Patricia Carey: ‘I’ve had good experiences of being adopted, but that does not mean that adoption is not difficult’

The newly appointed special advocate for survivors of institutional abuse brings an unshowy sense of determination to her mission

Patricia Carey was born in a mother and baby home, and then adopted, but it was not something she talked about when she became chief executive of the Adoption Authority of Ireland more than four decades later.

“I made a conscious decision when I worked for the adoption authority not to discuss my own personal origins,” she says. “I didn’t want it to colour my professionalism.”

But when taking up the new role of special advocate for survivors of institutional abuse in March this year, Carey felt it was important to share that she had been born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Co Cork, in 1971. She believes it gives her “a little bit of an edge” in understanding this particular part of Ireland’s dark, yet very recent, social history.

“I’d like to think that that gives me insight,” she says during her first newspaper interview as special advocate. The post was created as part of the Government’s response to the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. Although it is a ministerial appointment, after an open competition, Carey stresses it is an independent role, to “amplify” voices of survivors. She believes it comes “with the express permission to be critical” if that reflects survivors’ views of Government measures.

READ MORE

Her brief covers not just survivors of mother and baby homes, but also of the Magdalene laundries, and industrial and reformatory institutions. The total cohort incarcerated in these various institutions between 1922 and 1998 numbers about 230,000.

Carey’s priority right now is to hear people’s stories and to build trust with the dispersed community she represents. In the first seven weeks, she has already had contact from about 300 survivors, she reports, as we talk in the room allocated to her at the Pobal offices on Dublin’s Holles Street. She will be embarking shortly on trips to Cork, Tralee, Waterford, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Coventry to meet survivors. “I’m very heartened that a lot of the people who’ve contacted me are not in groups, so there are people who have never come forward before who just want to have conversations. A lot of people wanted to wish me well.”

She says “a very small number of people were very critical of my appointment, and that’s fine”. Some question her right to speak for them, while others argue that the remit she has been given is too broad. “I am willing and open to speaking to survivors who want to engage with me. Not all survivors will, and I’m very cognisant of that. I also need to be very open and honest about what I can do. I can’t individually advocate for people. I can’t take on their individual cases.”

It is the “collective issues” of survivors that she will be raising. She is required to establish a small advisory council of survivors, with 12 representatives from the various institutions, including three living overseas. “How that will be appointed, I don’t know yet.”

She says it is important that the process devised is seen to be fair. “I would like to say that by the end of this year the council will be appointed and we’ll have met at least once.”

Already she has been surprised by how many people want to tell their stories. Some are searching for information on behalf of very elderly parents. “I had one lady on, whose father is 94, and he was boarded out. It’s important to say the children who were boarded out are excluded from all of the [redress] schemes. So that’s very difficult.”

Most of them went into institutions, from which they were placed with families. “I suppose it’s the old form of fostering – but in many cases they were used as unpaid labour.”

While for some it was better than life in an institution, many had horrific childhoods, working all day, living in barns and not being fed properly. “Then, when they reached the age of majority, they just were tossed out.”

She is also struck by the relative youth of some of the survivors, even now. “A woman contacted me recently and she was in a mother and baby institution, I would say in the last 40 years, because she had been raped [at age 14] by a family member.”

Having been adopted as a baby, Carey knows first-hand how different issues stemming from that come up at various stages. “It’s part of your life forever. I’ve had good experiences of being adopted, but that does not mean that adoption is not difficult. It is a very different way of forming a family, and for some people it’s very positive. But being an adopted person is challenging, because you were separated from your family of birth – and generally that was because they were not permitted to parent you.”

The time Carey spent in Bessborough was far shorter than the six months required for children to be eligible for the redress scheme. She went on to have a very happy childhood with her adoptive parents in Dublin. “I think I was adopted at six weeks, which was the legal age that you could be adopted at.” It was organised through the Catholic adoption agency, Cúnamh, on Dublin’s South Anne Street. “I understand my birth mother would have been in one room and my wonderful adoptive parents in the next room.”

Carey considers the couple who raised her, now both deceased, as her parents. They ensured she grew up always knowing she had been adopted. “I think that was one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me.” Yet, being comfortable talking about it led to teasing at school. She was always curious about her origins too. “I think I wrote a letter to the adoption society when I was 12 or 13.”

Of tracing her birth family, she remarks that “it’s good and bad, is what I’d say. I have some close birth relatives. But I think, sometimes, what I say for myself is, ‘Be careful what you look for’.”

Beyond that, she is not keen to elaborate, being noticeably more economical with words when talking about personal rather than professional matters.

She met her birth mother “just once”. Did she find out about her birth father too? “I did yeah. I met him twice.”

For her, it was about simply meeting them. “What it wasn’t for me was creating a family relationship. I do recognise that adoption is forced family separation, but for me, I didn’t want to, or need to, or desire to create a second family. I certainly felt I wanted to meet them and was entitled to meet them and shouldn’t have been prohibited from meeting them. So that’s what was important to me.”

Carey regards the implementation of the Birth Information and Tracing Act 2022 as the “pinnacle” of her nine years’ work as chief executive of the adoption authority. Thirty years in the making, this landmark legislation gave adoptees a guaranteed right of access to any available information and records about their birth and early life. “I spent a lot of time and focus and energy in doing everything I could to ensure it happened because I was told this will never happen.”

Carey brings that same unshowy but firm sense of determination to her new mission. She is aware there are many issues survivors of institutional abuse are “concerned about, or exercised about, or even deeply unhappy about”.

