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Chapter 5 — Family contact

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Family contact


This chapter presents a range of information provided in relation to witnesses’ families, including witnesses designated as ‘orphans’ who in fact had living parents. The extent of information provided by witnesses to the Committee about family contact was determined by numerous factors, particularly the availability of family information to the witnesses themselves. In most instances where family information was available, witnesses generally reported having siblings or relatives and that they lived at home or with extended family for some time prior to their admission to out-of-home care.1

Prior to admission


Witnesses who had been in care since birth were too young at the time to recall what happened to them. ‘I don’t know why I was there, where I was before, who sent me there ... no idea what happened.’ Others were unclear about the detail of their family circumstances but remembered being admitted to out-of-home care with their brothers and sisters and at times being visited by relatives. A number of these witnesses learned subsequently that they had lived with their parents and/or relatives for some time before being admitted to care, but had no sense of being part of a family network while they were in the School system. Many other witnesses had clear memories of living with their parents or with their relatives before their admission and maintained contact with their family throughout their time in institutional care.

Siblings in care


Six hundred and eighty four (684) witnesses (86%) reported having siblings, of whom 256 male (62%) and 270 female (71%), reported having brothers and/or sisters who were also in out-of-home care. A further 59 witnesses reported they did not know enough about their family circumstances to know whether or not they had siblings in care. The Committee heard evidence that 2,275 children were placed in out-of-home care from the families of these witnesses. Most, but not all, of those children were placed in Industrial Schools. A number were also placed in Children’s Homes, foster homes and other institutions.


Two hundred and fourteen (214) witnesses who attended the Committee had at least one other sibling who also attended hearings with the Committee. In total these witnesses represented 86 families.2


The most common pattern reported by witnesses admitted as part of a family group was of being taken to Court along with their siblings and from there being transferred to one or more Schools. Admissions of family groups generally occurred in the context of a family crisis or intervention in circumstances of illness, poverty or neglect. Most often siblings were reported to be separated, younger boys being sent to junior or mixed Industrial Schools and the girls were admitted to girls Schools. Boys over the age of 10 years were admitted to senior boys Schools. My first memory ... I was taken to ...named School... with my sisters in the car. ...(I was)... 4 years. ... I did observe the garda car turning into the ...named girls School... and I knew then that was where my sisters were going. My youngest brother stayed with my grandmother, we lived within a stones throw of the School. I started crying for my sisters and got a slap across the face, that was my first experience of ...named School.... • I didn’t know I had sisters until I was over 10 or so ... I wasn’t even told they ...(X and Y)... were my sisters, I thought they were just other girls that were in there like me. I didn’t know I had a brother. I was 2 when I went in there, he was in ...named boys School... When he was 16 he came to see us. ... I couldn’t believe I had a brother, there was no bond there....

Parental contact


Six hundred and twenty eight (628) of the 791 witnesses (79%), 349 male (85%) and 279 female (74%), reported having resided with parents or relatives prior to their admission to out-of-home care. Although many of these witnesses reported having no memory of family contact they became aware of their family identity in more recent years through records they obtained under the Freedom of Information Acts, 1997 and 2003 and through subsequently re-established relationships.


A further 110 witnesses (14%), 46 male and 64 female, reported being in out-of-home care, including mother and baby homes, foster care, hostels or county homes, since birth. On the basis of what subsequently became known to them about their admission many of the witnesses surmised that they were with their mothers for various periods of time from their birth before they were placed in the School system. Other witnesses reported that they learned in recent years that the possibility of their placement with members of their extended family was not explored at the time. There was a space on the form... (admission documents)...(which stated)... “Was the guardian informed?”...It just said “Nil”.There was no effort to place me with...named relative...She was quite clear she would have had me, had she known.


Fifty three (53) witnesses (7%), 17 male and 36 female, reported having been in out-of-home care since birth. At the time of their hearing no contact had ever been made by relatives or through family tracing services and they described their past as a mystery.

Role of extended family


The important role played by relatives, particularly maternal grandparents, in the lives of witnesses both before and during admission was repeatedly emphasised. Witnesses whose parents died or who were ill, hospitalised, or had abandoned their families were often cared for by grandparents, aunts, uncles and occasionally older siblings for periods of time. There were accounts heard of older children being looked after by relatives while younger siblings went into out-of-home care and of babies being kept at home either with the remaining parent or relatives while older children were admitted to an institution.


