The Missing Children, (Tanya Stephan, Rachel Cumella, Paddy Garrick, Ella Newton, Brian Woods, Anne Morrison) is nominated in the Best History Doc category for the Griersons 2022 Awards. Here, Director Tanya Stephan, tells the story behind the making of the programme.
When I came across the story of the 796 missing children from the West of Ireland, I was gripped, and despite the two years it took to get it commissioned, I couldn’t give up on it. I knew about the institutions where unmarried mothers had to surrender their babies, from the film Philomena, but there was an even darker story to tell.
Children at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home died at a rate five times higher than the national average while it was run by the Catholic Bon Secours nuns. There were no burial records for these children, and a significant number of remains were found in a disused sewage tank. There were many unanswered questions about the past. But the biggest questions were in the present – why was there still no full excavation of the sewage tank, and no criminal investigation into what happened to these children? Why was this story still being covered up?
(Photos: on location)
A local historian had uncovered this shocking story that made headlines around the world, but we needed to gather all the threads and take the research further. I wanted this film to meticulously unravel a mystery that got bigger the deeper we looked. And it took time and care building trusting relationships with survivors, family members and their support groups. Mothers and children from these institutions had been shamed into silence for decades, and many adoptees had never been told where they came from. Finding contributors who were adopted from Tuam to America felt like a needle in a haystack.
Crucially, we needed to find documents and archive that could give us hard evidence to show that the nuns operated illegally, and profited financially from the neglect and trafficking of children. But the Bon Secours nuns, and the government bodies that hold most of these documents won’t release them.
A year into development, thanks to securing investment from Nevision, I had a major breakthrough. Kathy Bellise a woman in her 60’s living in Long Island, responded to an appeal we’d put out in a magazine for Irish Americans. She’d been adopted from Tuam in 1959 and her parents had left her a box of all their correspondence with the nuns, and amazingly, the only super 8 footage ever taken of the Tuam home. Kathy had also just found out through a DNA test that she had a brother and sister living in England - and she wanted to meet them. Kathy’s story and her archive was a missing link and a gift that made the film possible.
(Photos: Kathy Bellize arriving in NY, 1959 & Patrick Naughton holding photo of himself, Tuam Adoptee)
The difficulty of getting this project commissioned became our strength, giving us time to research and uncover this important piece of history, and to develop a visual language for the film. It was an incredible experience, and a privilege to work with such courageous contributors, bringing a huge and relatively unknown story to light.
Watch the full documentary of The Missing Children (True Vision, Nevision – ITV) on the ITV Hub here or check out Tanya's Vimeo page here.
For a list of all nominees, click here and buy your tickets for the 2022 Griersons Awards, 10th Nov @ Queen Elizabeth Hall SE1 here. If you can't make it on the night, watch the live stream of the ceremony here.
Article written by Tanya Stephan, Documentary Director, The Missing Children