By Valerie Robinson
Irish News
20 July 09

ONE OF THE FORGOTTEN: Now resident in England, having ‘taken the boat’ to escape Ireland like many in his situation, Derek Leinster suffered extreme neglect during his childhood while in a home set up to cater for ‘fallen’ Protestant women and their children and while in foster care in Co Wicklow

Derek Leinster is a victim of institutional neglect but he has not been able to tell his story to the Republic’s authorities and was not mentioned in the Ryan report – because he was raised a Protestant.

Now aged 68, Mr Leinster was born in the Bethany Home in Rathgar, Dublin, in 1941. His mother, a member of the Church of Ireland, had become pregnant after a relationship with his Catholic father.

Then aged 18, his mother, who was not married, spent four months in Bethany before giving birth. When the baby was four-and-a-half months old she left the institution, eventually settling down in England. The infant was left behind.

Bethany Home was set up in 1922 to cater for ‘fallen’ Protestant women and their children. It was managed by an interdenominational committee from various Protestant churches.

Like the Catholic-run Magdalen laundries and orphanages, those charged with the care of the women and children were allowed to act with little interference from the state.

At age seven-and-a-half months, Mr Leinster got a reprieve from the squalor and neglect in the home when he was placed with a family in temporary foster care.

“I’ve spoken to the son of the woman who took me who remembered that my head was covered in scabs,” he said.

“He said I looked like I was out of a coffin. I stayed with that family until I was about two and a half before going back to Bethany House.”

Just months later Mr Leinster says he was placed in an isolation unit in a fever hospital after picking up a number of infectious diseases through neglect. He stayed there for more than four months.

For some children who survived their early years in Bethany Home life would dramatically improve when they were fostered by “decent” families.

Unfortunately, young Derek Leinster did not fare well after he was farmed out to a Protestant couple in Co Wicklow at the age of four.

His foster father was an alcoholic who rarely found work – leaving his family in dire circumstances. The household had no gas or electricity and their new foster son often went without food or adequate clothing.

He was frequently told that his foster parents could return him to Bethany House whenever they wished – and when the husband was drunk he often battered the boy with a belt.

The couple, who had lost a son to pneumonia and were already struggling to raise a daughter and young baby, should not have been given a child to foster. However, there were far fewer Protestant than Catholic families available – and the Protestant authorities were determined to keep children within their own faith.

After the death of his foster mother from Tuberculosis Mr Leinster recalls surviving his childhood in Co Wicklow by drinking goats’ milk and stealing potatoes from a neighbouring farm.

Almost illiterate and showing all the signs of extreme neglect, he was treated as an outsider by his foster family and by neighbouring children.

Like so many of his Catholic counterparts who spent their childhoods in industrial schools or working as cheap labour for farmers, Mr Leinster was desperate to get out of Ireland. Like them, he ‘took the boat’ to England at 18.

Despite his poor reading and writing skills, he found work in the construction industry, eventually setting up his own firm.

At age 26 he married Carol, the mother of his four daughters, who helped him in his life-long search to trace his roots.

The couple managed to track down Mr Leinster’s mother, who now lives near Dorchester. He has met her twice.

“When I was in Wicklow I found my [foster] papers. I put them in a biscuit tin and buried it. Without those I would never have been able to find my mother. But I don’t expect to meet her again.

“She told me that she was very young when she had me and had left Bethany Home trying hard to forget what had happened to her. Like me, she was a victim of the prejudices of society.”

Mr Leinster’s birth-father had passed away before he found his Catholic relatives but he has been told by his half-brothers and sisters that their father had been unable to find out where his baby son had been sent.

Now a grandfather of nine, Mr Leinster has written two books about his life – Hannah’s Shame and Destiny Unknown – and is determined to fight for justice for those the Irish state seems determined to forget.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, focused its decade-long investigation into the physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect suffered by children placed by the state in the care of 18 Catholic religious orders.

And the government’s Residential Institutions Redress Board has no remit to compensate former Bethany residents. It can only consider the cases of those “abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions subject to state regulation or inspection” and under the legislation which governs it.

Now living in Rugby, Mr Leinster, whose health has been affected by childhood neglect, is battling to ensure that the government is not allowed to ignore the Bethany children.

His campaign has been supported by Labour Party TD Joe Costello, who has said the “state should not now prolong [former residents’] agony by quibbling over legalisms”.

The Dublin deputy has rejected a government claim that no records exist to suggest Bethany Home was ever regulated or inspected by the state, saying it has already been proven that major gaps exist in the official records and files of the period in question.

Mr Leinster, who is in the process of setting up a support and campaign group for former Bethany residents, is calling on the government to include them in its compensation scheme.

He also wants a full public inquiry into Bethany Home, its high infant-fatality rate and former residents’ accusations of extreme neglect.

“I want the Irish state to include Bethany Home in the list of institutions under the Redress Bill,” Mr Leinster said.

“I want the Irish state to apologise to non-Catholic and mix-faith children who were excluded from society when they were born and are being excluded from society today.

“I belong to a section of the Irish community that has been ignored — that has to change.”

• For further information see www.derekleinster.com

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