From 1859 to 1969, 105,000 children were taken into industrial homes in Ireland.
They were often large and uninviting, designed to make economies of scale, with staff morale poor and workers displaying aloofness from charges who may have been orphaned or separated from their mothers because they were born out of wedlock.
Christine Smith QC said institutions were run during the Victorian era of the 1800s by religious orders for spiritual purposes. Rehabilitation entailed turning the child into a productive member of society.
“By placing children in institutions, as they saw it, souls were being saved from corruption,” the senior lawyer to the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry added.
Catholics held to the 19th century ideal of redemption and rehabilitation long after that period had ended. Only those discounted as unredeemable were left to the state’s care.
Many were from unmarried mothers and therefore illegitimate in the eyes of the church. In 1959 two out of three of the children in care in the six largest voluntary homes in Northern Ireland were there because they were illegitimate.
Others were removed from their families because their relatives were too poor to look after them.
Following the Nazi Blitz of Belfast in 1941, the full scale of the destitution of the surviving population became clear. Many were placed in homes because their families were unable to feed them but inside they also suffered from inadequate attention.
During the 1950s the state began to make provision for welfare in Northern Ireland, following the example of Great Britain.
However many Catholics continued to rely on voluntary children’s homes provided by religious orders, viewing the state’s efforts to provide welfare as interference with individual liberty, Ms Smith added.
Ms Smith said welfare reforms introduced by the Northern Ireland government after the Second World War were not adopted by some institutions.
“The evidence suggests that those homes operated as outdated survivors of a bygone age,” she added.
By 1969 the outbreak of IRA and loyalist violence during the Troubles meant children’s homes were segregated along Catholic or Protestant lines and welfare officers were unable to visit homes due to rioting and the risk of sectarian attack.
Ms Smith added: “There was an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust throughout Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland during the Troubles people lived in a constant state of vigilance. This had a detrimental effect on the mental health of society as a whole.”
In 1980s sex abuse was not a topic for conversation.
Ms Smith said: “This may be explained by the secretive nature of the abuse and the stigma that attached to the victims.”
She added: “The chances of it being taken seriously would have been much lower than today.”
What followed was the Kincora children’s home scandal in East Belfast, when leading loyalists allegedly abused young people.
Wide-ranging reforms were introduced afterwards, improving arrangements for investigating sexual abuse and improving staff morale.
But Ms Smith said it was still the Cinderella service of health care and was overly clinical; workers were detached from those they were looking after.
“Staff were...frozen into a defensive state, confused and ambivalent about the appropriateness of human relations with the children in their charge,” Ms Smith added.
Despite this, Northern Ireland had the highest level of residential workers in the UK.
By 1997, six children’s homes existed, one known as Belfast Central Mission, the five others run by Catholic orders. By 2000 only one remained.