Thursday, 26 November 2009
Adoption Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important Bill. Many Deputies in this house have received correspondence on the bilateral agreement with Vietnam, which has been allowed to lapse since May. No interim arrangements were put in place while we waited for the incorporation of the Hague Convention into our adoption legislation.
It beggars belief that the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children knowingly allowed this agreement to peter out over the previous 12 months without doing anything. The worst aspect was his inability to communicate with prospective adoptive parents. I have been contacted by a number of families in County Clare about the issue. They are concerned that the lack of communication from the Minister of State's office implies a serious lack of urgency.
Between 400 and 500 declarations of suitability are issued annually by the Adoption Board. To my knowledge, 20 people are at an advanced stage in the process of intercountry adoption with Vietnam. I am glad the Minister of State acknowledged the debacle that has occurred this year but his admission is of little comfort to those who have been so badly affected. Ireland signed the Hague Convention in 1996 but we are only now getting around to the issue of a child centred adoption process. Substantial elements of our legislation were introduced through Private Members' motions tabled by my colleague, Deputy Alan Shatter, who has professional expertise in family law. The Minister should use the contributions made by the Deputy throughout the process of adopting this Bill on Committee Stage.
The assessment process proposed in the Bill regarding the suitability to adopt appears ridiculous in that it can take a couple or individual up to three or four years to be assessed. It must be recognised that people now marry and start families at a later age in life. Prospective parents, through no fault of their own, can become bogged down in our system and may be deemed unsuitable to adopt on age grounds or simply because the system is slow. Waiting times for assessment need to be reduced. In addition, those who have been assessed for adoption should not be scrutinised each time they subsequently seek to adopt. There is no legitimate reason not to reflect in the adoption process the reality that couples have children later in life and life expectancy for both men and women is increasing.
Social workers are supposed to carry out between 18 and 20 assessments per annum. The current average of between eight and ten assessments per annum indicates that there is a problem with the process. The timeframe for completing assessments also varies geographically. A person who lives in one part of the country could have an assessment completed in between 12 and 18 months, while a person living in another location could wait for up to five years for an assessment to be completed. This is a disgraceful and wholly unacceptable discrepancy which must be addressed in the legislation. We must not have a nod and wink approach or the use in the legislation of the phrase "as soon as practicable" in connection with the completion of assessments.
A "grandfather clause", as recommended by the Law Reform Commission, is not included in the Bill. As the legislation stands, families who have adopted a child from a country which falls outside the restrictions are prevented from adopting a second child from the country in question. In many cases those involved in inter-country adoption seek to build families with more than one child from the same country or with a similar background and experience. The absence of a grandfather clause could result in children being precluded from growing up with a sibling who shares his or her culture and comes from their country of origin. This restriction would not serve the best possible interest of the adopted child who lives in a family which wishes to adopt a second child from the same country. The absence of a grandfather clause could also mean that if a biological sibling were to become available for adoption, the parents would not be able to adopt the sibling. The Minister must consider this discrepancy and amend the Bill accordingly. Many Deputies argued in favour of the inclusion of a grandfather clause.
We have an opportunity to establish robust adoption legislation, both from an inter-country perspective and in terms of domestic processes and laws relating to children and parents. The Bill, as proposed, has many shortcomings and is not particularly comprehensive. I hope that during its time in the Oireachtas it will be developed and improved.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Adoption Bill. I pay tribute to the Adoption Board, despite its shortcomings. The sensitivities involved in adoption make it a highly demanding area which requires great care. As a public representative and parent, one of my most pleasurable experiences has been to observe the great joy adoptive children bring to adopting parents. Not even the winning of the lottery could bring the same degree of joy and hope that an adoptive child brings to a family.
As Deputies are aware, adoption works in two ways. When a child, whether Irish or from any country in the world, becomes available for adoption, he or she may have the good fortune to become a member of a loving, caring home in which he or she is looked after in the same manner as biological children. Many couples who have adopted children on the basis that they could not have children have subsequently had their own children. I have never seen a rift of any description between adopted and biological children in the families I know. This demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that human nature is able to recreate the special bond between a parent and biological child with adopted children.
The work of the Adoption Board has changed dramatically over the years. I am informed that few children are available for adoption in Ireland. For obvious reasons, couples have, for many years, looked elsewhere for opportunities to adopt. Irrespective of the country from which children are adopted, the adoption process, from the first to the final day, is extremely difficult. I have been through the process with a number of families over the years.
While the Bill has some shortcomings on which I will not have time to speak in detail, I welcome most of its provisions. Shortcuts must not be introduced and the principles involved in adoption must be adhered to at all times. Adopting parents must always be suitable, an observation which some would argue is infant class stuff. It is vital, however, that this fundamental principle is applied irrespective of the pressures in society. We must ask whether a prospective adopted child will be cared for in a loving manner and provided with the best care possible given that his or her biological parents are unable to provide such care. It is the responsibility of the authorities, in this case the Adoption Board, to ascertain as best they can, under a variety of headings, whether the prospective adoptive parents will be able to raise the child with loving care and attention and do all the things all parents would like to do for their children. In my long career, I have not encountered any problems in this regard, although I am sure difficulties arise on occasion. I have not seen much trouble, so I have to take it that the selection process has been good but extraordinarily tortuous.
This is a technical matter. I am not sure whether those in charge at the HSE can make up their minds. If they can do it in 18 months in some parts of the country, but it takes five years in other parts, is it because the staff are not there? Is it because the rules are different? I know they are not. There must be some reason that it takes two or three years to get off the starting blocks in some parts of the country.
I hope this Bill will standardise the eligibility to become adoptive parents. I have never seen such anxiety caused by the wait for the letter to prospective adoptive parents informing them of the success or otherwise of their application. I have known couples who have tried every possible way of having a baby. They put thousands of euro that they did not have into this. I know of people who borrowed the cost of their own house to do it, because there was nothing as important on earth to them as having a baby in the house. It is very important that we should at least shorten the anxiety period for them when we know it can be done so quickly in some parts of the country. There is an effort in this Bill to do that, and I heard the Minister of State say this a few times outside the Dáil.
Naturally enough, there are certain medical criteria that the parents will have to meet. In one unusual case, the woman in question unfortunately contracted cancer halfway through the period prescribed for tests for suitability for adoption. She got the all clear from her doctor, but she was told a few days later that she would have to wait another three years, I assume because it was thought that the cancer might develop again. I find that hard to accept. Any parent could get cancer next week, and if such a parent decided to wait three years before having children, there is no law to say that the cancer might develop three years and two days later. Given that the medical advice was that the cancer had cleared up, and that the most eminent consultant in the world could not guarantee that it would not return, I still thought that the restriction was going a bit too far. The family involved would dearly love to adopt a child and I assume there are many more like it.
The whole adoption process is a tortuous journey when one considers the different legislative hurdles in the different countries. If they were all the same, we probably would not have this debate at all. One may have to spend two months in Vietnam or six weeks in Russia, so there is no end to the cost that this puts on families, and there is no doubt that their sincerity is beyond question. They are only too delighted to do this, but one would hope that there would be a standardisation of all the rules, and I think that is what is involved in this Bill.
It appears that some countries from which we adopt children will not be involved in the Hague Convention. I know many couples who have been waiting years for the go-ahead in Vietnam. If the Vietnamese do not sign up to the Hague Convention, then no matter how far the negotiations have gone, it is going to fall down. That is very hard to take. Cases always fall outside the law, but it is hard to take when everything is done by the book but adoption cannot take place because the child's country of origin will not sign up to the Hague Convention. The Minister of State is as genuine as they come on this issue, but if there is anything at all that can be done, the parents would be grateful. They know so much more about this than I do, because nobody knows more about it than those involved.
I consider the grandfather clause to be unusual term. I do not know how it managed to be called that, but I know what it is. I know some families that successfully adopted a child from Vietnam and from Russia, and they would love to have another child from the same country for a variety of reasons. As far as I can see, that is not contained in the Bill. I am surprised that it has been left out. It is a small enough matter on the outside, but it is a major issue for the parents who would like to have another child from the same country with the same culture, so that in years to come such a child will be able to go back to the country of his or her birth with a brother or sister.
I agree wholeheartedly with the previous speaker on the sensitivities surrounding this Bill. Most Members know people who have gone through the drawn out process of adoption, or people who are going through the process as this Bill is going through the House. The Minister of State recognises those problems and the pressure couples are under while they are going through that process. The process is cumbersome for many reasons. Almost 400 children were adopted from abroad in 2008. Some countries have provided more of those children than others.
Until the 1990s, Ireland was a country that sent its children abroad to be adopted, but we have changed and become a country that takes in children from abroad for adoption. There are almost 5,600 children in care in Ireland, approximately two thirds of whom are in long-term foster care. I have always admired people who foster children because it is a very tough thing to do, knowing that after building up a loving relationship with a child, ultimately, that he or she will move on. Those people who are involved in fostering have to be admired for their commitment and the effort they put into it. These are the changes that have taken place in this country over the past 20 years. I find it hard to justify that we have not ratified the Hague Convention despite signing up to it in 1993. It is about time we did, and I very much welcome that this is one of the prime features of the Bill.
The Hague Convention has three main objects: first, to establish safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised in international law; second, to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children; and third, to secure the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention. The whole thrust of the Hague Convention is that it has the welfare of the child at heart, which is something we cannot lose sight of in the Bill and which has to be at the core of what we do. I read a quote which stated that the whole purpose of adoption is to provide a family for a child, not a child for a family. Whatever steps must be taken to protect the child's rights and welfare, we must be extremely careful.
To be fair to the Minister of State, it is not an easy thing to do. We have all had contact from various different groups, individuals and couples, and some of the stories are quite harrowing. As the previous speaker said, going through a long process of adoption has a major effect on the individuals concerned, as well as on their wider families and, as I have seen from the correspondence and e-mails I have received, on their friends and wider circle. People become very concerned for the couple at the centre. Those sensitivities and that pressure must be recognised and acknowledged. If this Bill does anything, it must streamline the system which is in place and ensure that there is a way forward for couples who wish to adopt with an end in sight, and not have them start out on a journey which does not have any end, which is part of the problem for many.
I understand the Bill affects cases which are under way, some for up to four or five years. It is incumbent on the Department and the Minister to get as much legal advice as possible with regard to how this legislation deals with such cases. Given the effort people have made and the serious amount of money they may have spent in the process, all of this must be taken into account whatever changes are made in this area. The reorganisation and streamlining of the system is crucial.
The Adoption Board has done great work over the years. When one considers the changes that have taken place, there has been a significant strain on the resources and services which the Adoption Board was in a position to provide. It is crucial not to lose the expertise that has grown up in the Adoption Board not only among those people who are involved directly, such as the staff, but also among the consultants and those who advise the board. That expertise and experience must be retained in the new adoption authority of Ireland which is being put in place under the Bill. No more than in any other walk of life, those years of experience cannot be exchanged overnight. Experience builds up over a long number of years and it is crucial that it is kept in place.
To return to the ratification of the Hague Convention, the convention recognises that inter-country adoption suits some children but does not suit all. If we are to keep the welfare and well-being of the child at the heart of what we do, whatever mechanism is put in place to scrutinise, investigate and ensure that the information being provided on both sides is correct, we must recognise that it will not work in all cases, which is just the way matters pan out because that is life. It may suit some people but it will not suit others. However, we have to build in the safeguards and strengthen the regulations that are in place at present. This legislation will ensure that where information was not correct or where, for whatever reason, a particular adoption does not work, there is a mechanism to deal with that swiftly and effectively. This is in the interest of both sides, the child as well as the new parents, but it is also in the interest of the place where the child is coming from. It is something we must ensure.
