Dáil debates

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

8:00 am

Photo of Bernard AllenBernard Allen (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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I will take the unusual step of not putting my case myself but of reading a letter from a constituent which says everything. I will not name the people involved, but I received the letter recently. It states:

I am writing to you on behalf of my husband and myself as I have also done in the past. You are probably well aware of the frustration caused to couples like us by Minister Barry Andrews on the lack of information and length of time that lapses between any information he decides to share with us. I would hope that you would sympathise and be willing to question Mr. Andrews on our behalf as to why he does not find it necessary to keep couples like ourselves or support groups informed of what is happening with the works being carried out to get a new bilateral agreement in place so Vietnam can once again open to people who just want to give loving and happy homes to children in orphanages in Vietnam.

We will be 17 years married [this year] and the heartache we have experienced as a childless couple has been at times extremely difficult to deal with. But when we started the road to adopt a child I really thought all the pain and anguish we experienced in the past was finally over. When Vietnam closed I was not very worried as I believed the Minister would sort it quickly. Never did I think that we would be here grasping at straws for a little bit of information about the ongoing hurdles over four months later.

Can you please, please ask Barry Andrews [I am asking him tonight] to give people an answer on whether Vietnamese officials are definitely coming to Ireland for talks at the end of September? I would think that at this stage it is either confirmed or not. Also how long more do people have to wait? Should people forget about Vietnam as a choice of country or not?

I do not think that the Government understands the difficult process we have to endure to get as far as the Adoption Board passing you as fit to adopt. When you get that declaration it means everything to couples like myself and my husband. But though this means we have the right to become a family to some child who needs us as much as we need them Barry Andrews has put a stop to this dream becoming a reality. It is one thing to have miscarriage after miscarriage and also a stillborn baby, as in our case as these are as far as I am concerned an act of God but Barry Andrews has no right to play God with our lives. We have proven we are good, honourable people and can give a child a loving, happy and secure family home. We need answers as it is ridiculous how long this is taking without any real information being shared with us. Please can you do your best to help us? The not knowing is agonising and I await your response.

All I can do is put that letter to the Minister of State tonight and ask him to give as much information as possible and, more important, hope to the people who are undergoing agony and anguish not knowing what is happening.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal North East, Fine Gael)
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I emphasise the need for calm and sensitivity in this debate. It is a very raw matter for many people and couples. There is another element in that there are many post-adoptive families and I am acutely aware of the sensitivities in this regard.

We need to hear stories. I have one from the mother of a lady in my constituency who is in this process and finds herself very much in limbo. On public radio the mother said this should not be a political issue and should be dealt with in a cross-party way as much as possible. Is there anything the Minister of State feels the Opposition side can do? There is not much to be gained by shouting across the benches because of the sensitivity around the issue. From speaking to colleagues about this I wonder if we can sit down calmly and rationally and deal with the future parents who find themselves in this limbo. It is horrific, a horror story. I had a connection with parents whose adoption process broke down some years ago. It is likened to a form of bereavement.

We must be measured but bold in our ambition concerning what we can and should do. There are legal parameters - and I know the Minister of State has a report sitting on his desk since August - and the legal issues will take time to resolve. On this side of the bench, and including the former spokesperson on Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, who spoke to the Minister of State prior to this Adjournment motion, we have the legal expertise to find a solution to this. I do not know how to go forward with this, either singularly or as a politician in Opposition. The area is raw and emotional and is much too sensitive. I cannot even begin to understand it. All politicians can do at the moment is empathise but we must be bold, measured and deliberate in trying to put something together to bring these possible future parents out of limbo.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise to the House. My voice has gone and my fellow Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney, will speak for me.

9:00 am

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The issue of intercountry adoption and, in particular, the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam has been given considerable priority by Department officials over the past year. The Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, has advised the House and parent and prospective adoptive parent representative groups on many occasions regarding the developments in those discussions. He again emphasises that the Government's objective is to provide a regime in which the child is at the centre of the adoption process, whether it is an intercountry or domestic adoption, and that adoptions are effected in a manner which is legal, safe and secure.

The most important development in achieving that objective is the development of an appropriate legislative regime which recognises the changing global situation regarding adoption over the past 20 years. The Adoption Bill, which includes the regime of the Hague Convention, provides an assurance for individual children, their families, and the State, that appropriate procedures have been followed and that the adoption was effected in the best interests of the child. A core principle of the Adoption Bill and the Hague Convention is that the child's interests must be paramount. The Hague Convention, which is given the force of law in this Bill, effectively puts in place an agreement between states to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. It is to put in place safeguards that acceptable standards are being applied in other countries, over which we have no jurisdiction.

Over the course of the past six weeks, two significant reports have been received regarding child welfare, protection and adoption in Vietnam. First, in August 2009, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, with technical assistance from UNICEF in Vietnam, published a report entitled "Creating a protective environment for children in Viet Nam: an assessment of child protection laws and policies, especially children in special circumstances in Viet Nam ". Some of the issues raised in this report had already been under consideration in ongoing deliberations of the drafting of a new bilateral agreement with the Vietnamese. However, this report has highlighted significant policy and legal implications and warrants further deliberation.

