Dáil debates

Friday, 9 May 2014

Open Adoption Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]


11:00 am

Photo of Anne FerrisAnne Ferris (Wicklow, Labour)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:15 am

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, Ceann Comhairle)
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I welcome Deputy Charles Flanagan on his first appearance as Minister in the Chamber. I am sure I speak on behalf of everybody when I wish him every success in his post.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.

I thank the House for the opportunity to debate this legislation. I thank Deputy Anne Ferris, in particular, for the time and effort she has put into developing this Private Members' Bill. I acknowledge the work of my predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in this Department up to this week and wish her well with her responsibilities in the Department of Justice and Equality. I wish to continue and build on her programme as set out under the programme for Government.

It is something of a coincidence that my first ministerial speech is on a Private Members' adoption Bill, as my maiden speech as a Member of this House in April 1987 was, I recall, on a Private Members' adoption motion. I mention that merely to record the coincidence and my interest in this issue.

Deputy Anne Ferris and Members will be aware that the current position in Ireland is that the Adoption Act 2010 provides for closed adoptions - that is, once an adoption is finalised, all links between the child and its natural parent or parents are legally severed. In other jurisdictions open adoptions,where some measure of agreed access is legally maintained, are the norm. Recent research from the United States highlights the benefits of open adoption for the birth mother, the adopted person and the adoptive parents. A recent US Government publication entitled Working with Birth and Adoptive Families to Support Open Adoption outlines the positive benefits for all those involved in open adoptions. These benefits are seen not just to relate to the legal openness of the adoption itself but also to the level of emotional and psychological openness and transparency that it provides in the adoption environment. However, it is acknowledged that research on open adoptions is at a relatively early stage and a more long-term analysis would be beneficial.

While acknowledging that the current legal position in Ireland is that adoptions are closed, practice in domestic adoptions in this country sometimes results in informally agreed arrangements regarding ongoing contact between the child and its natural parent or parents. This is especially true in familiar and step-parent adoptions where the stability and regularisation of the child's living arrangements has to be balanced against the circumstances of its relationship with its birth parent.

I recognise the need for legislation to be updated to reflect both international and domestic developments. As is often the case with social policy, norms move and change and we, as legislators, must respond.

The influence of social media and the Internet also has implications for adoption. The majority of children and teenagers have immediate access to the Internet and know how to use it, and if one knows where to look, there is a great deal of information available on the Internet. This phenomenon is changing the face of privacy and confidentiality, including with regard to adoption. Therefore, the influence of technology on adoption is also an issue that has resulted in a need to reform adoption legislation.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to enact legislation to consolidate and reform the law on adoption. It is within this overall context that it was intended that the provision for open adoption would be taken forward. Two priority issues were identified for address in advance of this wider and comprehensive reform of our adoption law. The constitutional referendum on children incorporated an important provision proposing to amend the Irish Constitution so as to allow for the adoption of children of marriage in Ireland. To coincide with this referendum, the general scheme of a draft adoption (amendment) Bill 2012 was published which showed, using the format of a detailed Bill, the Government's proposals in legislative form in the event that the amendment to change the Constitution was successful. Deputies will be aware that there are outstanding proceedings in the courts currently that prevent the finalisation of the constitutional amendment. It is my intention to introduce the Adoption (Amendment) Bill to provide for the adoption of children of marriage as soon as these constitutional matters are completed. They are currently before the High Court and it could be the case that the Supreme Court passes judgment on them before we are in a position to introduce the appropriate legislative measures.

The other priority in the area of adoption being addressed by my Department relates to adoption information and tracing. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is on record as saying she wished that as much information as possible about their identity would be available to persons affected by adoption. I too acknowledge that there is a need to provide those involved in adoption with as much information as possible about their identity, medical issues and the circumstances of their birth. Recent focus on this matter has been heightened by the efforts of Philomena Lee and the life story she recounted about the search for her son.

Proposals in the form of legislation are being finalised in my Department with regard to adoption information and tracing in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General. As soon as this work is concluded I intend to seek the approval of Government for the referral of the general scheme of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for the purpose of its consideration. I am conscious that this Bill in the name of Deputy Anne Ferris seeks to legislate for some of the matters I intend to address in some way by way of this adoption (information and tracing) Bill.

