Adult adjustment of survivors of institutional child abuse in Ireland

A Brief History Of The Industrial School System In Ireland

The earliest provision in Britain and Ireland for destitute children is to be found in the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1598. It provided for the appointment in every parish of ‘overseers of the poor’ with, among other specific duties, those of ‘setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to keep and maintain their children’.

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in both Ireland and Britain, the rapid growth of populations meant that the parish ceased to be a viable unit for the administration of relief. Destitute children roamed the countryside or streets, foraging for food and pilfering for a livelihood. In Ireland, the Famine (1845–1849) made a bad situation immeasurably worse, leading to the desertion of children by parents.

On an official level, the response to this significant social problem was the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838. This established or confirmed a system of workhouses throughout the country, under the central authority of the Irish Poor Law Commissioners (replaced in 1872 by the Local Government Board for Ireland). By 1853, 77,000 children below 15 years of age (one third of them orphans), which was 6.5% of the age cohort, were living in workhouses, while an unknown number of ‘street urchins’ were still living wild in the towns.

One of the workhouse system rules was that families were forced to split, with children seeing their parents only once a week. Moreover, in the workhouses, the children had to mix with all types of adult paupers and vagrants, giving rise to the real possibility of abuse. No effective education was provided. In addition, the stigma attached to workhouses meant that they were perceived as providing charity for ‘the shameless, the idle and the shiftless’.

By 1875, there were 50 industrial schools, and the highest number of industrial schools was reached in 1898, when there were a total of 71 schools, of which 61 (56 schools for Catholics and five for Protestants) were in the 26 counties. At its height, in 1898 the population in the industrial schools was 7,998 residents, compared with the 6,000 children in the same year in the considerably less salubrious conditions of the workhouses. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century, social and economic conditions in Ireland were such that many children had to be refused places in the schools. In 1882, over 70% of committal entries to industrial schools were made under the category of begging.

26 CICA Report Vol. III Confidential Committee

Pathways to Industrial and Reformatory Schools
4.08  Witnesses who gave evidence were admitted both directly from their parents’ home to the Schools and also from various other residential settings, including:

  • Mother and Baby Homes. These were often either the place of birth or first residence for non-marital children. A number of witnesses reported that they remained in these homes with their mothers, for up to 3 years.
  • County Homes. These were also both places of birth and first residences. Some witnesses reported being with their mothers in county homes until they were up to five years old.
  • Foster Care. Provided for infants and young children in some circumstances prior to placement in an Industrial School. Before 1983 such arrangements were also known as ‘boarding out’ or ‘at nurse’.
  • Children’s Homes. These facilities admitted infants and young children. A number of witnesses reported being placed in Children’s Homes until they were transferred to an Industrial School.
  1. 4.09  Witnesses who were admitted to Schools from the above facilities were most often non-marital children, frequently referred to as ‘orphans’. The term orphan was used by witnesses in relation to their own circumstances and in reference to co-residents who had no contact with any family outside the institution. Witnesses generally believed that these residents had been in institutions all their lives and either had no known family or their parents had died. Many later learned that they had lived with their mothers for the first few years of their lives and/or had been initially reared by relatives prior to placement in out-of-home care. A number of those witnesses who identified themselves as orphans reported that frequently their mothers had, for various reasons, been unable to support them. The majority of these witnesses had known little or nothing about the circumstances of their admission to out-of-home care. This lack of information included not knowing where they had been born, who their mothers and their fathers were, whether they had siblings, why their parents were unable to care for them and who decided they would be admitted to the Industrial School system. In many instances information available to witnesses through Freedom of Information legislation and other sources in later years indicated that they were not in fact orphans. Witnesses described learning that their parents, particularly mothers, had made representations to the authorities to have them placed close to where they lived.

1 For example: as witness evidence is presented according to the decade of discharge, a witness who spent 12 years in a school and was discharged in 1962 will have been included in the 1960s cohort although the majority of that witness’s experience will relate to the 1950s.

Adult adjustment of survivors of institutional child abuse in Ireland 


To document the adult adjustment of survivors of childhood institutional abuse.


Two hundred and forty-seven adult survivors of institutional abuse with a mean age of 60 were interviewed with a protocol that included the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, modules from the Structured Clinical Interview for Axis I Disorders of DSM IV and the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM IV Personality Disorders, the Trauma Symptom Inventory, and the Experiences in Close Relationships Inventory.


The prevalence of psychological disorders among adult survivors of institutional abuse was over 80% and far higher than in the normal population, with anxiety, mood and substance use disorders being the most prevalent diagnoses. Survivors also had high rates of trauma symptoms and insecure adult attachment styles, and these were higher for those who had experienced both institutional and intrafamilial abuse.


There was an association between the experience of institutional abuse in childhood and the prevalence of adult mental health problems, particularly anxiety, mood and substance use disorders.

Practice implications

Policies, practices and procedures should be regularly reviewed and revised to maximize protection of young people in institutional care. Evidence-based psychological treatment should be made available to adult survivors of institutional abuse.

This study was funded by a grant from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


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