Over the years, the support services have been under significant strain. They play a major part in the post-adoption situation. The services which are available are crucial both for the child and the adoptive parents because people can find themselves in a situation where they come across something they had not bargained for and cannot handle. The support services have to be strong enough to deal with such situations. In a case where an adopted child has other siblings, it is crucial that the whole family unit is catered for by whatever support services are available.
A section of the Bill deals with alternative countries, and those countries that are part of the Hague Convention - Brazil, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines - are suggested alternatives. However, there is also scope for the inclusion of non-convention countries though the use of bilateral agreements. The onus is on us, as a state, to ensure that those countries we deal with fulfil all of their obligations, particularly in regard to the welfare of the child. We must take responsibility. It is very difficult for a state to assess the mechanisms of another state, including their legal and justice systems, and we must be extremely careful in this regard. Signing up to the Hague Convention will ensure that those countries we deal with directly fulfil all the requirements.
In the case of countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and China, for example, is very difficult for us to have such certainty. This is also the case for Vietnam. The number of children coming from Vietnam has grown in recent years and we must ensure that whatever steps we take on this side comply with our requirements under the Hague Convention, but also that whatever systems are in place in the other country would have at their heart the welfare and well-being of the child. We should not lose sight of that, which is why this legislation is so crucial now. We cannot afford to lose sight of that core value and any steps to be taken are welcome in that regard.
A long, drawn-out adoption process can be hard enough and the Minister of State has indicated that he is taking legal advice on dealing with transitional arrangements. People may have gone far down the road and invested much personal time, money, effort and emotion into it so this must be taken into account. I understand there are difficulties and some people may not ultimately end up where they thought they would be. There may be alternatives that can be taken advantage of, although transitional arrangements can be very sensitive.
With regard to the grandfather clause, the retention of the awareness of where an adopted child comes from is very important and appears to be becoming even more vital. There was a time when the suggestions were for a complete break. Friends of mine have adopted from abroad and made a point of ensuring the child is aware of where he or she came from and the culture and heritage there. It is crucial for the development of a child and the retention of such a connection only strengthens a family unit. The family may come from a completely different culture but the connection must be maintained.
This is a particularly sensitive area and in fairness to the Minister of State, he is aware of these sensitivities and has taken them into account. The two main thrusts of this legislation - the ratification of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption and the setting up of the adoption authority - will improve what is a very delicate and sensitive mechanism. I wish it the very best.
I thank Deputy Brady for sharing his time. This is not just another piece of legislation; it is a most important Bill which cuts to the heart of family life and the real longing of people to become parents. Unfortunately, many people cannot become parents because of a variety of reasons, and they may long to become adoptive parents. Significantly, the most e-mails I have ever received have been on this issue recently. People are lobbying me and other Deputies and Senators to ensure we enact good legislation dealing in particular with people trying to adopt from Vietnam or where bilateral agreements lapse or fall.
People in transition who have applied to adopt a child from Vietnam, Ethiopia or Russia are worried because they find themselves in political limbo. This is good legislation and we want to ensure Ireland ratifies the Hague Convention, which makes the Bill so important. The decision of the Government to unify all adoption legislation was the impetus for this Bill and the principle underlining it, which is to be welcomed. We all know the Hague Convention is crucial as we need an international adoption system that ensures countries party to bilateral agreements put the welfare of the child and the importance of the parent-child relationship at the heart of the process.
We saw indications this week from the final UNICEF report into the adoption process in Vietnam. It indicated that the circumstances in which children are offered for adoption are disturbing and the process of verifying a child's status regarding adoptability are inadequate. We must think not only of the longing of Irish parents to adopt a child from these countries but also of how the adoptions are processed in those countries. Best practice must be used to identify people who want, or may be forced, to put their children up for adoption because of economic circumstances. We must ensure a couple adopting a child will not do so to the expense of parents in a poor country who are perhaps coerced into giving up a child, whom they may never see again.
It is important that Ireland's legal arrangements with other countries are watertight and mindful of international reports. The Bill, as it stands, precludes the State from allowing adoptions from countries which have not signed up to the Hague Convention or do not have bilateral agreements with Ireland. For example, there is no provision for transition arrangements for prospective parents who have begun applications for adoptions from such countries. These parents may have devoted themselves to the process of application, examination for eligibility and waiting times to adopt children from these countries with no bilateral agreements and which have not signed up to the Hague Convention. We must consider the Bill as it stands in this regard to see if we could make these applications valid in the long term.
For many couples, time is not on their side. They worry about the length of time of the process and the details of it, which is good and right. Sometimes there is a hold-up because we must ensure all regulations have been satisfied with children coming to Ireland, and that we are not receiving children under poor circumstances because of legislation in place in other countries. Parents here may benefit as a result but the mother of a child in another country may have been coerced into putting the child up for adoption. I have spent some time in Thailand and Vietnam and I have seen the poverty in those countries and the amount of children there. Everything on both sides must be watertight.
I commend the Minister of State on some of the technical aspects of the Bill which ensure that legal issues relevant to the sensitive matter of adoption are fully provided for. I have met many people across the board who are longing for this legislation to be put in place. The transitional arrangements for countries not signing up to the Hague Convention should be looked at again. All prospective adoptive parents want to ensure that we have a good and robust piece of legislation that we can be proud of. I look forward to further debate.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this important legislation, the Adoption Bill 2009. I welcome the Bill as it is long overdue. It is well over half a century since we got around to updating legislation that should have been modernised long before that. The Hague Convention was signed in 1996 but it was approved in 1993. It has taken us 16 years to get to this stage and it is a scandal that it has not been progressed before now. The convention was signed in 1996, when my party was last in Government, and no progress has taken place since.
Successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments have been in office and have done nothing to ensure that the benefits of the Hague Convention, along with its protection and safeguards, are put in place. It is welcome to at least see us passing this legislation to finally ratify the convention next year, as the Minister of State has indicated. Some 16 or 17 years will have passed in which we will not have put children first in this country.
Adoption is a very important and emotional issue. It is the centre of existence for so many loving couples and individuals who are going through the process of having a child adopted and seeking to bring an unwanted or abandoned child into a loving home. They seek to give such a child care and support and rear him or her as every child should be reared. Every adopting couple has the best interest of the child at heart. It is imperative that we, as legislators, ensure the best interest of the child is dealt with by providing a framework through which the adoption process can take place.
We understand from international social services dealing with adoption that from 30,000 to 40,000 adoptions take place around the world every year. The number is substantial. Ireland is one of the countries with the highest number of adoptions in the European Union and significant numbers of Irish people are anxious to adopt children and are willing to go through the arduous process involved in adopting a child. The process has been extended and made more difficult over the years and all of us have received e-mails and letters telling us the harrowing stories of prospective couples and individuals who have faced problems and disruptions in the process. The most recent problem for adoptive parents has been the problem caused as a result of the expiration of the Vietnamese bilateral agreement last summer. The agreement has not been renewed and major issues have arisen with regard to its future renewal.
Adoption is an exceedingly important issue and we must deal with it with great consideration and sensitivity. We must show sensitivity to the children in question, their biological parents and the prospective parents. Often, adoptive parents believe the biological parents are dead or have abandoned the child, which is why the Hague convention is so important. It can ensure the situation is valid and that standards and mechanisms are in place in the sending country so that no questions arise in terms of the validity and mechanism of the adoption process.
It has taken us a long time to put children's rights first. We still do not have a child-centred Constitution, although we have been talking about this for years and talks are ongoing on the introduction of an amendment to the Constitution in the coming year. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is central to those discussions, but despite the number of years that have passed since the foundation of the State, we do not have clearly delineated protections for children in the Constitution. The Hague convention does this and includes the adoption and the inter-country adoption processes in a child-centred fashion.
The bilateral agreements that have been established have been an Irish solution to an Irish problem and were established on something of an ad hoc basis. They operate with some countries, but not with others. Adoptions from Cambodia, for example, operate under the Hague convention, but there seems to be a reluctance here to encourage Irish people to adopt children from there. The convention is not operational in Vietnam, yet a large number of children have been adopted from there. We have no bilateral agreement with the Russian Federation, but we have an adoption procedure that operates there. We have a hotchpotch of relationships with other countries from which children are adopted. It is beyond belief to think this has continued throughout the 20th century and into this first decade of the 21st century without being regularised and standardised and best practice being put in place, particularly in view of the fact we are in breach of our international covenants in the matter.
The principle behind adoption is that an unwanted or abandoned child living in poverty with little hope for the future is given a loving home with the prospect of a new life. This is admirable and clearly all prospective adoptive parents adhere to this principle. We are now in the process of regularising the situation by providing in legislation for the implementation of the Hague convention, but at the same time questions have arisen with regard to the validity and propriety of the existing process with Vietnam. It is sad that just as we are about to adopt best practice, we have found we have been operating a process that has been criticised as being less than best practice and in many cases bad practice.
We must ask ourselves questions about our expectations with regard to adoptions from developing countries into industrialised and wealthy countries. How can such countries interface without having a watertight framework and mechanism in place to ensure proper procedures are followed at all times? This is difficult, because we are not comparing like with like. On one side we have a wealthy country and on the other one with great needs as a result of poverty and its inability to rear and nurture its children. These issues pose a danger. When there is such discrepancy between the status of both countries, it is inevitable there will be breaches of best practice. However, if no best practice agreement is in place - just a bilateral or no agreement - it is inevitable problems will arise. Unfortunately, we have seen this in recent days in the case of UNICEF's report on the Irish adoption process in Vietnam. The Minister has taken these findings on board and has indicated that the Adoption Board is conducting an investigation into Helping Hands, the mediation agency involved in the adoption process in Vietnam.
The allegations and findings are substantial. It has been found that moneys have changed hands improperly. That cannot be taken lightly. It is fraud and the findings are disturbing and alarming. It has been found that one wealthy country has been improperly involved with a poor country in receiving children for adoption.
If the UNICEF findings are proved to be true, there could be serious repercussions for Ireland. I do not know if it is proper for the Minister of State to ask the Adoption Board to investigate the UNICEF allegations; it may be necessary to look further and wider. I presume the Adoption Board is responsible in the first instance for supervision of the mediation agency. It is similar to the case of the banks where the regulatory authority was not regulating them. Was the Adoption Board keeping an eye on whether procedures and best practice were in place? The board should not be responsible for conducting an investigation when it may well be negligent itself in terms of monitoring and supervision.
I am loath to say it but perhaps the fraud squad should be involved. This is not a route preferred by anyone but I refer to the nature of the UNICEF findings, which refer to very serious, systemic shortcomings in the manner in which Ireland conducted its business with Vietnam. These were substantial rather than minor matters. It is a very serious matter if the entire process of adoption from Vietnam is tainted. We need to deal with the situation in a comprehensive fashion because this involves the welfare of children. Last week the House passed legislation to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of women and children, which is a problem throughout the world. Such trafficking for the sex trade or the labour market is regarded as the third largest global industry. It is an underground business controlled by gangs.
