Thursday, 27 June 2013
Topical Issue Debate
I appreciate the fact the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs cannot attend the Chamber for this matter but I welcome the fact the Minister for Justice and Equality will take it.
I am not an expert on international adoption law and all it entails. However, I subscribe to the principle that it needs to be international standards-based and child-centred. Everyone engaged in the process would also subscribe to those principles.
I am hoping the Minister will be able to update us on the conclusion of a bilateral adoption agreement with Russia. I also want to raise the issue of the pre-Haguers, namely those who, before Ireland's ratification of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoptions, had approval to pursue an adoption but which expires on 31 October 2013. The process by which a couple are approved by the Adoption Authority, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, is rigorous and can take up to several years with courses, studies, medical examinations and financial commitment. There is also a significant emotional commitment on the part of these couples. I have several constituents who would be termed pre-Haguers and have been in the adoption process for over 11 years. Can one imagine the roller coaster that this has been? Now, on the cusp of effecting an adoption in Russia, they face a trauma if they do not complete it by 31 October.
The Minister will be aware that the adoption process involves registration with the country in which a couple is trying to effect an adoption, a referral process and engagement with that country's court system to secure a decree, which effectively gives a couple the right to subsequently approach the Irish Embassy to secure a passport for the child being adopted. All the pre-Hague Convention couples who have invested significantly - not least emotionally - in this process over a long period are now faced with an arbitrary cut-off date of 31 October.
My request to the Minister is twofold. I urge him to do everything possible, in conjunction with his Government colleagues and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to effect a bilateral adoption agreement with the Russian authorities as quickly as possible. More importantly, for those who are currently engaged in the process, there needs to be an in-process grace period for those who can prove, to an acceptable standard, that they are engaged in the process and have a referral and that a child has been identified for them for adoption, but who are now victims of the torturous administrative and court processes in these countries through which they must go to effect an adoption. These people need an in-process grace period to facilitate them in completing adoptions. My request is twofold: first, I ask for an update on the bilateral negotiations and, second, from a humanitarian perspective, I ask the Minister to put in place an interim arrangement for the pre-Hague Convention couples who are engaged in the process of adoption and who face, after several years and after enormous investment in that process, the rug being pulled from underneath their feet in trying to effect an adoption in these countries for which they have a referral.
I thank Deputy Creed for raising this very important issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald.
The Adoption Act 2010 provides for inter-country adoption between countries that have ratified the Hague Convention or between countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement. Section 63 of the Act, which allows applicants who held valid declarations prior to the commencement of the 2010 Act to proceed with adoption in a non-Hague Convention country, refers to "a state that, in the opinion of the [adoption] Authority, applied standards regarding the adoption concerned that accord with those in the Hague Convention". This measure will have been in place for three years when it expires at the end of October. I am advised that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has no plans to extend the provisions any further than that.
Russia became a signatory to the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption on 1 September 2000 but, unfortunately, to date it has not ratified the convention. Therefore, for inter-country adoptions with Russia to continue after 31 October 2013, when the transitional arrangements for prospective adoptive parents holding declarations of eligibility and suitability to adopt issued prior to the commencement of the Adoption Act 2010 come to an end, it would be necessary to negotiate a bilateral agreement under Article 73 of the Adoption Act 2010.
In March of this year, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, travelled to Moscow, accompanied by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, in order to discuss at a diplomatic level the potential for a bilateral agreement with Russia. During her visit she met her counterpart Dmitry Livanov, the Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. This meeting was productive and allowed for an exchange of views on the possibility of Ireland's entering into a bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption with Russia. The Russian authorities acknowledged the satisfactory outcomes for the 1,300 or more Russian children adopted in Ireland since 2002 and expressed a willingness to conclude an agreement which would be subject to the approval of the Russian Parliament. The Minister stated that many Irish families were hopeful of completing future adoptions of Russian children.
