly unprepared to tackle the subject, and the IFPA has set up the Speakeasy programme to try to tool them up for the job.

“For a lot of us, even though we feel that this is the right thing to do — to talk to our children — we weren’t brought up with the language or the tools or the confidence to be able to do it,” says Behan.

“But when you look at the countries with low rates of teenage pregnancy, they are relying on good conversations with parents, and with young people feeling confident and being empowered to know when they are ready for sex and the consequences of sex so that’s the bit we really need to focus on.”

One change the IFPA has noticed over the years is that teenagers now come to crisis pregnancy counselling sessions — and more importantly, they come with a parent. “In fact, it would be very rare for a teenager to come without a parent,” says Behan.

That often means the parents have a view on what should be done, so it can be a challenge ensuring the young person’s preferences are heard.

But at least they’re talking, at least they’re open, at least they’re committed to working together.

In Granard, however, people who lived through the turmoil that followed Ann Lovett’s death are still reluctant to talk about her.

The feeling that the town is still being judged remains and there is a strong instinct to protect Ann’s mother, Patricia, who still lives there.

Patricia Lovett lost another daughter, 14-year-old Patricia, to an overdose of prescription drugs just three months after she buried Ann, and her husband, Diarmuid, died of a stroke three years later, so local people are loathe to add to her suffering.

Sean Howard taught in the local boys’ school in 1984 and remembers the upset. Now retired and a member of Granard Town Council, he believes the town’s reputation suffered unfairly.

“Granard was no different from any town at the time,” he says. “I don’t see that we were all backwoods men in Granard.

“I know very little about the situation personally. That was a thing a lot of people said at the time but it was true. It’s not that small a town and we don’t all know everything about each other and we didn’t then either.

“That’s all I could say really. I know Mrs Lovett to talk to and I know it’s very traumatic for her to have to live through this again and again every time there’s an anniversary and I don’t want to add to her trauma.”

Retired community worker Sr Maeve Brady, a member of the Mercy Order in Granard and a friend of Mrs Lovett, expresses much the same view.

She has never said much publicly about the tragedy, but spoke out on the 20th anniversary of Ann’s death in a letter to a newspaper in which she referred to Granard’s feelings of “immense loss and sadness” and criticised the “insensitive comment” the town and its people had endured.

She wrote: “The reality for us is that loyalty, solidarity, friendship, respect and, above all, hope, have undergirded and strengthened our living. Let no-one assume otherwise or call our response a hostile silence.”

Asked for comment for this current anniversary, she declined and urged a re-reading of her 2004 remarks.

“I thought long and hard about writing that letter. It said everything I wanted to say and it still does.”

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