The Hague Convention foresaw the need to deal with the trafficking of children and the issue of child laundering, that children could be used rather than simply being abandoned. It is still the case that children are abandoned, discarded and institutionalised. The best option for these children is for them to be brought into a loving environment by means of adoption.
However, if the country sending the children for adoption is using the opportunity to trade children for money this is completely unacceptable. This is the practice alleged and we must ensure it never taints the Irish adoption process. It is scandalous that over the past 16 or 17 years, Ireland has not put in place the standards set out in the Hague Convention which are only minimum standards. These standards are not absolute best practice but rather international minimum standards which every country is expected to maintain and I am pleased that Ireland has done so now. However, I hope that irreparable damage has not been done to the process of inter-country adoption in which Ireland has engaged during the twilight zone, which was almost an Irish way of going about things rather than adopting best practice and international standards.
I refer to a recent report from Save the Children which I regard as alarming. It states that approximately 80% of children living in orphanages in Third World countries have a surviving parent. If those children are adopted they are being taken away from a surviving parent. In such circumstances support is required for the parent to ensure the child is not put into an institution or an orphanage purely as a result of poverty or some other reason. These matters need to be carefully examined, something which has not happened in the present process.
I hope the situation as outlined by UNICEF is neither endemic nor in operation in other countries from which children are adopted into Ireland. We must ensure there is an investigative process with regard to all countries involved in the Irish inter-country adoption process. The sooner this is undertaken by the Minister of State, the better. This would be preferable to his rather questionable proposal to establish an investigation by the Adoption Board into the mediation agency.
It is important to remember that loving couples and individuals are available who would provide a fantastic home for unwanted children or for children abandoned in homes and orphanages. We must not allow that system to fail because there is a current disruption in the process. Many countries have not signed up to the Hague Convention and Vietnam is one of those countries. We have been asking for transitional arrangements to be made. The Minister of State has indicated that where standards similar to the Hague Convention standards are in place, arrangements can be made in that respect.
I hope transitional arrangements can be put in place with the safeguards incorporated in this Bill. I hope people who have been waiting for years to become adoptive parents will not have to begin the process all over again and that the arrangements can be concluded under the transitional arrangements. If the Minister of State decides Ireland will not deal with any country that has not put the Hague Convention arrangements in place, this will be a body blow to many prospective adoptive parents who are currently in the adoption process. Having learned the lessons of what has happened, it is time to put those procedures in place. I urge the Minister of State to give the House some indication of how he intends to proceed with regard to ratification of the Hague Convention and how he intends to deal with this very complex, cumbersome interim stage of transitional arrangements.
This Bill is hugely significant, particularly for all those involved in the adoption process. It is important for the children who are, and who will be, adopted, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents and birth parents. It is also important for all those involved in administering the process and who make decisions that have huge implications for many and that, in some instances, have life and death consequences. My views on the legislation are informed by the many adoptive parents with whom I have had discussions and, in particular, by the International Adoption Association Ireland and its senior officers. I also have a personal interest in that I am the happy father of eight wonderful children and I feel strongly for those who want to establish families through the adoption process.
The legislation must be child-centred and it must be protective of the welfare of children on all occasions and in all circumstances. There is unanimity in the House on that but, in adopting this approach, full consideration must be given to the rights of adoptive parents and those who wish to adopt. The welfare of adopted children is inextricably bound to their relationship with adoptive parents and there must not be a conflict between the rights, duties and responsibilities of adoptive parents and placing children at the centre of our approach in adoption legislation. In many instances, there is a coincidence of interest to ensure adoptive arrangements are established and maintained to lead to the loving family relationship that is so important to the adoptive parents and crucial for the development of the children.
I am delighted the Bill is before the House and while I am trying to participate in the debate on a non-political basis, I am glad the Government has got around to introducing the Bill. Reference has been made to countries that have not ratified the Hague convention but Ireland has not ratified it yet. We signed up to the convention during the last Fine Gael-led Government in 1996 and, therefore, when we start pointing fingers abroad, it should be borne in mind it has taken us 13 years to get around to the process of ratification. It is high time the Bill was introduced as an essential part of the ratification process.
The Hague convention provides for a safer system of inter-country adoption and it helps to guard against the abduction, sale and trafficking of young children. It aims to ensure inter-country adoption is in the best interest of the child and to ensure legally binding standards apply to such adoptions, these standards are appropriately supervised, and communication and co-operation channels are established between the authorities within the countries of origin and the receiving states. There is total support for that approach. However, contrary to the perception of many, the convention does not preclude adoption from non-convention or non-bilateral agreement countries. Instead, member states are obliged to ensure adoptions are carried out in accordance with the requirements of the convention. It also permits non-member states of the broader Hague Conference on Private International Law to participate in it ensuring broader acceptance and recognition of standards is possible. One could look to Thailand as an example. Such inclusion is a clear recognition that the best interests of children transcend purely legal structures.
The convention is an important basis on which we should operate but it does not constrict us and bind us, provided the State focuses on convention's standards and ensures they are observed in every instance in so far as possible. That should be borne in mind when we implement the legislation. That is especially important when we consider where children are adopted from. The vast majority of inter-country adoptions globally are conducted from non-Hague convention countries and it is important that the Government has an approach in place to deal with that.
The convention provides both mechanisms and the aspiration to work together with less developed countries to improve child protection and related services, yet it has taken Ireland, an allegedly well developed country, although some would question that in the current circumstances, 13 years since signing up to the convention to get around to ratification. I have had the opportunity to visit many other counties in the course of my duties. They are well behind us in development terms, yet we should be there to help them to raise their standards rather than condemning them to exclusion from the process. The convention clearly recognises that progress is part and parcel of the development and maintenance of such systems and that the process of building the systems is continuous and imperative to helping children today as well as protecting children tomorrow. The Government should adopt this partnership approach because, through it, we can ultimately ensure more countries are brought into the convention process.
Inter-country adoption is a valid and important form of alternative care for children who do not have a chance of a permanent home with their birth family or within their community or state of origin. The Minister of State agrees and I accept his approach is well meaning. I would perhaps be critical of some of his actions but I accept his heart is in the right place and I am glad he seems to share this approach. It would be wrong to give an impression either from the Ministry or the House that we oppose inter-country adoption. We are trying to ensure such adoption is carried forward to the highest standard. A number of people have raised this issue with me and I favour inter-country adoption. I understand the attitude of the Minister of State and the Government is similar.
The bilateral adoption agreement with Vietnam ended earlier this year and there are threats to adoptions from Russia and Ethiopia. Our responsibility for waiting times, about which I am aggrieved, is another issue to which I will refer later. I am anxious a system is put in place to ensure the highest standards for inter-country adoptions. The consequences of such adoptions are enormously positive for the children, which is clear from a study conducted by the children's research centre in Trinity College Dublin. Its findings are in line with many studies around the world into the outcomes for adopted children. The centre summarised its findings by saying the children recover. In many instances, they recover from deprivation, poverty, abandonment, bad health, maltreatment and neglect. They recover from bad health, maltreatment, neglect and other difficulties. Adoption offers the opportunity for that recovery. That is the finding of all independent studies of which I am aware. The best place for a child is in a safe, permanent and loving home. It is my understanding that children can recover. Ireland's experience of inter-country adoption is that they do recover.
We will have some discussion about adoption from Vietnam in the coming months. The bilateral agreement has been suspended and we have seen the recent ISS report. It is important that we read the report carefully without focusing on those aspects of it which could be written up sensationally. The report hints at closing adoptions from Vietnam until that country ratifies the Hague Convention. However, that is not one of its main recommendations. The report raises the question that some children being adopted may not have been abandoned. That is an issue about which we must be concerned. It relies on the contents of several other reports in this regard. I understand the authors of the report visited two provinces from which adoptions are conducted but I believe neither of these are provinces from which Irish children have been adopted.
Let us take the report in the round, look at the good and the bad and see it as a challenge as to how its findings should best be dealt with. According to the report, poverty is a critical and key driver in the abandonment and relinquishment of children. There are also issues regarding single mothers and there are financial and discriminatory issues. Many of the issues touched on in the report could have applied to Ireland a generation ago, when there was considerable adoption outward from here. Let us have sympathy and understanding for a country which is at a different stage of development.
The report calls on receiving countries, including Ireland, and the Hague Convention Bureau to participate in providing technical assistance and supporting and working with Vietnam to build the type of child protection systems we all recognise are necessary. Let us commit ourselves to doing what we can to help that country go forward. There are already indications of progress from Vietnam. There has been an awareness there of the existence of this problem for some time. An international body has been allowed to assess the Vietnamese situation, contrary to our own assessment of the activities of the HSE. That outside body has already begun to deal with issues as they emerge. It appears Vietnam will sign the convention in January and will ratify it much more quickly than we did. Vietnam intends to ratify the Hague Convention in the latter half of next year or early the following year. Let us encourage Vietnam in that regard and let us not, in any circumstances, engage in condemnatory activity.
There is a great number of children in institutions in Vietnam and that number will grow. The percentage of such children is small in relation to the total population of 87 million but large in numerical terms. Some of those children would be better off in homes in Ireland. How can we encourage that? I have no ready answer but I hope the Minister of State is open to discussion on that matter. It has been suggested that the ISS report finds against bilateral agreements with regard to their compatibility with the Hague Convention. However, the main concern in this regard refers to the failure of Vietnam to ratify the Hague Convention. We all know how long it takes to do that. The report strongly suggests that any bilateral agreement should include a clause allowing automatic termination once the convention enters into force in Vietnam. That is very sensible. At the same time it implies that there is scope for a bilateral agreement in the meantime. Let us not take the report as being totally exclusionary of bilateral agreements. Let us look at what is in the best interests of the children and of achieving a resolution which would accommodate the situation in which children find themselves and the parents who wish to provide loving homes for them in this country.
Many such parents have shown their bona fides, having completed a robust assessment and endured years of waiting for due process in Ireland before ever applying to adopt in Vietnam or any other country. We talk about problems in Vietnam and other countries, but people who live in glass-houses should not throw stones. The waiting time for adoption assessment in Ireland is scandalous. The Minister of State assumes the HSE will have a central role in future adoption assessment. I am not anti-HSE. I attended a swine flu vaccination clinic in South Brown Street, Dublin yesterday. Five hundred people were vaccinated in a single day, the clinic was well managed and organised and the staff coped wonderfully.
However, the record of the HSE on adoption is scandalous. I hear stories of applicants having a good rapport with social workers but the management of the assessment process is scandalous. I have been highlighting this issue for years. It is not getting any better. Before we examine the assessment process, let us assess the HSE and ask if it should have any role in assessing adoptive parents. It has failed utterly. I do not accept that any State body should be automatically given such a role. Let it first prove itself. Let us also seek and encourage alternative bodies. The HSE should not have a monopoly in this area. The Minister has heard the horror stories. How can people be left in limbo year after year without any explanation? It is unacceptable. It is in our power to end this monopoly and perhaps remove the HSE from the adoption process entirely. We should encourage other bodies to become involved in the assessment process. I will push this issue until I see it improved. It is not a question of improving the HSE or giving it more money and more social workers. It has failed utterly and does not deserve to be involved. Let us look for alternatives.
There must be a proper transition process to the new regime. We cannot condemn those who have spent five or six years in the wilderness of a HSE assessment. Last week, I spoke to a couple who have been waiting for six years and seven months and have still not completed their assessment for a Russian adoption. We cannot condemn such people to further unnecessary delays. Let us commit ourselves to doing what is necessary to create a proper transition process, particularly for those who have endured long years of waiting. I urge the Minister of State to be as flexible as necessary in reaching out to those people and making sure the implementation of the Bill will give them a fair chance to complete the adoption process at the earliest possible date.
