Thursday, March 09, 2017

IRL : Difference in child death figures can only be explained by order


TAOISEACH Enda Kenny said we buried our “compassion, humanity and mercy” in the “chamber of horrors” at Tuam — but the sad reality is that the grim graveyard tally is far higher and extends nationwide.

Mr Kenny’s emotional speech in the Dáil rang hollow to the parents, siblings and campaigners who have been shouting about this scandal for years, but have largely gone unheard.

As was reported in the Irish Examiner, two government departments have been in possession of a HSE report since 2012 which revealed that the order which ran Bessborough in Cork recorded 470 infant deaths in 19 years between 1934 and 1953 — a higher death rate than Tuam. 

Ironically, no one had to dig for evidence of this — the grim figure was taken from the order’s own death register and released to this newspaper under freedom of information.

The register details hundreds of children who are recorded as having died behind the walls of Bessborough. Ten women are listed, along with 470 infants.

A register for Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary lists a total of 269 deaths between 1934 and 1967. 

However, the Irish Examiner has learned that some of those buried in the plot on the site of the former mother and baby home are not listed on the register.

As well as revealing the number of baby deaths between 1934 and 1953, the Bessborough register, which runs to 52 pages, also lists each child’s date of death, former residence of the deceased, the child’s name, gender, age at last birthday, profession (which is marked “son” or “daughter” in most cases), cause of death, duration of illness, initials of the officer recording the death and the date when the death was registered.

The recorded causes of death include: Marasmus (severe malnutrition); congenital debility; gastro-enteritis; spina bifida; congenital syphilis; pneumonia; bronchitis; congenital heart deformity; tubercular peritonitis; cardiac shock; heat stroke; mastoiditis meningitis; tubercular meningitis / cerebral meningitis; congestion of the lungs; abscess of the bowel; and convulsions.

Some of the children are listed as surviving just minutes while one child is recorded as having died of “prematurity” at three years old.

The first death recorded is in February 1934 of a three-month old girl. The cause of death is listed “congenital heart”. The death was registered that same month.

The top five years in terms of the highest rates of infant mortality in Bessborough, as recorded in the register, are 1943 (75), 1942 (57), 1944 (50), 1934 (41), and 1938 (38).

The details make depressing reading. Out of the 75 deaths recorded for 1943, 16 occurred in the month of April alone. A further 14 were recorded in August. That amounts to a child dying roughly every two days in Bessborough for two full months.

Similarly, in 1942, 57 infant deaths are recorded. Eleven of these deaths are for the month of July alone. In 1944, 11 out of the yearly total of 50 deaths were in the month of January.

In 1951, just two deaths are recorded — that of a 21-month-old boy and a two- year-old boy. The cause of death in both cases is “toxaemia”.

The other most commonly cited causes of death are gastroenteritis and bronchitis. For example, all of the nine infant deaths listed in October 1941 are cited as being due to gastroenteritis.

A total of seven women resident in Bessborough are recorded as having died between 1934 and 1953.

The first of these women is listed as having died in December 1936 at the age of 21. 

Recorded as a “spinster”, the cause of death is “acute leukaemia” which lasted for three months. 

There is no entry for the date when this death was registered.

In March of the following year, a 22-year-old “spinster” is listed as having died of ”pneumonia”. There is no indication as to when the death was registered.

A 27-year-old woman, also listed as a “spinster” is recorded as having died of “pneumonia” in February of 1938. Once again, there is no indication in the register as to the date this death was registered.

Two women are recorded as having died in December 1940 — a 40-year-old “spinster” and a 67-year-old “attendant”. In both cases, the date when the death was registered is not recorded.

The last woman recorded as having died in Bessborough is the very last entry in the death register. She is listed as an 82-year-old woman who died of “old age” and “chronic bronchitis”. She is the only woman for which a date for the registration of the death is recorded.

By the late 1940s and the move towards legal adoption in 1952, the number of children listed as having died in Bessborough falls dramatically.

Between 1948 and 1952 just 13 children are recorded as dying. In 1953, for the first year on record, no child dies.

It’s unclear why this happens and the order confirmed to Tusla via its solicitors in 2014 that it does not hold any other death register for Bessborough.

However, the records show the figures do not add up, with the religious order that ran the mother and baby home reporting higher levels of deaths to the State than their own records were showing.

AN INSPECTION report from the Department of Local Government and Public Health (DLGPH) by inspector Alice Litster in late 1944 revealed that between March 31, 1938, and December 5, 1944, 353 infants died in Bessborough (out of 610 births).

Ms Litster stated the figures for 1939 to 1941 “were furnished by the superioress”, while those for 1943 and 1944 had been “checked and verified and their accuracy can be vouched for”.

However, the order’s own death register — supplied by the Registrar General for Ireland “for the purpose of facilitating the accurate registration of deaths” in Bessborough — for the same time period records 273 deaths. That is a discrepancy of 80 deaths.

Take the figures for 1939 to 1941: For the year ended March 31, 1939, the DLGPH inspector was told 38 infants died. This is also what is reported in the death register.

However, for the following two years, the order informed Litster of higher numbers of deaths. For example, for 1940, Ms Litster was told 17 children died. The register records eight. Similarly, for 1941, the DLGPH was told 38 children died, whereas the register records 22.

For every other year cited by Ms Litster, the figures given to the DLGPH are significantly higher than what is recorded in the order’s own register. This is particularly the case for year ending March 31, 1943, and 1944. 

In these years, Litster reports that 70 and 102 infants died, respectively. In the latter figure, this amounted to a death rate of 82% in that year.

However, again, these figures differ greatly to the order’s death register, which records 55 and 76 infant deaths in these years. For 1944, this brings the death rate from 82% down to 62%.

This 82% death rate had caused such concern at government levels that it was in regular contact with the head of Bessborough.

The anomalies raise an obvious question — why was the order content for a DLGPH report to publish higher numbers of deaths than it was recording itself?

The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary is the only body that can provide an answer to all of this. It declined to answer a series of queries posed by this newspaper, stating it was dealing directly with the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on all such and related matters.

It stated in the past that it reported all deaths to the appropriate authorities at the time.
The question then is what is the correct number of deaths for this period? 

Where are the other 80 children listed as having died at Bessborough in the DLGPH report?

Why were their deaths not recorded in the order’s death register? 

These are questions which must be answered, whether by the order or by the commission.

Apart from uncovering a death rate higher than that found in Tuam two years later, the report on Bessborough also raised concerns that deaths may have been falsified so children could be “brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic”.

The report also outlined a system of “institutionalisation and human trafficking”, in which “women and babies were considered little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders”, in an institution where women were provided with little more than the care and provision given to someone convicted of a crime against the State.

It revealed evidence from an admission book from 1929-1940 that adoptive parents were charged a sum ranging from £50 to £60, payable on a monthly scheme in exchange for their child, before advising that “further investigation into these practices is warranted”.

While no specific criteria for assessing adoptive parents could be found, minutes from meetings of the Sacred Heart Adoption Society’s board of management suggested prospective adoptive parents were assessed “on the basis of their earnings, the size and condition of their home, and their social status within the community (not to mention the fundamental expectation that couples were practising Catholics)”.

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