One hundred and fifty six (156) witnesses (20%), 81 male and 75 female, reported that members of their extended family, i.e. grandparents, aunts and uncles, were their primary care-givers before their admission. Sixty three (63) of those witnesses, 32 male and 31 female, reported being reared by their grandparents prior to their admission to institutional care. In most instances these subsequent admissions occurred in the context of the grandparent dying, becoming ill or too frail to provide ongoing care.


Fifty three (53) of the 156 witnesses, 18 male and 35 female, reported that they initially lived with a parent in the same house as members of their extended family. Many of these witnesses were extra-marital children whose mothers were supported by their parents and siblings until prevailing circumstances forced the child’s admission into out-of-home care.


Another 58 witnesses, 24 male and 34 female, reported that relatives lived near the family home but were unable to assist with care-giving, for reasons including poverty, lack of adequate accommodation or having families of their own to look after. A small number of witnesses reported that relatives had been prepared to provide care when a remaining or bereaved parent was no longer able to do so but such arrangements were not put in place. A small number of witnesses reported hearing that parents had not wanted their children to be separated and sent to different relatives or that proposed placements with relatives were not acceptable to the remaining parent. Several witnesses commented on the irony of being then separated for the duration of their time in institutional care.

During admission


Six hundred and eighty four (684) witnesses (86%) reported having siblings and 374 of those witnesses (47%) reported having little or no contact with any family members during their time in the Schools. As non-marital children many of those witnesses would, effectively, have had no known extended family communicating with them. I’d just like to say that the worst thing you can do to any family is separate them. The State robbed me of my childhood and my brothers and sisters. It was bad enough to be taken away from my mother and father but terrible to be taken away from my brothers and sisters.

Contact with siblings


One hundred and ninety two (192) witnesses (28%) who had siblings, 102 male and 90 female, reported losing contact with their brothers and sisters following placement in the Schools. Additionally, a number of witnesses who were non-marital children were totally unaware that they also had siblings in care. Forty three (43) witnesses, 29 male and 14 female, reported being unaware that siblings were placed with them in the same School at the time. This information was only revealed to them in later years when contact was re-established. Other witnesses reported knowing they had brothers or sisters in the same School but had little contact with them due to the regimented nature of everyday life. With few exceptions, witnesses reported that no perceivable attempt was made by the authorities to promote family contact between siblings in the gender-segregated School system in the period prior to 1970. ‘If the nuns had a Feast Day then we were all allowed sit together, all my sisters. That was the only time.’ When my father died, my mother ... looked after us, but she worked. ... We were taken to ...named School... we were separated, my brother clung to me, I didn’t know where he went. Suddenly after all the years I met my sister ... we were in the same School, they would not let us see her. About four years after I left I got to meet her. My brother was there ...(in the same School)... but we didn’t interact ever as brother and sister, we weren’t together. • I was shocked ... that was the first time I knew I had an elder brother. ... I had an inclination that I had sisters because of the situation on the beach. We wouldn’t be allowed to cross to see them....Our orphanages was brought to ...named... beach and ...residents from girls School... would have been brought down the same day, but they were kept over there ...(indicating a line in the sand).... They were there and the next thing you hear “that’s my brother ...X... over there”. I remember ...named sibling... saying it. But you weren’t allowed have the conversation, you could look across the beach and that was it, there was a line you know ... “thou shall not pass”. That line is still there, by the way, we ...(siblings)... find it hard ...(to communicate)... from lack of ... contact as children. • The only way I knew I had a brother was they used to serve Mass on a Sunday morning and that was our only chance of getting to see them. We would all see them, but they were not allowed speak to us. We were proud of them, one was very handsome.... Later when they were older they were allowed over on a Sunday but they were not allowed in, they had to stand at the door, we could talk to them there. Usually visitors were allowed into the parlour, they weren’t.


The separation of brothers and sisters from each other in the Schools was reported by witnesses to be compounded by the practice of placing siblings with different ‘foster’ or ‘holiday’ families, where contact between them could not be maintained. However, it was more often reported by witnesses discharged since the 1970s that siblings were placed together in smaller group homes or with the same ‘holiday’ families.

  1. See chapter 4: Chart 1 Pathways to Industrial and Reformatory Schools.
  2. For the purpose of compiling demographic information on the witnesses’ family background, it was necessary to include each witness’s details in the overall numbers resulting in unavoidable overlap in some categories.