The enactment of adoption legislation consequent on the children's referendum and provision for information and tracing is a priority in my Department. However, in line with the commitment in the programme for Government, it is timely that a review of adoption law in more general terms would take place with a view to updating and modernising it. I hope this review, my own consideration of the Act, submissions received from stakeholders and the contents of the Bill proposed by Deputy Anne Ferris can all inform the reform process for adoption legislation in our jurisdiction. Consideration of Deputy Anne Ferris's Bill by the Joint Committee on Health and Children will greatly facilitate debate on progress on this very important component of the modernisation of our adoption law.

While I acknowledge the benefits of open adoptions, and strongly support open adoption in principle, it should be noted that all of the implications of the Bill must be given full and detailed consideration. Review to date has identified areas that may require fuller and detailed consideration. These include issues related to its retrospective application, having regard to the legal basis of existing adoptions and the constitutional and legal rights of those involved; the possible implications for inter-country adoption; and greater consideration of sensitive situations where it may not be in the best interests of the child to be the subject of an open adoption. I have no doubt that the work and deliberations of the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children and liaison between my Department and the Deputy will assist in this matter.

I express my gratitude to Deputy Anne Ferris for the way in which she has approached this issue. I said open adoptions promoted transparency in the adoption process. I believe the personal experience recounted by the Deputy will add to the positive and constructive debate on this matter, because, as she rightly said, behind every statistic is a real person, of whom she is one.

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I want to ensure the best outcomes for children and that the laws governing their welfare are framed in their best interests. I would be very pleased to work constructively with Deputy Anne Ferris and other Deputies on her proposals for the introduction of open adoption. I, therefore, ask that the Joint Committee on Health and Children examine the Bill on open adoption proposed by the Deputy and that my Department, the Deputy and all Deputies have the benefit of this consideration.

11:25 am

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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Before speaking to the Bill, I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, on his appointment and look forward to constructive and robust engagement with him in the time ahead on the many important issues relevant to his portfolio. I also wish his predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, all the best in her new responsibilities. She played a significant role in the area of child welfare in the past three years. While we were not always in agreement, I always enjoyed our exchanges in this House.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and compliment Deputy Anne Ferris on the introduction of this Bill. I welcome the Minister's statement that the Bill is to be sent to the Joint Committee on Health and Children for examination in terms of the merits of what is proposed.

The Bill seeks to allow adoptive parents and close blood relatives of an adopted child to agree access arrangements. It also proposes that the existing law be changed to allow the natural parent or relatives to agree measures to facilitate ongoing access to the child with the Adoption Authority in advance of an adoption or the adopters afterwards. Currently, once a child is adopted, no such entitlement exists for natural parents and their relatives, such as grandparents. That existing law provides that all contact be severed must be examined.

In bringing forward this legislation the Deputy cites her own experiences and makes clear that this is about the needs of the adopted child. It is welcome that in this legislation, as in much other children-related legislation that we discuss, the best interests of the child are paramount. The Deputy's point regarding modern Irish family life having changed so much is particularly valid. She contends that an adopted child growing up knowing about his or her two mothers should become as normal as the childhood of a classmate who has parents and step-parents. It is difficult to disagree with such an assertion.

The Bill also seeks to amend the Adoption Act 2010, brought through the Oireachtas by former Minister of State, Barry Andrews, which did not provide for open adoptions. As rightly pointed out earlier by the Minister, as society changes legislation dealing with social issues must also change and continue to evolve. The concept of open adoption has garnered much support in recent times. It is worth looking at the concept as we seek to update and review our adoption laws. Open or semi-open adoption or adoption with contact has become ever more popular. In each case, the fundamental principle of adoption remains, namely, the adopting parents are responsible for the child.

Open adoption enables the birth mother and other family members to choose from a number of prospective adopters. In some cases, the birth mother may meet the prospective adopting parents before an adoption order is made. With a semi-open adoption, there is no direct contact and the birth mother may be informed in such a way that does not identify would-be adopters, and consequently does not impinge on the anonymity or privacy of those involved. Various models of open adoption in place in other jurisdictions - Oregon in the United States being an example - permit an arranged level of contact between the child and its birth parents and other family members to be maintained. The level of contact can vary on the basis of the wishes and priorities of the various parties but may include occasional visits, phone calls and e-mails.