There is goodwill on all sides of the House towards this legislation and towards the Minister of State. Members on both sides of this House want to see a proper and good system. We are not saying there is a simple solution; we know there are problems. Let us try to mobilise the resources of this House in a way where we can all work together to solve the complex issues and try to ensure we have a proper adoption system working effectively, efficiently and quickly in order that the children who need to be adopted as quickly as possible and the adoptive parents who have been waiting for so long to get through the trials and tribulations of the assessment process are allowed to establish those loving family relationships for which they have yearned for so long.
I am pleased to speak on the Bill which I welcome and wish speedy progress through the House. The Bill is long-awaited but makes some important changes to adoption law in practice. It will repeal the Act of 2001, will mean the dissolution of the Adoption Board and its replacement by the Adoption Authority of Ireland and will ratify the Hague convention on Inter-Country Adoptions. The convention is the main international statute governing inter-country adoptions and its aim is to put in place better safeguards for inter-country adoptions and for all people concerned, in particular for children involved in the adoption process.
I came across a particularly interesting quote recently that adoption is about finding a family for a child and not a child for a family. Putting children at the centre is quite important. Like many other Members, I have received a number of representations from people on inter-country adoptions, especially with Vietnam. I have met prospective parents, as has the Minister of State who is quite sympathetic and concerned about their plight.
Recently I met two ladies who asked me to raise a number of points. They understand the importance of the convention and that the interests of the child are paramount at all times but they believe certain key changes need to be made to the Bill before it is passed. They are concerned there is no adoption from non-Hague or non-bilateral countries. They said that Ireland, the last of the receiving countries to ratify the convention, is doing so in a manner which differs from other countries. They maintain the manner in which it will be ratified will preclude adoptions from non-Hague and non-bilateral countries - in effect, denying some of the countries which need help to raise their standards the chance of partnership in that pursuit.
They point out that the Hague convention requires member states to operate to Hague convention standards but does not preclude adoption from non-Hague states. They asked why the Government proposes to ratify the convention in this way. They maintain Ireland needs to follow suit with other countries and ratify the convention in a manner which allows adoption from countries which are not Hague ratified but which meet Hague convention standards.
The negotiation of new bilateral agreements with countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, etc., is also of paramount importance to these prospective adoptive parents. They want to know when the Minister will deliver a decision on a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam after the publication of the ISS report. That report came out recently and I will return to it in a moment.
They point out that for some years, Russia, Vietnam and Ethiopia have been the main countries Irish couples have adopted from and they maintain the system has worked very well up to now. They maintain the agreements with these countries need to be progressed as a matter of urgency. They also recognise the progression of legislation through the House can be quite lengthy and that in the interim, it is essential that new bilateral agreements are put in place to ensure inter-country adoptions can continue from this country.
As the Minister of State and Members realise, this is a very sensitive issue. I am sure that for people who find themselves in a situation where they cannot have children of their own and feel they need to adopt, it is extremely sensitive, personal and traumatic. They point out that the waiting times to get clearance for adoption, get a place on a preparation course and start the whole process can be up to three years. They maintain it can go on for six years or more. They worry about couples nearing the cut off age limit. People go through such a long process of preparation and if they reach the cut off age limit, because of the delays, they could end up being denied the opportunity to give a child a loving home. They want to stress that needs to be avoided at all costs.
We are talking about speeding up the processes in place until now in order that decisions can be made earlier. That does not mean that standards drop but this needs to be addressed. I do not see why it takes so long for clearance to be given to people. They maintain that the Government needs to understand the human element to the issue. They state the majority of couples in their situation travel a long and very difficult road through infertility, loss and continuous disappointment to reach that point and they want the Government's support.
Many couples have similar concerns. Having read UNICEF's International Social Services adoption report, it is clear there are serious problems in the Vietnamese adoption system. I am sure this will come as a huge shock to many people. Why was this not brought to the fore before now? Many people were going through the process in Vietnam without being warned that there were issues. They are now in limbo which is extremely traumatic.
I am disturbed by certain charges, including what is described as "humanitarian aid". The conduct and practices of certain agencies have been very disturbing. The Government should have regulated this properly from the start. I understand a review committee was supposed to be put in place to oversee the agreement and identify and solve any problems. Perhaps the Minister of State will address this. Deputy Shatter has been asking questions about this for quite some time. He also asked that the deliberations of, and the documentation relating to, this review committee be made public in order that we can all see what went on. We could ask why alarm bells did not ring among the review committee. Was the Government not aware of the allegations made?
The voice of the child is quite important where adoption is concerned and, indeed, at all times. Today a report from the Dublin archdiocese will show the way children in our State were neglected in the past. We have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. Barnardos has raised the issue of post-adoption services, tracing legislation and so on. There are issues about closed and open registers which may need to be addressed in regard to information being made available to natural family members. That is extremely sensitive and important. This is a very complex area. When one really starts to delve into it, one sees that it is not straightforward.
I raise an issue Deputy Naughten has raised for quite some time. The Hague convention refers to missing children. I am very disturbed that so many children who came here from outside the State have gone missing from the care of the HSE. This is an awful scandal and I would like some Minister to make a statement on it and tell us exactly what happened.
For some time I have been calling for a register of guardianship. Perhaps the Minister of State might consider this. When a couple have a child and are not married, unless the mother agrees to the father becoming a guardian of the child, he cannot do so. Even if the mother agrees to do so and a certificate of guardianship is made available to the father and he becomes a guardian of the child, that certificate is simply a sheet of paper. If it is lost, damaged or destroyed, there is no central register or record of his guardianship. I do not understand why that is the case. The Minister of State might indicate the position. I have raised this matter here down through the years. If something happens to the mother and the father has lost the certificate, what is the position? Fathers are concerned about this issue. A register of guardianship should be provided. It would be a simple matter to provide such a register, which would be similar to the register of births, marriages and deaths. It could be provided as a central register and a person who wishes to obtain a certificate of guardianship at a later stage could do so in the same way as a person could obtain a birth certificate. There may be a good reason such a register does not exist. I would be grateful if the Minister of State would let me know, when replying or by letter, why that is the case. I would like to be enlightened about this.
I welcome the Bill and appreciate it is complex. We will have a detailed debate on it on Committee Stage. An important aspect of it is that it gives effect to the Hague convention, which seeks to establish safeguards to ensure inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect to his or her fundamental rights as recognised in international law. Another objective of the convention is to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children, which is a major issue, and to secure the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention. These are serious, weighty and complex matters. I wish the Minister of State well in his work on the legislation as I do all the spokespersons.
I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on the Bill. Ireland's signing up to the Hague convention is long overdue and very welcome. Most Members have received a great number of representations on this Bill. One issue of which we are all now aware is the length of time the adoption process takes. Many couples have informed me that the timelag involved is often up to five years. That causes a great deal of anxiety for couples. It is far too long. From that aspect alone, hopefully, the bringing into law of this Bill will speed up the process and allow couples to know the rules and regulations that apply and what they must do. Many people have advised me of the frustration they suffer during the long period of this process. Knowing a number of adoptive parents, I know the joy having an adopted child among their family brings them. In terms of the Bill, it is very necessary to put the child's interest to the forefront.
I have also received representations regarding the transitional arrangement, particularly in regard to Russia and China. We need to deal with that issue. The grandfather clause, as it is called, is another matter that has been a major issue in the representations I received. I have also received representations from adopted children concerning the location of records, with which I will deal later.
I welcome the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, to continue discussions with the Hague Conference to seek advice on how to deal with cases which are midstream. I understand more than 500 applications exist for adoptions of children from Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia and other countries. I believe an amendment should be considered in the future. I would like the Minister of State to respond to that matter. It is of grave concern to those people who have been five and more years involved in the adoption process. I understand there are legal issues involved and there is also the issue of Ireland not having been part of the Hague convention. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State said he will discuss with the Attorney General and Adoption Board how we may proceed in this respect.
I have received a large number of representations on the grandfather clause. I am not suggesting we can willy nilly enter into agreements regarding adoptions with countries that do not subscribe to the principles of the Hague convention, but in the case of couples who have adopted a child and who wish to adopt a sibling, the issues involved need to dealt with in a pragmatic way. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, to consider that issue and to bring forward an amendment to the legislation, if possible. Many couples who have adopted a child from Vietnam or another country would like to adopt a brother or sister. When one reads the e-mails and letters one gets, one can understand the love a couple give the child they have adopted. One knows they will provide a loving home for a child who is living in an orphanage or in bad circumstances in their homeland. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, to examine that aspect.
Another issue on which I have received representations is the storage of records. This might not seem very serious to many people in the context that an citizen can walk into the office in Westland Row and receive his or her birth certificate straight away, having paid the small fee involved. An adopted child does not have that facility. It has been put to me that there is discrimination against adopted children in that they can only deal with the office in Roscommon. That may seem rather trivial to some people but there are people in my constituency who are adopted and the parents have set up an association for adopted parents. They believe this to be a particularly discriminatory issue. On their behalf, I ask the Minister of State if records could be made available to adopted children, similar to manner in which they are available to ordinary citizens. I would like the Minister of State to give a commitment that he will address that issue.
This Bill it is long overdue. The principle of the Hague convention is important. On a day like today when the Murphy report into the sexual abuse of children by clergy is being published, it is critical that we bring into law as quickly as possible a Bill that ensures that no children, whether they are Irish born children or adopted children, will ever suffer at the hands of any institution of the State.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I welcome the Bill, which finally provides for the Irish Government to ratify the Hague convention on inter-country adoptions. This is a progressive step forward and it is the right way to go, albeit the Bill is long overdue.
The Hague Convention is designed to ensure that inter-country adoptions are made in the best interests of the child, with respect for his or her fundamental rights and to prevent the abduction, sale of or trafficking of children. Deputies have been privy to many cases of illegal adoptions over the years. Some cases have resulted in terrible circumstances with tragic abuse for the unfortunate children in question, primarily because no checks and balances were in place and as a result of an abuse of the system in place.
The majority of adoptions by families in Ireland today are inter-country adoptions. Thousands of people have adopted children from abroad and many others are in the process or will wish to adopt from abroad in the future. We have to ensure that the rights of children and mothers are fully respected in the countries from which people are adopting, a matter of great importance. The rights of the mother, and the rights of the biological father of the child, a matter not often referred to in this debate, must be protected as well.
On Monday, a report was released from UNICEF which raised very serious questions about adoption practices in Vietnam. It states that "the level and nature of inter-country adoptions from Vietnam are essentially influenced by foreign demand". The report stated this was shown by the fact that the majority of children adopted from Vietnam were under one year of age, the age group most sought after by would-be adoptive parents. Some ten or 15 years ago there were a significant number of adoptions from orphanage centres in Romania. Vietnam now appears to be one of the countries in which adoptions are being processed because of a bilateral arrangement.
The UNICEF report also raised serious questions about procedures for verifying the status of children and for ensuring free and informed consent to adoption. This is of great concern. I spoke to the Minister of State in respect of constituents who have lobbied on the matter and who are awaiting adoptions from Vietnam. I believe many other Members have encountered the same circumstances. The Minister of State has been very helpful in this regard and I appreciate it.
