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Chapter 11 — Current circumstances

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The Acts allowed the Committee to hear both evidence of child abuse and the continuing effects on the witnesses.1 This chapter refers to the adult life circumstances of the 413 male and 378 female former residents of the Industrial and Reformatory Schools who reported to the Committee regarding their experiences of childhood abuse. It summarises the information provided by witnesses during their hearings about a range of life experiences including relationships, parenting, family contact, occupational status, accommodation, health status and enduring effects on family and personal life.



Many witnesses stated that their childhood experience of abuse and emotional deprivation inhibited their capacity to form stable, secure and nurturing relationships in adult life. However, despite the emotional difficulties described by both male and female witnesses, a high proportion of them reported being married or in long-term relationships that were described as mostly happy, often enduring despite severe difficulties.


At the time of their hearing 388 of the 791 witnesses (49%), 203 male and 185 female, reported being married, 343 of those marriages were reported to be of between 20 and 60 years’ duration. An additional 70 witnesses, 40 male and 30 female, reported being in stable non-marital relationships, including 10 same-sex partnerships, seven of which were male and three were female. See the following table for details:
Duration 0–19 years 20–39 years 40–59 years Total %
Status of relationship Males Females Males Females Males Females
Married 11 34 144 128 48 23 388 49
Single 16 16 38 24 36 2 132 17
Separated 26 36 9 7 0 0 78 10
Co-habiting 34 27 6 3 0 0 70 9
Divorced 16 25 9 15 0 1 66 8
Widowed 16 32 3 5 0 0 56 7
Unavailable 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 (0)
Total 119 170 209 182 84 27 791 100


When reading the above table it is of note that at the time of their hearing 401 witnesses (51%), 240 male and 161 female, were aged over 60 years, and a further 298 witnesses (38%), 131 male and 167 female, were aged between 50 and 60 years.


Many witnesses reported that they got married within five years of being discharged from the School, often to their first boyfriend or girlfriend. Witnesses described their partners providing a sense of connectedness and stability they had not previously experienced and showing them the first real kindness they had ever known. ‘I was grateful someone wanted me, no one had before’. A large number of witnesses talked about their good fortune to have married partners whose families were supportive and kind, including them in a family network for the first time. Many witnesses acknowledged being difficult to live with but that their partners’ support and understanding allowed their relationships to be maintained.


One hundred and eighty two (182) witnesses (23%), 107 male and 75 female, reported being unable to express their feelings to their partner. In addition to the abuse experienced by witnesses, the negative attitudes to normal physical and sexual development experienced during their childhood was described as having a detrimental impact on personal relationships. Some witnesses reported that, not having experienced any demonstrations of affection as children, they were now unable to show affection but had partners who understood or accepted this difficulty.


Seventy two (72) witnesses, 19 male and 53 female, reported sexual difficulties as a significant problem in their experience of close relationships. Sixteen (16) witnesses, six male and 10 female, stated that their childhood experiences of being sexually abused contributed to confusion about sexual orientation.


Witnesses were frank in their descriptions of themselves as unprepared for marriage and family life. They reported on their difficulties dealing with emotional demands and the expectations of physical affection and sexual intimacy in the absence of any previous experience of affectionate attachment. Many male witnesses who married described the ‘wilderness’ of relationships with others, in particular with their spouse and subsequently with their children and extended families: The worst thing was not being able to relate to others, not knowing how to give and receive love. I didn’t know what love was. • When I came out ...(discharged)... I was 16, I was really one year old. I couldn’t cope, I couldn’t handle it. I know where it all went wrong, emotionally I’m a cripple.


Eighty (80) witnesses, 19 male and 61 female, reported having unhappy or, at times, ‘disastrous’ first marriages followed by happier, more stable and complementary partnerships in later years. These witnesses often reported that they married at a young age and acknowledged being too immature to cope with the demands of commitment, family life and intimacy. Many also acknowledged that poor partner choices reflected their immaturity, lack of supportive networks and their overwhelming desire for a companion. A female witness stated: ‘I got married for something to call my own.... I knew once you were married they couldn’t get you back’. Many female witnesses said that they married in the context of unplanned pregnancy and ten witnesses reported marrying before they were 20 years old in such circumstances.


