Report backs case for collecting DNA samples of Tuam survivors

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By Megan McDermott

The Irish Minister for Children Katherine Zappone has recently announced that a programme could be set up to gather voluntary biological samples from potential relatives of the bodies found in an unmarked mass grave at the Tuam mother and baby home, Co. Galway. 

The Minister has made public an independent report into the home, where unmarried mothers were often sent to give birth. It is believed that 796 children died there with no official record of their burial. 

The report followed a call from a group of survivors and relatives of women and children formerly at the home which closed in 1961. The group called for DNA samples to be collected as a matter of urgency considering the age and deteriorating health of some of those still hoping to identify their relatives and have the bodies returned to them for burial.

The report concluded that it should be possible to begin the voluntary sample collection without waiting for the new legislation the Department of Children has been working on in response to the Tuam case, which first came to public prominence in 2014. 

Ms Zappone said: “I am very sympathetic to the concerns of survivors and family members that their age and health profiles introduce an element of urgency when it comes to the collection of biological samples.”

She said the report gave her “strong hope” that a programme could be established to collected samples from survivors and relatives in the coming months.

However, the report and the department agree that the extraction of DNA results from those samples or from the juvenile remains would not begin until the appropriate legislation is passed. According to the department, drafts of that legislation are due to reach the parliament by the end of October while enactment of the bill could take longer. 

The Minister said: “It is not yet clear whether or not it will be possible to generate DNA profiles from the juvenile human remains that are of such a quality that will result in them being capable of yielding familial matches. But I do not believe that this should be a barrier to hope and I am keen to give every possible opportunity to survivors and family members to try and identify the remains of those who they hold dear in their hearts.”

The existence of the grave was made known in 2014 through the efforts of amateur historian Catherine Corless, who managed to obtain the death certificates of 796 children who died at the home. An excavation of a site at the home began in 2016 and confirmed the presence of ‘significant quantities’ of human remains.

Speaking to VIEWdigital, Ms Corless welcomed the proposal to gather samples but said that her most recent discussions with the minister made it clear that the wait for legislation to allow for DNA analysis would likely run into next year.

“Our biggest fear is a new party might come into power and not be as compassionate to us as Minister Zappone’, she said.

“It’s going at a snails pace since remains were discovered. But we have to keep reminding them. We’re still here. We’re still waiting.”

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