We can all understand the desire of people to adopt, especially couples who cannot have children themselves. However, the interests of the children must be paramount and if there are any doubts about this, the issues must be addressed. Vietnam has been a major source country for children adopted in Ireland. The State's previous bilateral agreement with Vietnam has expired and people who were in the process of adopting have been left in a difficult situation. I urge the Minister of State to do all in his power to assist and I accept that he will do so. A new bilateral agreement is needed but the issues highlighted in the UNICEF report must be resolved, a matter of paramount importance. I trust this will be agreed given the number of people effectively in limbo at present.
Strong human rights safeguards are essential and must be backed up by such legislation as this Bill. This is why the Hague Convention is so important. In making bilateral agreements with other states on inter-country adoptions, we must be satisfied that children's rights are fully safeguarded as well as the rights of the mother and, if possible, the rights of the father. We do not seek to have repeated in other countries what happened here, where children were dumped in institutions, some of them fostered and abused in foster care.
In the not too distant past, a woman approached me and informed me of her circumstances. She, along with her sister and brother, became parent-less as a result of the death of her mother and father within six months. They were dumped in institutions in this country. This person left the institution eventually as a girl of sixteen years with a train ticket to Dublin. There, she became pregnant and ended up having the child. She was taken to an institution in the Six Counties by the parents of the father of the child and the child was forcibly removed from her. She spent the rest of her life trying to find that child. Thankfully, a happy ending followed. Eventually, she found her child, albeit with significant resistance from the religious orders, which did everything in their power to prevent the reunion from coming about. That is what happened and although she is now deceased, the last 18 years of her life were blissful because she had found her lost son.
There are many cases which other Members could relate as well involving similar circumstances and in which people were put into institutions for no reason whatsoever. In some such cases, the lives of these people were destroyed as a result. In the very recent past, I encountered a case in which a son was trying to locate his mother. Again, there was significant resistance from the religious orders and institutions but eventually the required information was forthcoming. The working out of the Bill and the ratification of the Hague Convention should protect the child and the parents of the child from the country of adoption. This is a very good proposal and the resulting legislation will be very good as well.
On a related issue, there are considerable delays in the HSE process of carrying out assessments of applicants to be adoptive parents. The Hague Convention requires assessments to be carried out in reasonable time, which is not the case in this instance. I trust the Minister of State will ensure that the new Bill leads to speedier assessments.
Having listened to the Minister of State's speech, it is interesting to consider the history of adoptions. The first legislation in this area dates from 1952. Beforehand, adoptions were carried out on an informal basis. In the past, we sent some children abroad to be adopted in other countries. In recent years, there is no doubt the adoption of children from abroad has become the norm because no Irish children have been available for adoption here. Any Irish children available for adoption have tended to be adopted within the extended family.
I regret the fact that we must look abroad and at some stage in the future we should examine the situation. It is extraordinary that the UK and other countries not far removed from us seem to be able to have children available for adoption within their own system. I hope sincerely that we move in this direction in future, even if it means we should loosen our system or change the Constitution, because there are a great number of loving families and homes which could give children a better quality of life. Such families could look after children a good deal better. I accept the general principle of the Bill that everything must be child-centred. If a change to the Constitution or legislation is required to allow broader adoptions within the country, we should facilitate this, although this is not part of the current legislation.
I accept the aim of the legislation is to support and protect the children for whom adoption services are devised and provided. The core of the legislation is the ratification of the Hague Convention in Ireland. As outlined, the policy and legislation should be child-centred and the interests of the child must be paramount. I accept that but, as previous speakers indicated, the people by whom one is usually approached are those who have been waiting to adopt children for some time. These individuals are concerned about the delays to which the system gives rise.
The Bill makes provision for the State to enter into discussions with states which are not party to the Hague Convention for the making of bilateral arrangements in respect of inter-country adoptions. The states with which such arrangements are entered into must have in place the rules, regulations, system and structure which obtain under the Hague Convention or similar. It is accepted that what we are doing is child-centred and implements best practice. If, however, so many rules and regulations are applied to ensure that each file is 100% correct, will couples who want to adopt children be encouraged to do so? Are we going to focus on what is right in all cases rather than considering what is required by a child or the loving couple who wish to adopt him or her?
There comes a point when it is not possible to dot all the i's or cross all the t's. Sometimes it is necessary to consider the long-term good of the child by evaluating whether it would be better to allow him or her to remain in an orphanage, continue to live in squalor or whatever or to see to it that he or she is adopted by a loving couple. Even when this matter is considered from a child-centred point of view, the final decision on adoption must contemplate the nature of a child's upbringing rather than in ensuring that it is possible to stand over every item of documentation in his or her file.
I accept that I may be coming at this from the point of view of couples who are seeking to adopt children in order to bring joy to themselves, but also to provide those children with a good upbringing in a welcoming society. I hope, therefore, that all the new rules and regulations will assist people who are seeking to adopt. I hope they will not be used in the future to prevent people adopting. I accept that it is necessary to be careful, particularly in instances where children are being adopted from countries or cultures with which we are not overly familiar. However, there is a level beyond which one should not go in this regard.
There are those who are concerned that in future bilateral agreements will only be possible with states which have adopted or ratified the Hague Convention or which have in place standards equivalent to those laid down in that convention. Will there be any countries from which people will be able to adopt children in the future or will the system be so regulated that it will not facilitate those who want to adopt?
Some of those who have been waiting to adopt children from Vietnam have become extremely annoyed and we have all seen the e-mails, sent over a number of months, in which these people have lashed out in all directions, including at the Minister of State, which, I am sure, he did not deserve. An issue arises with regard to whether these people have been kept informed. Another aspect is that while we all like to deliver good news, we are often reluctant to deliver bad news. My heart goes out to couples who might have been involved in the adoption system for five years and who, prior to that, might have been trying to have babies, undergoing fertility tests and treatments, etc. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad, we should communicate with these people. Silent sympathy is not enough. We owe it to these couples to inform them of the situation, outline our concerns, indicate that we are working in the best interests of the children involved and try to bring them along with us. Some of the people to whom I refer are rather distraught. While a number of the e-mails may have gone over the top to some degree, one can understand from where their authors are coming on this matter.
The assessment process has been extraordinarily slow. In many instances, people have complained that they have been involved with this process for five years. As already indicated, these individuals may have previously tried to have babies, undergone fertility tests, etc. Those who have obtained declarations of suitability, immigration clearance certificates and so forth do not now know whether they will be able to proceed with adoptions. In such circumstances, one is prompted to wonder about the HSE's adoption process and the number of individual and group consultations that take place.
The highest number of complaints received relate to the wait in respect of the first assessment. In that context, one must wonder whether it is necessary for the HSE's adoption process to be so lengthy. Adopting a child, particularly one from outside the country, is a major step but one must ask whether it is necessary to oblige people to wait five years to adopt. It only takes nine months to have a baby. Is it right that people are being obliged to wait five years in order to adopt? These individuals are obliged to watch others who have not been suitably prepared bring children into the world. In many instances, the latter do not have a clue with regard to rearing children and their offspring probably have no hope from the outset.
As the Minister of State is aware, there is great unhappiness with the delays relating to the HSE's adoption process. The relevant transition measures, which will have to be specified prior to enactment, will be the foundation on which this legislation will stand. It is fine to introduce a document that outlines what will be best practice into the future. However, it is important that we assist those couples who have been involved with the process for a number of years to finalise their adoptions.
It is a case of where one draws the line. The Minister of State may say that those who have obtained the necessary documentation and who are within two or three months of adopting may proceed. However, it should be extended much more liberally than that. It is my opinion that those who have been involved with the process for many years should be encouraged to and assisted in completing that process before the new measures come into place. Often, it is waiting for the first assessment which seems to annoy people most of all. For me, the fundamental issue is that transitional measures should be very well thought out and planned and should cater for people in the process.
The question everybody is asking is where they stand. Perhaps they have spent three, four or five years on this, have received their declaration and are within two months of getting a referral, but are now wondering where they stand. It is the answers to these questions that people want. We have to be fairly liberal and bring these on board. The Minister of State quoted two recent reports but it is extraordinary that other countries, and I do not mean banana republic countries but countries such as France, Denmark, Canada and Italy, do not seem to have difficulties with their bilateral arrangements with Vietnam. One begins to wonder whether we are being a bit too careful. The US has withdrawn but I have been told that its system was a bit iffy. The French had a link with Vietnam in the 1950s and one would not normally associate the other countries I named as being loose and free with regulations. If they are happy with their bilateral agreements and their adoption procedures with those countries at present, why are we getting too fussy? Perhaps those are the wrong words.
We must consider the long-term future of the child, and consider the child being in an orphanage, community or wherever. Would it not be better in a loving home in Ireland? Often over the years I felt there was an attitude at a high level in the Department or in the HSE, long before the Minister of State or his officials were there, which was not exactly friendly to the adoption process. Some people see adoption as something that happened decades ago. Perhaps concerns were raised in a few cases, but there were also thousands of cases of babies being placed in loving homes here and elsewhere. I am not sure whether there is an anti-adoption bias somewhere at the high levels of the Department of Health and Children or in the HSE.
Our system with Vietnam was regarded as very good. Other countries have different cultures and values. We should not judge everything by our standards. If other western democracies are happy with the procedure and process, I do not know why we have been reluctant and allowed the bilateral arrangement with Vietnam to go into abeyance.
It is extraordinary how the issue raised over the HSE and assessment was allowed to happen. Professional groups such as social workers will always cry that they want more social workers. I wonder whether this is what it is really all about. Some of these professional groups, no matter how many positions one gives them, will drag out the work and create extra interviews and layers of bureaucracy to slow down the end product. There is huge unhappiness with what we have allowed to happen and some believe that it is contrary to the Hague Convention.
The convention has many very good aspects and lays down rules for a speedy and efficient assessment process. While we want to ratify the Hague Convention, some of the carry on at the HSE has not adhered to its best principles. The assessment process has been nothing short of a disgrace. Article 35 of the convention states: "The competent authorities of the Contracting States shall act expeditiously in the process of adoption." However, the Bill dilutes this aim and incorporates the phrase "as soon as practicable" in section 37. A constituent has suggested to me that this seems to impose a less onerous standard on the State or the HSE than is contained in the Hague Convention. If that is correct, it seems strange that, in introducing what we are stating is best practice, we are picking the bits that are best practice to suit ourselves and in our process, and where the HSE is making a mess of the assessments, we are watering down best practice as stated in the Hague Convention because it suits inefficiency in the HSE. I am told this by a constituent and if it is correct, then somebody has something to answer. We cannot be selective about implementing best practice; it is either best practice or it is not. Perhaps this runs into my feeling that a view is held in the HSE or the Department which is not friendly to adoption.
In an attempt to reduce waiting lists, the Government has agreed to introduce independent assessment agencies. That is fine, but we are also told that applicants will have to apply to the HSE in the first instance. However, the Bill suggests that after these independent assessment agencies have done their business, an applicant will have to return to the HSE. It seems to create another waiting list and gives the HSE a double monopoly on the process.
While the Bill is good and the Hague Convention is best practice, the fundamental matter is that of our transition arrangements and how we regard the loving couples here who have been in the system or process for a number of years. We cannot abandon them or let a couple of them in and then state after they have been on the waiting list for five years that new rules or regulations apply and that they must start again with another country, if there is another country.
