Dáil debates

Friday, 9 May 2014

Open Adoption Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]


11:00 am

Photo of Anne FerrisAnne Ferris (Wicklow, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to bring this legislation before the House and congratulate the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on his appointment. I hope this is the first Bill he will see safely through the Houses of the Oireachtas to completion. It is a good Bill and I am pleased to see the Minister in the House.

The Bill may be short in words - it is barely over one page in length - but it comes from many lifetimes of experience of adoption, including my own. If it has a positive impact on the life of even one adopted child, it will be worthwhile. If it can change broader attitudes to adoption from a state of secrecy and control to ones that value the bond with natural family members, it has the potential to be truly reforming.

I will outline what the Bill proposes. It is an amendment to section 58 of the Adoption Act 2010, the current wording of which extinguishes all rights of the natural parents and their relatives on the making of an adoption order. This means that in circumstances where a natural mother, father, grandmother or grandfather wishes to maintain even minimal contact with the adopted child, perhaps on his or her birthday or at Christmas time, there is no opportunity under the current law to give the adopted child a right to such access. The current adoption law is like a door that slams shut after the adoption. The child is on one side of that door with his or her new adoptive parents. The natural parents, the grandparents and birth family of the child are on the other side and the door is firmly locked and sealed. There is not even room to slide a birthday note or a Christmas card under it. There is no gap for an adoptive parent to slip to the natural mother a First Holy Communion or graduation photograph. There is no right of contact. The Bill seeks to open that door. It will allow the adoptive and natural parents of a child to come together to formalise an agreement on visitation rights for the child.

Under the Bill, the child could gain contact rights with his or her natural family through one of three ways. Prior to a new adoption, the natural parents could make an agreement with the Adoption Authority of Ireland specifying rights of access for the child to defined members of his or her natural family. The adoptive family would then adopt the child, subject to such conditions made in the interests of his or her ongoing welfare. Alternatively, after an adoption has taken place, the legislation will allow an adoptive family to make an agreement with members of the natural family on a beneficial visitation programme for the child. Third, in circumstances where there is no agreement but where a court of law is of the opinion that access would be in the child's best interests, the legislation provides a mechanism for the court to order that the child may have access to a member of his or her natural family.

Our current adoption laws are too rigidly on the side of maintaining secrecy and distance between an adopted child and members of his or her natural family. We are all aware of the long campaigns for access to even basic birth information by adopted persons. Many Deputies will have seen the Oscar nominated film "Philomena" about the long fight by Irish woman Ms Philomena Lee to make contact with her son adopted from Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea in 1955. Like many other cases, she was denied access to her son, even though the religious organisations in question were also aware that he was searching for her. Sadly, her son died prematurely before contact could be made.

The Bill will not solve the serious and scandalous problem of the denial of access to adoption files and birth records. My hope is the long-awaited legislation being drafted by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will address the problem of the right of an adopted person to his or her birth identity, but I do not deny that the Bill has a connection with that objective.

We cannot ignore the scale of the damage caused by the closed door approach to adoption. I do not doubt that, in the 1940s and 1950s, many adoptive families truly believed it was in the best interests of their adopted children to sever completely the link with their blood families. Many families, including my own adoptive parents, went to the limit of hiding the fact of adoption from the children. I did not find out about my own adoption until I was 17 years of age. Even then, the information came to me in a sudden and unmanaged manner from a sibling. I cannot begin to explain the destabilising effect of suddenly discovering, on the verge of adulthood, that in many respects one is not the person one always thought one was.

I am not alone in having this experience. Between 1952 and 1973, more than 20,000 adoption orders were made by the former Adoption Board of Ireland. That is 20,000 children, 20,000 mothers and tens of thousands of other family members separated soon after birth. Somewhere lost in these statistics is not just me but also the young son of Philomena, my own first-born daughter who was taken from me in 1972 and, as I have come to realise, many of my colleagues in the House who were adopted or had children or siblings taken from them and placed in adoption. For all of them, the door between them and their natural family members was firmly shut, at least until they were age 18 years of age. For many, despite years of pushing against that door, it has never opened.

I want us to start thinking about a new, open door system of adoption where, throughout childhood and beyond, it would be possible and seen to be natural for an adopted child to have access to his or her natural birth family. There is nothing unorthodox about this in today's world. I know many happy children who have two mothers, two fathers, two houses and many loving grandparents from different families. This changing dynamic is part of a growing awareness in society that however hard we try, relationships and marriages might not always last forever and children of one family may become part of a bigger one. As a society, we are starting to normalise broader family units.