Furthermore, the Minister of State has received in draft form a report of an examination of intercountry adoption in Vietnam carried out by the International Social Services, ISS. The report was commissioned by UNICEF in coordination with the Ministry of Justice of Vietnam. It aims to identify and address problems in both domestic and Intercountry adoption processes with a view to assisting Vietnam in its preparations to ratify the Hague Convention. This report is likely to give rise to further issues that will need to be considered.

The Minister of State stresses that these two reports, both prepared in co-operation with the Vietnamese Government, and UNICEF, go to the heart of the matter regarding concerns about intercountry adoption in Vietnam. He states that he would be failing in his duty to protect children if he did not acknowledge and consider the content of these reports extremely carefully before deciding on next steps. In saying that, these reports also serve to highlight the commitment of the Vietnamese Government to ensuring that the adoption process in Vietnam is in line with the best international standards and its willingness to address issues at the core of that commitment. The Minister of State is currently awaiting finalisation of the ISS report, which is expected in mid to late October.

He is fully aware that those involved in the adoptive process are asking for a clear Government indication as to whether a new bilateral agreement will be concluded. Furthermore, they wish to be informed about a time frame for likely next steps. In meeting representative adoptive groups this afternoon, the Minister of State indicated that the Government must await receipt of the finalised ISS report before a decision can be made whether to continue with negotiations on a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam.

The draft ISS report addresses in some detail the concerns raised in the past regarding intercountry adoption from Vietnam. Given the sensitivity of matters at hand and the gravity of the decisions to be made, the Minister of State believes it prudent to await the finalisation of the ISS report. It is his view, however, that even if the decision is made to proceed with the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement, this process will take some time. It is conceivable that because of the legal complexity involved in safeguarding against the concerns referred to in the reports this process could very well run in to the early part of next year. It is important to be absolutely honest with prospective adoptive parents, many of whom are trying to plan their lives in the absence of definite timelines.

This is an extremely sensitive matter and the Minister of State is aware of the likely concerns of the many Irish families who have already adopted children from Vietnam. He consulted the Adoption Board which advised that all adoptions from Vietnam that have been registered on the register of foreign adoptions are safe and secure. There should be no doubt about the status of adoptions that have already been effected from Vietnam. These children have been adopted by loving families in Ireland and there should be no doubt concerning their status.

The Minister of State is acutely conscious of the concerns of prospective adoptive parents. Over recent months he has regularly met individual prospective adoptive parents and representative groups. He is deeply aware of the angst, frustration and emotion that prospective adoptive parents continue to experience at this time. He has communicated at every opportunity updates on these matters and has committed to continuing this process.

Regarding the processing of 20 applications, the Minister of State made a private visit to Vietnam in June to assess progress and support advancement of the discussions on a new bilateral agreement on adoption with Vietnam. In the course of discussions held during this visit, the Vietnamese authorities, as a gesture of goodwill, agreed to process the 20 cases that were received by the Department of Adoption before 1 April 2009 but for which no referral had been made prior to 1 May 2009. Several applications were already being processed under the transitional arrangements put in place by the Vietnamese side. This request and the Vietnamese accession to it, was made having regard to the very advanced stage of the applications and the very small number of applications involved. Further applications for adoption will not be considered by the Vietnamese side outside of a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

The Adoption Board has considered the situation of these 20 applications at the request of the Minister of State. The board and Deputy Andrews are satisfied there is no legal impediment in allowing these adoptions to proceed. The board has advised that, as always, registration of these adoptions will have regard to the provisions of the Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998 and will also have specific regard to relevant issues raised above. The need to ensure that appropriate arrangements to safeguard any adoptions are put in place is highlighted by the reports referred to. The Adoption Board has advised the Minister of State of its decision to seek the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs in processing the 20 applications. He considers this a prudent approach; staff of his office met with the Department of Foreign Affairs this evening with regard to these matters and he expects the processing of these 20 cases will be advanced shortly.

The granting of a declaration is not a bureaucratic process rather a quasi-judicial one which is a major step in the adoption procedure which is of significance not only to the applicants but to the child whom they will eventually adopt. The issuing of declarations of eligibility and suitability is a matter for the Adoption Board which is an independent statutory body. The Adoption Board must comply with the provisions set down in the Adoption Act 1991. Applications for an extension to the validity of a declaration must be made in the first 12 month period of validity of the declaration. The Adoption Board must also consider whether it is reasonable and proper to grant extensions for a further period. The office of the Minister of State does not have any function in relation to the matter. He has raised the matter with the Adoption Board and they have indicated that the board will be as sympathetic to such applicants as is possible within the legal framework. The Minister of State is also aware that this process has its own implications regarding the role of the Health Service Executive and he will raise the matter directly with the HSE tomorrow.