We should examine our system. It is extraordinary that the UK still has children for adoption in its system. We will have to consider changing the Constitution to allow us have children for adoption. At present, we allow many children who are born into dysfunctional families or poverty to stay in that system forever. Many people in what I regard as the overall industry might care for dysfunctional children from the time they are babies until they end up in prison. Instead of having sticking plaster solutions, we would be far better off considering the ultimate solution and encouraging adoption. While it is not part of this Bill, I hope that sooner or later we have a constitutional amendment to allow more children to be adopted here at home. We would then have less need to go to other countries.
I wish to share time with Deputy Catherine Byrne.
I welcome that, at long last, the Bill is before the House. It is exactly ten months this week since it was introduced in the Seanad. We have been given various reasons for the failure to bring it before the House but in the meantime, our bilateral agreement with Vietnam is lapsed and we have to wait for the ISS report to be finalised. Given that the Minister of State received a draft of the report in August, it seems odd that he did not attempt to use the draft recommendations to fast-track a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam. On a day when yet another report on institutional abuse is being published, it is appropriate that we discuss the consolidation of our adoption legislation, which dates back to 1952. People suffered terribly in Irish institutions. Adoption is supposed to be child centred and I accept that the Bill endeavours to meet that goal. Thankfully, people in this country are willing and able to accommodate children who are housed in institutions in other parts of the world.
The Bill's flaws have been clearly identified. I hope Deputy Noel Ahern's advice will be heeded in the context of Government amendments. The flaws are not contentious and can be addressed with the co-operation of Members, such as Deputy Shatter, who have a sincere interest in improving the Bill.
Why does the Bill only cover signatories to the Hague Convention or countries with which we have bilateral agreements? The convention does not specifically exclude non-signatories. Vietnam probably will not ratify the convention before 2011. The existing delays are already frustrating people who want to give children a better life and a home. The essence of the Bill will be lost if we have to wait another two years.
The Minister of State told the international adoption agencies' annual conference on 10 October that there would be no transitional measures. However, the convention's guide to good practice advises:
States are strongly encouraged to consider dividing procedural changes into two categories: those for adoption cases already in process at the time of entry into force (or other changes) and those for new cases beginning after entry into force ... States must, however, clearly indicate which cases will be considered "in process" when the Convention enters into force.
It is unfair to tell people who have invested considerable time and emotional energy into the adoption process that they have to go back to square one. The children are left in limbo as they await the signing of a new bilateral agreement. It is essential that we reach agreements with Ethiopia, Vietnam and Russia. It appears Vietnam is prepared to enter into a new bilateral agreement once we pass this Bill because we will then be Hague proofed.
If we can reach a consensus on the amendments needed in the Bill, why can we not work towards new bilateral agreements in tandem with our deliberations in this House? A previous Minister of State at the Office of the Minister for Children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, stated that a grandfather clause would be provided for those who have adopted already but that is not set out in the Bill. Such a clause makes practical sense for those who have already adopted and we should be able to accommodate it without dispute. The failure to include it in the Bill was clearly an oversight.
Reference has been made to waiting times and our cherry picking of the convention in order to create a less onerous schedule. The proposed structure requires adoption agencies to be vetted by the HSE but if the new adoption agency has a straight relationship with a properly certified agency, why involve the HSE? The post placement reports on Russian adoptions indicate that the HSE has fallen between two stools. In a reply to a parliamentary question I asked in October, the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, assured me the matter was being addressed. However, the social workers assigned to overseeing adoptions must also perform other tasks of a pressing nature. Unless an agency or a unit within the HSE is dedicated to this area, processing will once again give rise to inordinate delays.
I recently met 11 sets of parents who were in the process of adopting children from Vietnam. Nine of them had already adopted one child and wanted to adopt again, while two had not yet adopted. One prospective mother who was far advanced in the process and had already been to Vietnam was distraught by the fear that the transitional arrangements would push her back to square one. Another couple had not progressed far. Couples who have reached a certain stage in Vietnam should be allowed to start from this position if they choose to adopt in another country with which we have a bilateral agreement. I ask the Minister to take account of these practical considerations before Committee Stage.
I welcome the Bill to the House because it offers genuine hope to thousands of couples who desperately want a family but for various reasons cannot have children of their own. It opens the door to giving children a loving home, with an extended family in a new country.
The Bill provides for the incorporation of the Hague Convention into Irish law, a welcome move which will implement minimum standards for the operation of inter-country adoptions and, I hope, improve the adoption experience for couples. As many speakers have noted, however, the legislation has many flaws. An opportunity has been lost to effect positive change and genuine reform of the adoption system.
Many young couples who wish to start a family have endured considerable upset and trauma as a result of unsuccessful pregnancies, infertility and many other challenges that face would-be parents. They desperately want a family of their own and deserve our support and that of the Minister of State with responsibility for children to improve the adoption process and make it more accessible.
New life is extremely important. As a mother, I have experienced the joy of bringing a new baby home to my family. I am also aware of the challenges and opportunities presented by having a child. Many couples who cannot conceive face terrible heartache and sadness. For many of them, adoption is the only avenue left open to have a child. They have endured years of emotional turmoil, endless bureaucracy and psychological testing to qualify as a parent in the eyes of the law. Some will argue that these couples are more qualified as parents than many of those with families of their own. Men and women in this position do not face a nine month pregnancy but four to five years waiting to adopt a child. During this time, they look forward with unbearable hope and excitement to welcoming a new child into their home. They have stored up much love and affection in the knowledge that a whole new world is about to open up for them and their new son or daughter. For this reason, it is important to have in place a proper framework to facilitate adoption and to ensure the process is as straightforward and stress free as possible for parents and children. We know the stress endured by parents but we must not forget that the welfare of the child is paramount and every effort must be made to ensure the child comes first throughout the process.
The experience of adoption in Ireland was once much different from that of today. Many young, single mothers were forced to put their babies up for adoption for fear of bringing shame on their families. The large number of babies available for adoption meant couples at one time did not face a long wait before adopting a child, as is the case today. They did not rely on inter-country adoptions and bureaucracy was minimal. These position at that time created particular problems, however. For example, many birth parents were never able to make a connection with children they did not want to give up for adoption.
The position has changed utterly. Many young mothers with newborn babies can bring them up without stigma and enjoy the love and affection of their family, friends and community. This possibility was not available to many mothers in the past. Ireland has a tradition of fostering and many people foster children aged between four and eight years, filling a gap in the lives of these children with love and family surroundings.
Many couples seeking to adopt a child must look abroad. In recent years, many children have been adopted from a number of foreign countries, principally Russia, China, and Vietnam. These beautiful children have brought great happiness to their new families. In recent months, I have received a large number of e-mails and letters from people who are angry and frustrated as a result of the delays in inter-country adoptions. The Government has allowed bilateral agreements with Vietnam and Russia to lapse. Many people used these agreements as a bridge pending legislation. Couples seeking adoptions in these countries are now stuck in limbo, half way through the adoption process and with no real end in sight.
Once the Bill is enacted, parents will be allowed to adopt only from countries which have signed the Hague Convention. As Russia and Vietnam have not yet signed the convention, adoptions from these counties will no longer be an option for would-be Irish parents. As many as 300 Irish couples are some way through the adoption process with Vietnam. They have been through years of painstaking meetings and interviews with social workers and the Health Service Executive and have been granted what are known as declarations of suitability. Having reached the final hurdle, they are being told they may not cross it. We must not abandon these couples and I plead with the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to resolve these cases as a matter of urgency. New bilateral agreements must be formally agreed to ensure children in Vietnam and Russia are not abandoned.
Another element missing from the Bill is what is known as a "grandfather clause". The introduction of such a clause would enable couples who have adopted a child from a country which has not signed the Hague Convention or with which we do not have a bilateral agreement to adopt a second child from the same country. Such a measure makes sense as it would allow many parents to adopt a brother or sister of an adopted child, thus creating a genuine sense of family. I urge the Minister to introduce a grandfather clause on Committee Stage.
It is also important to take account of the circumstances of biological parents in the adoption process. We must be careful to ensure children are being adopted with all the proper procedures in place and for all the right reasons. If both parties are agreeable, open adoptions, under which biological parents can retain some contact with the child given up for adoption, should be placed on a statutory basis.
I am aware that the adoption process is complicated and I welcome the establishment of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. I hope the authority will help new parents throughout their adoption journey. Proper post-adoption services must be established to help and support families with any difficulties they encounter following an adoption. We must also ensure that money does not dictate who can and cannot adopt a child, especially in the area of foreign adoptions. Only this week, we heard from the United Nations that substantial fees are being charged by some adoption agencies to adopting couples on the pretext that the money will be used for humanitarian purposes. The practice whereby authorities which assist with adoptions in some countries receive large sums of money for signing off on adoptions is unacceptable. Adoption should not be about personal or monetary gain. We must never forgot that it is about the rights and welfare of children.
Between 1991 and 2009, 4,000 children were adopted in Ireland. Many of us will have seen in our communities and families the joy these children bring to couples who are unable to have children. We must continue to work on behalf of couples who wish to bring a child into their home and give him or her loving care. While the legislation goes some way towards assisting such couples, we need to ensure we have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's before it is enacted.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, for which we have waited for a long time. From listening to those who have spoken on this debate, it is clear we all agree that the rights of the child must be protected above all else. The best interests of the child must be at the centre of the debate. I know this is the primary concern of everybody in the House, no matter what party they represent. However, where we disagree is on the process and the time taken to bring forward this Bill.
The purpose of the Adoption Bill 2009 is belatedly to give effect to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. The objectives of the convention are to establish safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised in international law; to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, sale, or traffic in children; and to secure the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention. This convention was concluded in 1993. The Labour Party in Government ratified the convention in 1996. It is 13 years since this happened and it is only now this Fianna Fáil Government has begun the process of giving legal status to this convention.
Every one of us in this House has received passionate e-mails and letters from the parents involved. While we must do it carefully and thoroughly, this process must be moved forward quickly. The major issue for many couples who have been in contact with us is the time spent waiting in limbo, not knowing how long the process will take or if they will ever get recognition.
Any legislation that strengthens the rights of children and eliminates any risks to the children within the adoption process is welcome. We have been waiting more than 20 years for significant reform of the adoption laws in this country. It behoves this House to ensure the Bill is the best possible legislation for children, prospective adoptive parents and for the State. It is also critically important that the rights of the biological parent or parents are protected. Unfortunately, the Adoption Bill 2009 as it stands is not as good as it could be. I hope the amendments put forward by the Labour Party will be accepted on Committee Stage. There should be a detailed discussion on the merits of these amendments, because it is important that we get this Bill right.
The first issue I want to address is inter-country adoption with countries that have not ratified the Hague Convention. Like everyone else in this House, I have been contacted by dozens of worried prospective parents who are concerned that the process through which some of them have been proceeding for five or more years will be cancelled. They will be back to square one, except that there will be another gap before that process can begin again. Their hopes of adopting children will be shattered. Due to age limitations and other such factors such, it imperative that this Bill moves forward quickly.
The majority of domestic adoptions are familial adoptions. Therefore, there are several hundred prospective adoptive parents who cannot adopt children here and who are obliged to look beyond the boundaries of the State. A constituent who is also an adoptive parent summed it up best when he wrote to me stating, "Intercountry adoption is not a first or even a second preference for anyone involved. Children should be raised by their birth parents or another suitable individual or couple within their own culture. However, it is far preferable for the children than life in an institution." I am sure we would all agree with that.