During these meetings the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, reiterated to the Russian authorities that the Irish Constitution protects the integrity of family life and that once adopted in Ireland the child is treated in the same way as all other Irish children. This means that the ability of the State to intervene in a family when a child's welfare and protection is not compromised is limited. The Minister highlighted the implications of this constitutional imperative in instances in which families who have given commitments to the Russian authorities in regard to the provision of post-placement reports - that is, reports to the Russian authorities subsequent to the completion of an adoption - fail to adhere to those commitments. In these instances the State has no legislative power to enforce compliance with the commitments given by Irish families, legal or otherwise, to provide post-placement reports. In saying this, she emphasised the high standards of child protection that exist in Ireland for all children and the legislative basis under which these standards are enforced. The Minister also emphasised the commitment of the State to intervene in instances in which the safety or welfare of any child, adopted or otherwise, is in any way compromised and outlined the total commitment of the Irish Government to child protection and welfare.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has undertaken an examination of the draft bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption proposed by the Russian Federation. The Department has focused in particular on the issue of post-placement reporting for Russian children adopted in Ireland, which the Russian authorities have indicated will be a necessary component of any bilateral agreement. To this end, a draft wording of the sections of the draft bilateral agreement that relate to post-placement reporting is being developed. Departmental officials are in active discussions with officials in the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Foreign Affairs on advancing a draft agreement for consideration by the Russian authorities. The Minister has invited the Russian authorities to visit Ireland in September with a view to finalising consideration of this aspect of the draft bilateral agreement.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome the progress that is being made on the ongoing negotiations on the bilateral agreement and I hope the concerns of the Russian authorities about post-placement reports can be resolved in the context of the constitutional provisions on the family and so on. I believe that if there is a willingness on both sides, an agreement can be successfully concluded. However, I must place on record my deep dissatisfaction with the comment in the reply that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has no plans to extend the provision any further for those pre-Hague Convention couples who have up to 31 October to effect an adoption. Some couples have been engaged in this process for many years - in some cases, for more than a decade - and, leaving aside everything else, they have invested an enormous amount emotionally in this roller coaster. They have been tossed from Russia to China and back in circumstances in which where they were not always in control of events and they are now on the cusp of effecting legal adoptions, but the process may not be concluded by 31 October. In order words, a couple that have literally seen, held and bonded with a child may now find the child taken from their grasp. My request in respect of them is a simple proposal. Surely it is within the capacity of the Department to effect an in-process grace period for them if they can prove they have a referral and have registered in the courts for the necessary legal steps to be completed. Surely it is within the capacity of the Department to deal with those circumstances. There are a handful of these couples in the country. This would not be a dangerous legal precedent and it is the humanitarian thing to do.
I am very conscious of the emotional roller coaster experienced by couples who first go through the process of being assessed as suitable for adoption, along with all the details and timeframes, and then face uncertainty in the outcome, which causes a great deal of worry and concern. It is a cause for celebration when a couple gets a declaration of eligibility and suitability. I am also conscious that the changes effected not only in our adoption legislation but globally in this area by a number of states in terms of the nature of the compliance procedures that must be met, and the uncertainty in international relations that on occasion gives rise to delays in concluding bilateral agreements, add to the stress of the process.
I listened carefully to what my colleague, Deputy Michael Creed, had to say and will convey his views to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I am conscious that if individuals have been through this process, are on the verge of adopting a child or have been introduced to a child, or even if they are not in that position but have a declaration of eligibility and suitability based on an assumption that they will adopt in a particular state and have spent some time learning all they need to know about the background matters of importance in effecting an adoption in that state, it is a cause of great disruption and emotional stress if it ultimately does not prove possible to effect an adoption. I will relay to the Minister what the Deputy had to say. I hope the conversations she plans to hold in September with the Russian delegation prove productive and that it will be possible to arrange a meeting and and that there will be a satisfactory outcome. In the absence of Russia's implementation of the Hague convention in its domestic legislation, as opposed to merely being a signatory to the convention, the only way to facilitate Irish couples or individual applicants in adopting in Russia is through a bilateral agreement. As I am familiar with the area, I am conscious that there are certain difficulties with regard to post-placement reports. I hope it will proves possible for the Minister to resolve these difficulties in a manner which the Russian Federation regards as suitable and appropriate, as well as in a manner that is compatible with our domestic law.