Right now, because the start of the role coincided with the opening of the mother and baby institutions payment scheme, her focus is on this cohort. “The headline issues are, to be blunt, I think, the undermining of the taoiseach’s mother and baby home apology in 2021 due to the exclusion of people from the payment scheme.”

An estimated 34,000 people are covered by the eligibility criteria, and about 24,000 others are not. The scheme only applies to children who were resident for more than six months in a listed institution, while for mothers it is at least one night.

Up to May 12th, just over 2,900 applications had been received, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Disability, Equality, Integration and Youth. Payments to approved applications “are expected to begin imminently”, and the scheme will remain open for five years.

“The second thing that is causing people a lot of distress,” says Carey, “is that only two of the mother and baby homes are recognised as places where work was undertaken. Even as recently as this morning I was talking to somebody who was in a mother and baby home that’s excluded, and she said there was work being undertaken: you know, washing cloth nappies, cleaning floors, tidying – all that went on in a large institution.”

She describes as “bizarre” the inclusion of just two mother and baby homes among the institutions listed for survivors’ entitlement to work-related payments – the remainder being county homes. “What, there was only work going on in two of them? I’d say there’ll be a judicial review of that.”

The inclusion of just the Tuam Children’s Home, Co Galway and Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary was based on evidence to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation, the final report of which was published in 2021. “Let’s be honest, a lot of what’s in the commission inquiry has already been questioned,” says Carey.

She has been hearing how survivors feel the apology that followed the commission’s report has been undermined “because on the one hand the Government is saying ‘We’re sorry’, and then on the other hand they’re saying ‘but you’re excluded’”.

I suppose most of us fear that nursing home scenario, but I think it’s important to remember how real the fear could be for somebody who maybe spent a number of years in an institution – to think that they can be re-institutionalised

Another issue is that if a person is deemed ineligible at the point of application, say, for instance, that their institution is not listed, there is no appeals process. People have written to her saying they were in a place that acted as a mother and baby institution but is not among the 44 institutions listed in the payments scheme. “Multiple private nursing homes were used as quasi-mother and baby institutions, and a lot of the children from them were actually trafficked to America.”

She has been contacted by some illegally adopted individuals in the US, “who, suffice to say, did not have very happy upbringings, because a lot of the American adoptive parents had been refused certificates to adopt in the United States. So what does that tell you? The details of some of their lives were shocking.”

Carey has also encountered people unhappy about the enhanced medical card being offered to eligible survivors, believing it is too limited in what it covers. They are fearful about getting older, and want to be enabled to remain in their own homes rather than go into residential care. “I suppose most of us fear that nursing home scenario, but I think it’s important to remember how real the fear could be for somebody who maybe spent a number of years in an institution – to think that they can be re-institutionalised.”

There is a separate, big set of issues around the redress scheme for survivors of industrial and reformatory institutions, she reports. A new Bill is currently going through the Oireachtas on supports for survivors of residential institutional abuse, following the administration by Caranua of the €110 million Residential Institutions Statutory Fund among more than 55,000 people.

“They’re unhappy because again they had looked for significant health supports and payments for work – possibly pension payments into the future for work that was undertaken when they were in the industrial or reformatory institutions.”

Irish society has almost become immune now to these past horrors, she suggests, regarding them as “just another set of things that happened to people”.

Yet, the fallout from up to a quarter of a million people in institutions having been denied proper education, nutrition and healthcare continues through their families. Just as there was a “litany of wrongs in this whole history”, she believes there is going to have to be a “suite of measures” over generations.

We want to house all of the records of all the institutions, and I think this would be a massive thing for the State because they’re all over the place

She has also heard from people concerned that they may have been subjected to vaccine trials. The commission of inquiry identified 13 such trials that took place between 1922 and 1998. This is another issue she believes has not yet been fully addressed and one she may be raising with the Minister, Roderic O’Gorman.

Carey (pcarey@pobal.ie) will be closely involved with the shaping of the planned National Centre for Research and Remembrance on the site of the former Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street in Dublin 1. She will sit on the steering group, chaired by former government secretary general and current Irish Ambassador to the UK, Martin Fraser, who has asked her to bring survivors’ voices back to their deliberations.

Survivors are not one homogenous group, she acknowledges, and they hold a wide range of views. Opinions are divided on this national centre. Some argue money should not be spent on a costly memorial before the compensation and benefits being rightfully sought by survivors are properly funded. For others, these experiences are still “very raw” and “they’re not really sure they want their lives to be represented in a museum”.

She is keen to clear up some confusion. “For example, we want to house all of the records of all the institutions, and I think this would be a massive thing for the State because they’re all over the place.” However, only individuals will have access to their own records, while it is the institutional records that will be open to researchers. The centre also aims to collate and collect oral histories of experiences from people who wish to share them. As to the timeline for opening the centre: “I would like to think three-ish years.”

Earlier in her career, Carey worked just a few doors away from there, when she was director of services at St Vincent de Paul. Before that she had been a secondary school teacher for three years. “The third year I had to open the book and say, ‘the Renaissance started in…’ and I thought, I can’t do this. I was a terrible teacher, I was bored.”

Moving on to work with the Traveller community was in keeping with her career pattern of jobs “assisting people”. A proud past pupil of Loreto College in Crumlin, she now chairs its board of management. She is also chair of the national LGBTQ+ youth organisation Belong To.

Meanwhile, she is intent on spreading the word about her day job to survivors of institutional abuse, living both here and abroad. She is here to listen. “To hear what people have to say. And in some instances, it may not be very pleasant or very palatable, but people have gone through terrible experiences.”

As a Bessborough baby, hearing these stories must reinforce how she has been one of the fortunate ones in the way life turned out for her.

Read More

Recommended