Seventy eight (78) of the 413 male witnesses described being in long-term relationships that were marked by difficulties related to their own behaviour and personality traits such as the need to be alone, difficulty expressing affection, physical and verbal aggression, sexual difficulties, moodiness and an inability to provide materially for their families: It’s a darkness that they gave me. I live alone, my family don’t come near me.... My children don’t know me. ... I couldn’t relate in a normal context to my family. I didn’t know when I married my wife that I wasn’t capable of being a husband, I was 19. ... I knew I was not good enough.... I was no father at all. I remember asking “why, why did this happen to me?” • I have 2 families... (children with 2 partners)...I find it hard to stay in the relationship. That’s it, that’s the problem. I can’t seem to settle down for long, you want to be on your own a lot. Some nights when I’m home I stay in my room a lot, I like to be on my own. I never talk about it I keep it all to myself. I never see anyone from the school, it would remind you too much of it. I do get depressed at times.


One hundred and forty four (144) witnesses, 60 male and 84 female, reported that their marriages had broken down. Domestic violence, combined with emotional and sexual difficulties, was cited as a precipitating factor in most of these instances. Seventy eight (78) of those witnesses, 35 male and 43 female, were separated and the other 66 witnesses said that their marriages had ended in divorce.


Violence was reported to be a significant feature in the relationships of both male and female witnesses. Sixty seven (67) male witnesses stated that their relationships were dominated by their physically abusive behaviour towards their partners, and 49 of those witnesses stated that their violent behaviour was associated with alcohol abuse. Thirteen (13) other male witnesses reported that their marriages, either current or previous, had been marked by their violent behaviour but that time and intervening circumstances had facilitated change and that their relationships had improved.


Sixty four (64) female witnesses reported being in relationships where there were ongoing difficulties related to domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and issues related to control and authority. Some witnesses described their own contribution to these violent relationships through their tendency to be angry, quick-tempered, and verbally and physically aggressive. Thirty (30) female witnesses reported being physically aggressive or violent towards others, including their partners. Others described marrying men who controlled their lives, who taunted them about their background in an institution and perpetuated the type of abusive relationships they had previously experienced. Twenty (20) of the female witnesses who remained in violent relationships said they were accustomed to a level of aggression; as one witness commented: ‘You think everyone is going to hit you’. Many female witnesses reported that they regarded being hit as an unavoidable feature of interpersonal contact. Female witnesses who remained in unhappy marriages reported doing so for many reasons, including a sense of responsibility to provide their children with more stability and security than they themselves had experienced in childhood.


A number of male and female witnesses said that they were in long-term relationships but were unable to make a commitment in marriage, fearing they would be ‘trapped again’ as they felt they had been in the institution. Witnesses stated that other reasons for avoiding the commitment of marriage were a fear of being exposed as ‘illegitimate’ and as having been reared in an institution. Witnesses spoke about being able to maintain a veil of secrecy about their background as a single person, which they feared losing if they married: I made all kinds of excuses as why I didn’t want to get married ... the truth was it meant I would have to show my birth certificate and I was ashamed of that ... anything rather than he find out I was illegitimate, because he was a nice middle class ...(professional)....


One hundred and thirty nine (139) witnesses, 83 male and 56 female, reported life-long isolation and loneliness, often describing themselves as ‘married loners’, despite being in long-term relationships and having children. The inability to form or sustain intimate, trusting relationships was described as the inevitable result of affectionless and often violent childhoods. The wife of one witness who attended the hearing with her husband said that she lived with a ‘stranger’ and never really knew her husband. Other companions described the isolated lives some witnesses led, for example: It’s the middle of the night he ...(witness)... wakes up with these mad screams. ... He spends the greater part of his life in his room, he comes down and brings his meals up, if he falls asleep the children can hear him scream.

  1. Sections 1(1), 4(1)(a) and 16 as amended by sections 3, 4 and 11 of the 2005 Act.