Deputy Noel Ahern's contribution highlighted domestic adoption procedures. He made some interesting points about our need to examine the process for domestic adoptions, and I concur with him on that point. It is a very delicate debate, but we should at least give it an airing and listen to what people have to say. It is not part of this Bill, but we should reconsider it.
Together with Russia and Ethiopia, the Republic of Vietnam has become the country from which most Irish adoptive parents try to secure an adoption. Ireland had an adoption agreement with Vietnam, but this was allowed to lapse by the Minister of State on 1 May. l acknowledge that the process was being delayed before the current Minister of State took over responsibility for it, but this protracted delay is now unacceptable and the issue must be progressed with all speed, while in no way compromising the safety, security or rights of the child, of his or her biological parents, or those of the adoptive parents. The arrangements in place with Vietnam and the lapsing of the bilateral agreement are generating huge concerns. The Minister of State now informs us that he needs to consider the MoLISA and ISS reports on adoption in Vietnam, but this was not the case at the beginning of the year.
In response to a series of parliamentary questions on 27 January, the Minster for State finished his reply by stating, "The work to prepare for and advise the Government on this issue and the implementation of the Government's decisions is being given the highest priority." We are ten months down the road and I would not like to think this delay implies the highest priority. I appreciate that it will not happen within a day or a week, but we have waited a long time and there are so many frustrated prospective parents out there that we need to move things forward quickly. It is clear that ten months later, we are no nearer to securing a new agreement with Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia or with any other country that has not ratified the Hague Convention and on which the Minister of State now gives no commitment.
The Minister of State offered the opinion in January that the adoption agreement could not be allowed to "roll over" for an additional five years due to the changes in the Irish adoption system. It was therefore incumbent on him to secure a new inter-country adoption agreement. He would have received the same entreaties as I did from prospective parents at their wits' end. Despite this, securing a new agreement was not achieved and many prospective parents have questioned the actions of the Minister of State. I have had some angry e-mails and letters from prospective parents wondering why he has not moved this forward.
The plight of some of these people is all too real and heartbreaking in many cases. I have received dozens of e-mails, a sample of which goes as follows:
We are asking for you to help us with a situation that is breaking our hearts, and those of hundreds of other prospective adoptive parents from around the country...our hearts are broken thinking of our baby in an orphanage every minute of the day. We are pleading with you all to help us and the 250 plus couples that have been approved for adoption...unless people are personally affected by Vietnam then they have no idea of the heartache of the not knowing what is going on. Over the last seven years, we have had two failed IVFs and countless surgical procedures and were told that it would not be possible to conceive a child naturally... adoption is our very last chance of becoming parents.
The pain these families are going through is real. All of them want a chance to bring a child up in a loving situation. In the case of inter-country adoption, they are able to offer the child opportunities that children in Ireland take for granted and which they would be unlikely to have in their own country, particularly as it is likely they would end up in orphanages.
I want to quote another prospective adoptive parent who wrote to me. She stated:
We obviously fully support Ireland ratifying the Hague convention and strongly believe that strict controls need to be in place regarding inter-country adoptions. However, we believe that the Minister's approach to the introduction of this Bill will lead to havoc in inter-country adoption over the next few years.
These are strong and passionate statements coming from those who are truly concerned about the impact this delay is having on their opportunities and prospects for adoption.
At the recent inter-country adoption conference, an expert speaker stated that most countries which passed the legislation did not automatically stop working with non-Hague countries, as the Minister of State is intent on doing, it would appear. There is no argument about the need for the highest, most rigorous standards in the adoption process. However, from the very many parents who have been in touch with me in recent months, it is clear that they have been put through the most demanding and challenging process. Not one of them is questioning the need for a rigorous process and they are all happy to engage in it. Nonetheless, they are irritated by the fact that it takes so long and because they must jump through so many hoops in order to get to the other end of the process. Having been through the gruelling process and having waited in hope for a child that they truly want to cherish and provide a good home for, their disappointment defies description.
It is right that Ireland must protect the rights of a child and ensure that inter-country adoption is of the highest standards. Where we have an issue with the Government is that there are so many families in the inter-country adoption process for whom the opportunity has been closed off. They have gone through so much, they have responded to the intense investigations and consultations with social workers, they have gone before the Adoption Board and many have travelled to countries in other continents - I am thinking particularly of Vietnam - only to be told now, years into the process, that the Government can no longer sanction such inter-country adoptions.
I want to quote from another parent, because parents are at the cutting edge of this debate:
Our primary concern is the proposal not to introduce a transitional arrangement for this Bill. Adoptive parents are at various stages in the adoption process. It is just not practical or humane to suggest that as soon as the Adoption Bill comes into law that no further adoptions can take place from non-Hague countries. Some parents are on waiting lists, may have received referrals for children from non-Hague countries or may have met and bonded with these children. They cannot be told just to relinquish these children. Those parents will probably return to Ireland with their children and will rely on the High Court to sort out the situation.
That is another angle from a parent with a slightly different concern.
Three main areas that have been outlined by my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, where amendments are proposed. I urge the Minister to accept these amendments on Committee Stage. First, there is the need to put transitional arrangements in place for families that are in the process of adopting a child from a country that has not yet ratified the convention. This has been debated and referred to by all speakers. Those transitional arrangements are extremely important, I would suggest, for the sanity of parents who are waiting and wondering what will happen in the intervening period. Second, there is a need to provide for a bilateral arrangements to be put in place, in certain circumstances, with specific countries that are not in a position to ratify the convention, for example, Ethiopia. Third, there is a need to introduce a "grandfather clause" which would facilitate families who have already adopted a child from a particular country and who wish to adopt another child with a similar cultural background. This issue should be looked on sensitively. If such adoptive parents have already been through a process and gone through all the interviews with the social workers and the Adoption Board, and they are aware of a child from the same country from which they have already adopted a child, surely it makes sense that they would be already accredited as being suitable, that the process would move forward quickly and efficiently, and that a facility would be allowed for this grandfather clause. These are three key issues that must be addressed to restore confidence to prospective adoptive parents.
Just as important is the need to move this legislation quickly, albeit thoroughly, so that prospective parents are not left in limbo any longer. It is unfair to the prospective parents as well as to the child who might be benefiting from the security of a caring home and family, and who might otherwise be in an orphanage with little of the comforts of a family environment and little hope for the future. We know the process here can take anything up to four or five years. However, depending on where one lives in the country, the process can be very quick or much slower. This situation needs to be addressed. We must examine the question of the resources that are needed and available, and how they are put in place and distributed in an even fashion throughout the country. Just because one happens to live in area A, one becomes victimised in terms of the length of time it takes to get through the process. We must consider this and find how it can be co-ordinated and moved forward so there is not this differentiation just because one is, let us say, geographically compromised.
In summary, the three key points we would like to see are the transitional arrangements, the bilateral arrangements and the grandfather clause. I urge that the legislation be taken quickly. I am certain we will have a number of additional amendments on Committee Stage, where there will be an opportunity to look in much greater detail at the specific implications of this legislation.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. Its purpose is to implement into Irish law the Hague convention on the Protection of Children and Inter-country Adoption 1993, to replace the Adoption Board with a new authority and to consolidate the Adoption Acts 1952-98 into a single Act. I have listened to the important points made by Deputy Upton, who correctly reflected the level of concern and the huge delay involved. It is important to ratify the Hague convention and statutorily provide for the inter-country adoptions to be in accordance with the standards set out in the convention, to repeal the Adoption Acts of 1952 and 1998 and bring forward or restate or update the provisions of those Acts, and to establish the Adoption Board as the adoption authority of Ireland with additional functions and powers. When we consider the concerns of parents who wish to adopt children, it is very unfortunate that people must go through the rigours, delays and frustrations, sometimes due to lack of staffing, that can prevail from the north west to the south west. It is important this is dealt with in a very compassionate way.
The current legislative basis for domestic and inter-country adoption is the Adoption Acts 1952 and 1998 but there has been a seismic shift since then. The trend was initiated by the Romanian orphanage crisis and the publicity it received in the media. In total, 3,569 overseas adoptions were registered by the Adoption Board between 1991 and 2007. There are still many opportunities and in excess of 1,600 people are waiting for their applications to be processed. This is unfair in many ways and the issue has been discussed for a long time. There is also the situation with regard to Vietnam and the opportunities there. There has been an appeal to Deputies around the country with regard to delays, frustrations and the lack of clarification. Significant commitment is needed to put the regulation in place.
It is important that we speed up the adoption process. When there are people with facilities and who are approved by the HSE, I cannot understand why there are significant delays. It is incomprehensible when we are part of the European Union, as one would imagine there would be a uniformity of regulation within Europe. I hope Ireland will ratify the Hague Convention and for that action there will be a reaction from Russia and even the Ukraine or other countries from where people may adopt children. It is a pity there has been such difficulty.
The 1996 Hague Convention and the areas of co-operation covered by it include assistance in locating a missing child, the furnishing on request by authorities in one state of a report and other information which may be relevant to a decision concerning protection of a child in another state and the notification of the fact that a child who is seriously at risk has moved from one state to another. There is also a provision for consultation in respect of a decision by authorities in one state to place a child in care, such as foster care or an institution, in another state. It also concerns facilitation through mediation and similar means of agreed solutions for the protection of a child, such as in a parental custody dispute.
At present the prospects for the convention are encouraging. It is important that Ireland ratifies it and I know the United Kingdom and Australia have reacted quite positively as well. Considering the human position behind the matter, there are people with ways and means, as well as accreditation. They are able to give a child who may otherwise be in an orphanage a loving home and care, which is very important.
The principal feature in the Bill relates to the Hague Convention. Part 3 provides for the placing of a child for adoption and the care of a child pending placement. It also provides for an accredited body, which is very important. The big concern is facilitation and the register, along with security. Society has changed in many ways and accreditation is given by multiple State authorities. With the new statutory body to be set up it is important resources are made available to deal with the matter.
Will the Minister give a timeframe for the Bill's implementation? When will the Adoption Bill 2009 become law? Deputy Shatter will put forward amendments to it on behalf of Fine Gael. He is a recognised expert on adoptions and other inter-country issues within the State. This country can in many ways become preoccupied with the creation of legislation but the difficulty can come with enactment and operation of provisions.
It is important that the International Adoption Association welcomed the Adoption Bill 2009. It indicated that the Bill will ultimately allow Ireland to ratify the Hague Convention and that one of the more important provisions of the legislation will be for the appropriate Minister to establish bilateral agreements with non-Hague countries, from which Irish families have adopted over 1,400 children to date. The Hague Convention is very important but Ireland should get involved proactively and sign these bilateral agreements. People have the prospect of bringing children in from Vietnam, Russia or the Ukraine and it is important for us to move the issue forward.
The Bill would make it imperative that the Government speedily establish such bilateral agreements with several countries to ensure children in need are not excluded from the possibility of securing a family life instead of languishing in institutions. That is the nub of the matter. When dealing with children, I do not understand why there should be any delay whatever. The matter is being discussed for quite a while. What is the reason for the delay?
The grandfather clause has been recommended by the Law Reform Commission, which has done a comprehensive report on this. Its opinion should be considered. Such action would reduce the appalling waiting lists for assessments and bring about support for post-adoption services for children. That is important. The long assessment can bring about trauma and disappointment. Prospective parents do not mind spending money and are very determined to do whatever is needed within regulations.