In a way, this open family approach is not new to Ireland. Many of us have parents and grandparents who were not brought up in the same household as their fathers and mothers but who, owing to economic circumstances, were cared for by grandparents, aunts or uncles. This was a common feature of Irish society not too many generations ago. The idea of open adoption utilises this exact concept - it places the child within a broad family network. It can only be healthier for a child, where a member of his or her natural family wants to maintain contact, to have the opportunity to make that contact. For a child to know who his or her natural mother is, to have met her during childhood and be able to come to terms in a natural way with the reasons for the adoption is a kinder and healthier way to reconcile an adopted child with the facts and circumstances of his or her birth than the lifelong echo of a door slammed shut.

This concept of open adoption is not new. Some 26 states in the United States have laws that allow written and enforceable visitation agreements for adopted children and their natural families. These agreements specify the type and frequency of visits and are signed by all parties prior to adoptions being finalised. In many ways, parts of the United States are quite a bit ahead of us in terms of their acceptance of non-traditional family units. Perhaps this is because American families have been adapting to the effects of divorce and remarriage for longer than we have. There is an established tradition of the broader family network of step-sisters, half-brothers, two mothers and four sets of grandparents in American society and the sky has not fallen down.

Social workers realise that a child can be happy within a non-traditional family so long as the adults involved behave in a mature and sensible manner. The basic assumption behind the Bill is that it provides for mature adults from both the adoptive and natural families to make a sensible access agreement in the interests of the well being of the adopted child. I recognise the reality that the Bill may not at first affect the lives of many children in Ireland today. In 1955, when Philomena Lee's son was adopted, a total of 787 official adoption orders were signed. By 1972 when my daughter was placed in the adoption process, that annual figure had increased to almost 1,400 children. Few Irish children today are adopted in comparison and the majority of adopted children come from families in far-away countries. Applying visitation rights may be logistically and financially difficult for many in these circumstances, but the important change made by the Bill is that our laws, in terms of new adoptions, would no longer act like a firmly shut and tightly sealed door. Even where long-distance travel may make routine contact prohibitive, there is nothing to say an open adoption agreement could not, at the very least, include the exchange of contact details for birthday cards and other special events. These small aspects that seem incidental to so many of us can make a significant difference to the mother who has lost a child to adoption or the adopted child who has become separated from his or her birth family.

My main objective with the Bill is to begin a legislative change in the manner in which adoption is viewed. I want the Statute Book to contain the term "open adoption". The Bill can make a real difference to a small number of children. It takes away the complete and utter hopelessness for the child and natural parent separated by the firmly closed door that is current adoption legislation. However, it can also offer hope to the thousands of adopted Irish people and their parents who are still searching for one another. It can tell them that Irish legislators are awakening to the reality that the closed door adoption regime was mostly not a success. Mine was one of the lucky stories. I was reunited with my first-born daughter after 23 years. However, many people have been in touch with me, mothers and adult children who are desperate to make contact, yet they are prohibited from doing so by a closed adoption system that will not grant them access to their records. I have heard from adult adoptees who urgently need to make contact with a member of their birth families for medical reasons. I have heard several stories, including Philomena's, of adult children and a natural parent who only managed to find one another after one had died still searching for the other.

The Bill can have a positive impact for children today, but much more needs to be done for those adopted children who are now adults and the natural mothers who lost them to adoption many years ago. We can start by embracing the term "open adoption". I would like that term to start altering our collective thinking in reuniting adoptees with their birth families. There are ways of facilitating contact for adults by strengthening and enhancing the contact register system. I would love to see a modern adoption contact website on which, at the click of a button, adopted adult persons could register online their details and search for matching parents. However, natural mothers and adopted persons need far more than a modern adoption contact register. Many do not even have access to the basic information needed for such a register. We need to find a way of getting beyond the barriers currently blocking adult adoptees and their natural mothers from accessing their adoption files. The main excuse used for preventing access to this fundamental and personal information is that it would compromise the constitutional right to privacy of the natural mother if this information was made available to an adult adopted child. As one of these natural mothers of an adopted child, I firmly believe the important child-mother bond and the welfare of the child outweigh any suggested right to privacy of the mother. The mothers of Ireland have never been asked if they want the church and the State to protect their privacy in this way.

The Bill is concerned with protecting the adopted children of today.

It is an attempt to safeguard them against a future of uncertainty and the feeling of hopelessness that was illustrated so clearly by Philomena Lee in the film of her name. This Bill offers the beginning of a new, open approach to adoption in Ireland. I ask the Minister and all my colleagues in the House to support the Open Adoption Bill 2014.


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