The fate of infants who may have died in baby homes in Northern Ireland remains a huge unanswered question, MLAs have been told.
Judith Gillespie, who chairs Stormont’s inter-departmental working group examining the operation of mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries, told the Assembly’s Health Committee that issues around missing death records should be a key focus of any future investigation into the institutions.
An expert panel has been commissioned to work with survivors of mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries to design the shape of a future investigation. A public inquiry is among the options available.
The panel was formed after Stormont-commissioned academic research on the institutions laid bare the suffering and degrading treatment experienced by thousands of young girls and unmarried women, and their children, who passed through the facilities.
Many children born in mother and baby homes were ultimately moved to homes solely for babies.
Giving evidence to the committee on Thursday, Mrs Gillespie said time constraints on the academic research meant it had been unable to fully explore concerns around missing records on what happened to many of the babies.
She said sampling of records from one baby home in Belfast suggested very high infant mortality rates.
“It (the research) just scratched the surface of this issue, what it discovered raised really big questions regarding what happened to the babies who ended up in baby homes or indeed were fostered or boarded out, as the term was back in the day,” said Mrs Gillespie.
“And that’s a huge unanswered question.
“Because of the time limitations on the research, they just weren’t able to get into this in any detail, but the sampling that they did do with regard to the one baby home on the Ormeau Road was really quite alarming with regard to the mortality rates of infants who ended up in the baby homes.
“And we know that a very significant percentage of babies who were born to girls and women in mother and baby homes ended up in separate baby homes, and indeed were fostered or boarded, and there just isn’t that trail of outcomes from birth to what happened to them. It wasn’t possible for the researchers in the time that they had to answer those questions.
“So any inquiry and the investigation that comes out of this, I think that will be a very significant plank of that investigation. Again that’s up to the panel to decide what that looks like, but, for me, that’s a really important part of the investigation because the babies who died don’t have a voice.”
Sinn Fein committee member Caral Ni Chuilin had raised concern about missing death certificates.
“I think that has been absolutely traumatic for the generations of families who’ve maybe just discovered that this happened, didn’t know and are going through their own truth recovery process and trying to locate those public records and they are simply not there,” she said.
“We now know of one family of an elderly relative, a really elderly relative, a couple of years ago who was dying and made this massive disclosure, and the family have been trying to locate records and they’re not there, the birth certificate, and indeed they don’t know if the child survived or not.”