It is not preferable to keep any child in an institution when there is a possibility of a suitable permanent placement abroad. It is sad that many more children reside in institutions than are adopted either domestically or internationally. I hope this Bill will enable Ireland to help as many of these children as possible. It is the backbone of this effort. There are people with financial means, facilities and accreditation and they could bring people out of institutions and put them into family homes.
As a caring nation, we should be leading the way on this issue. I am very disappointed that we have not ratified the Hague Convention to date. The issue has languished for ages, as I know from letters I have received from parents in my constituency. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill. With politicians, it is not about how much we know but how much we care. It is about time we started caring for people who want to adopt children. Such people do not want excuses; they want implementation, recommendations and encouragement to take children from orphanages in order to put them in family homes. The State should facilitate that.
I am delighted to speak on this very important Bill. It will be timely for many people lost in the wilderness waiting to adopt children, particularly those in other countries. There are a number of issues that must be addressed but which are not taken in by this Bill, one of which is the variation in waiting times around the country.
It is inexplicable and grossly unfair that people living in urban areas wait much longer than those in rural areas to have their assessments completed by social workers and psychologists. There is even variation between large urban areas, with waiting times much longer in Dublin than in Cork.
As my good friend, Deputy Creed, has said, they are very long in Cork but they are even longer in Dublin.
I regret that the Minister cannot be with us, although I know another report is being issued now. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, for being here and I know he has an interest in child welfare. It can take anything from three to four and a half years to gain a complete assessment and declaration, which is outrageous. There is absolutely no need for the process to take this long.
I remember dealing with this issue 15 years ago on the Eastern Health Board. We were promised more social workers and although some were appointed, it was nowhere near the necessary amount. Given that we have such a problem with social workers and their availability, why are we not allowed use private psychologists? There should be an approved list from the HSE of psychologists who can charge for the service. There is an issue of fairness and private versus public services but if people are prepared to pay for the service, it would at least shorten the time waiting for those who cannot pay and who are not on the list to be assessed. If we are not prepared to employ the social workers required to complete this work, we should be prepared to look at other alternatives. The safety of children is very important and we want assessments to be carried out by properly trained, independent, accredited individuals. This is possible if the procedure is properly regulated through the HSE. I am aware some people have managed to get their assessments done more quickly and I understand Church of Ireland assessments can be carried out within six months. Why is there such disparity and where are transparency and fairness to be seen? It is bad enough that prospective parents must wait from three to four and a half years to get their declaration, but they then have to go on a waiting list for inter-country adoptions, which can take from another three months to a year.
I know we can have difficulties and issues with foreign countries, but these issues are beyond our control. Surely to God, however, we can control what happens within our borders and show compassion to the 10% of couples who are infertile, but who are generous enough of spirit to want to adopt a child and bring him or her up as their own and to afford him or her the best opportunities in life. There is no doubt in my mind that the best place for a child to be brought up is in a family, except when unfortunate conditions interfere with the well-being of that family, as happens from time to time. The best place for a child to be reared is in a family home.
The Bill does not address the waiting time for adoption. In this regard, the wording of the Bill on processing adoptions has been changed from "expeditiously" to "as soon as is practicable". This seems a watering down of any sense of urgency. We must remember that people who put themselves forward as adoptive parents have already exhausted all the fertility options and have been through significant trauma. To put them through another three to five years of trauma waiting for an assessment seems grossly unfair and unnecessary. I accept the UN report published this week expresses some concerns about the procedures in some countries, but that should not stand in the way of us streamlining and improving the efficiency of our adoption system.
The Bill does not seem to address the area of sole applicants, an area that should be covered. There is an issue also with regard to the figures that have been provided. It seems that in the Dublin region alone no new inter-country adoption requests were reported from September 2008 to June 2009. Based on previous figures, we would have expected at least 80 first-time applicants per quarter, or from 220 to 240 applications over the period. What is the explanation for this? The lack of transparency in this regard undermines the bona fides of the Bill. I would like an explanation as to why no requests were reported and the Minister should ensure the House is given this explanation.
Another major issue is the lack of a grandfather clause that would allow applicants who have adopted from a country that is not signed up to the Hague Convention or a bilateral agreement to adopt again from the same country. This provision could include a time limit, but it should be included in the Bill. Otherwise, we could have a situation where a sibling of a child already adopted cannot be adopted. Surely it is always better to keep siblings together where possible. I urge the Minister to address this area.
A few weeks ago, Deputy Kenny raised the issue that the provisions of the Bill will mean that anyone with a declaration in hand and commencement for an adoption from a bilateral country or one that is not signed up to the Hague Convention may be disenfranchised, despite having been in the process for four or five years. This is grossly unfair. The Taoiseach indicated the Government would look at this and I hope the Minister will do more than that and address the anomaly. We need an interim measure period to apply so that those already in the process will not have to go through the whole process again.
We also need to address the matter of our interpretation of the Hague Convention. The interpretation in the Bill means we cannot adopt from countries that are not signed up to the Hague Convention. However, other member states of the European Union that are signed up to the convention still allow arrangements for inter-country adoption not party to the convention. Our interpretation is unfair to prospective adoptive parents here and to the children of those countries not party to the convention. It is unfair they cannot avail of our help or the opportunities adoption in this country would present for them. It is extraordinary that people who have gone through the assessment process - we have already outlined how hard, long and onerous that process is - must go through the assessment again if they wish to adopt a second child, although it does not take as long the second time. Unless there is some extraordinary concern, a second assessment should be an exception rather than the rule. I hope this issue will be addressed.
The bottom line is that we do not have enough social workers, do not avail of private psychologists and are ignoring the needs of our people who want to share their lives with children in need from other countries. While I fully accept the Minister's bona fides and his concerns around activity in some countries, this is no excuse for not addressing the issues that cause such hardship, stress and angst to our citizens.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Adoption Bill 2009. I have listened to the contributions made over the past few hours, some of which have been very emotional and all of which have been serious. One of the objects of the Bill is to ratify the Hague Convention and to statutorily provide for inter-country adoptions in accordance with the standards set out in the convention. It also proposes to repeal the Adoption Acts of 1952 to 1998 and restate and update the provisions of these Acts as appropriate. It will also reconstitute the Adoption Board as the Adoption Authority of Ireland, with additional functions and powers.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. While 42,000 adoption orders have been made in this country since 1952, there has been a dramatic change in the pattern of adoptions here. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 2,000 Irish children were adopted in the United States. These children were mainly placed with families with Irish connections. However, in 1996 it emerged that more than 200 of those who were sent to the United States as young children found it very difficult to trace their origins because in many cases the parents' names on the birth certificates were false.
From 1990 onwards there has been significant change in the pattern of adoptions which is reflective of the change in this country. The election of Mary Robinson as President of Ireland in 1990 was a defining moment in Irish history. In her speech at her inauguration she spoke about the fifth province:
The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each of us – that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in.
We have begun to show new confidence in ourselves. There is a changing attitude and acceptance which has made it easier for single mothers to keep their children whereas in the past they were forced to give them up. We all have cousins, brothers and sisters or uncles and aunts who have adopted children in the past but the situation is now very different for those hoping to become adoptive parents. Many couples are turning to other countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam and Romania to adopt a child. In the period between 1991 and 2007, more than 3,565 children were adopted into Ireland from abroad with 31% of that total coming from Russia and 22% from Romania. We all remember the television pictures showing the Romanian dictator being killed by the mob in Romania and the pictures of the orphanages and institutions where children were held in atrocious conditions. The conditions in which those children lived was a revelation to us.
The majority of children adopted from abroad were aged 17 months on average. Some were older and others had psychological problems. More than 80% of the children had spent time in institutional care. From 2007 onwards there has been a dramatic increase in the number of adoptions from Vietnam and most speakers have focused in their contributions on the current problems associated with the adoption of children from Vietnam.
Every public representative knows the pain and anguish suffered by couples in their bid to become adoptive parents. In 2007, 130 babies, mostly girls, were adopted, compared to 68 in the previous year. The number of children adopted from Russia also increased from 143 in 2006 to 160 in 2007. Various studies and reports show that it costs a minimum of $11,000 to arrange an adoption in Vietnam. Families who take this decision do not do so lightly and are distraught at the failure of this Government to agree a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam when the previous agreement ended in May. Several of those families have contacted most public representatives and they have contacted me through my constituency office in Ennis.
I wish to relate some of their stories to the Minister of State and the House:
The waiting is the worst. We are in limbo. The delay in agreeing a new bilateral probably means we will never have the chance now to have a child.
These are the words of one parent. Another couple first applied to adopt a child in 2003 and had been very close to concluding the adoption process. The mother's words are harrowing:
I have a room ready. I spent days deciding on the colour, the pictures. I wanted to make sure that everything was right. I was going to adopt a little girl. I bought her clothes, I had a little cot and now I am absolutely gutted.
My husband and I had been in the adoption process for five years. We received our declaration of suitability last August and we have been registered to adopt from Vietnam since then. We would have expected to receive a referral for a child next month. I cannot describe to you what we and hundreds and people like us are going through right now. We are heartbroken by the way the Government is treating us. It is beyond cruel. We have travelled to Vietnam, we have learned some of the language and we cannot believe that while we have worked so hard this is slipping away from us now and we ask you for help.
These are some of the stories from some of the families who contacted me at my office in Ennis. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, has the same stories to report.
More than 240 families who have already registered with the Helping Hands agency are now left in limbo since the old agreement ran out in May. These families feel let down by the Government. The Minister of State needs to clarify the situation as to whether he intends to conclude a new agreement with Vietnam. It is also important that the Hague Convention be ratified. I remind the Minister of State that countries such as France and Italy have ratified the Hague Convention and have new bilateral agreements with Vietnam. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, who is deputising for Deputy Barry Andrews, to clarify the situation. The lack of a new agreement is very distressing and traumatic for most families involved.
As previous speakers have said, the lack of the grandfather clause is another issue and one which I wish to address. This clause would allow post-adoptive applicants to conduct a subsequent adoption from the country of birth of a first adopted child. I refer to a recent report on adoption from Vietnam commissioned by UNICEF Vietnam and the Vietnamese adoption department of the justice ministry. This is an important report of which every public representative, the Minister and the Minister of State with responsibility for children, should read and take note. It details the major inadequacies in the adoption process applied in Vietnam and proposes that Vietnam suspend inter-country adoptions for the necessary period during 2010, to implement the Hague Convention on inter-country adoptions and to prepare for entry into force of the new law on adoption in 2011. It could be a long time before Vietnam reaches an agreement on adoptions. Among the many recommendations contained in the report is that foreign authorities should examine how they might play a more active role in monitoring the actions of adoption agencies from their respective countries as well as the timely investigation of any alleged malpractice, possibly through joint initiatives.
I ask the Minister of State to clarify the situation. Under the expired bilateral agreement a review committee composed of officials from the Department of Health and Children and the Vietnamese authorities overseeing the work of the bilateral agreement during the past five years was in place but following parliamentary questions that committee refused to publish any documentary information about its meetings.
The previous Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, promised a grandfather clause in the Adoption Bill. The Law Reform Commission also recommended a grandfather clause. I appeal to the Minister of State to include the clause by amending section 81 of the Bill. It is important in the first instance that children are protected and the ratification of the Hague Convention is a positive step. There is a lot more which could be included in the Bill. I hope the Minister will address these issues.