As pointed out by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the independent child rapporteur and expert in child law,the key advantage of open adoption is that, without compromising the legal integrity of the adoption process, the adopted child is aware of his or her origins, can have preplanned and controlled access to his or her birth parents and the pain of permanent separation of birth parent and child can be tempered. Open adoption is permitted in a number of jurisdictions in the United States, including, as already mentioned, Oregon and Minnesota, Washington and New Mexico. It is also permitted in some Canadian and Australian provinces.

A key contention made by those in favour of open adoption is that it would provide a greater incentive for more birth parents to place a child for adoption where this would be in the best interests of the child. There is no doubt but that open adoption has had encouraging results in places such as New Zealand and Canada, with much better adjustment on the part of older children. This is further supported by statistics from The Hague Permanent Bureau and the Adoption Authority of Ireland. It would also be in keeping with Article 11.4 of the 2008 EU convention on adoption.

Research conducted in Ireland in 2005 by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Adoption Board on domestic adoption found that legal provisions should be put in place to secure open adoption agreements within adoption orders. The research involved women who had placed their babies for adoption in 2002. The report found that adoption as a solution to crisis pregnancy is now rarely the choice of single mothers and the number of babies available for traditional non-family adoption has fallen dramatically. Of the 266 adoption orders made by the Adoption Board in 2002, some 76 were non-family adoptions of Irish children placed by registered adoption agencies. The availability of open adoptions where the birth parents have some continuing contact with the child was an important consideration of the birth mothers who participated in the research. Current arrangements in Ireland for open adoption are voluntary and unenforceable. The study called for legal provisions to be put in place to ensure that where a birth parent wishes to have continued contact with his or her child following the making of an adoption order, such contact should be made a condition of the adoption order and be legally enforceable. However, the long-term consequences of open adoption arrangements need to be monitored and evaluated. This should include consideration of what services need to be in place to keep the channels of communication open between the adopters and the natural parents. The need for ongoing supports for all parties should be assessed and a designated service should be provided.

As stated by Ms Olive Braiden, former chairperson of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, open adoption agreements, where a woman can still have some level of contact with her child, can be a real solution for a woman considering adoption. However, without the legal provision for these agreements, the woman is left uncertain as to her entitlements to have contact with her child. Dr. Shannon also made the point that the success of an open adoption scheme depends largely on the goodwill of the adoptive parents, who, in many cases, may be anxious to foreclose the prospect of being perceived as something other than the child's primary caregivers.

It is critical that any open adoption scheme provide for a thorough discussion of the proper boundaries for access arrangements prior to the adoption order being made. Any agreement made would be the basis of a legally binding contract. Today, we are discussing open adoption. For many people adoption remains a closed issue. One of the key criticisms of the Adoption Act 2010 was that it did not adequately address the issue of information and tracing, in respect of which this Government pledged to act. Former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said more than three years ago that a priority issue for her was the introduction of the adoption tracing and information Bill. However, that Bill has yet to come before the House. I believe introduction of that legislation is a priority and ask the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to ensure that it gets the attention it deserves. Approximately 45,000 to 50,000 people are being denied their fundamental right to their identity because information in this regard is being withheld. In my view, the State is not doing enough to ensure their rights are vindicated. The Adoption Rights Alliance is rightly frustrated at the pace of this legislation and has repeatedly called for a sense of urgency in this regard.

I was recently approached by a lady who put a child up for adoption many years ago and has since made contact with her child. While both parties are agreeable to their records being released, they are not available.

Although the natural mother and adopted child are willing to have their records made available, there is no facility for this. Even with both parties consenting, we do not have a mechanism in place to facilitate them.

I again compliment Deputy Anne Ferris on her Bill and sincerely look forward to a Committee Stage debate on it. There were just 39 domestic adoptions in Ireland in 2011 and there are many prospective parents who want to give a child a happy home. As long as we continue to put the best interests of the child first, we should look to explore all options in adoption. In doing so, however, it is vital that we reassure those who may have concerns about open adoption. Perhaps we should proceed gradually towards open adoption and examine semi-open adoption as a stepping stone on the way.

11:35 am

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire as a phost nua. I welcome the Bill and commend Deputy Anne Ferris for its introduction. It responds to the real needs of families and individuals in Ireland. We all accept that the current law is rigid and has many flaws. It is not sufficient and has a number of loopholes. I welcome the fact that the Bill will proceed to Committee Stage and that this process will ensure speedy progress for those affected.

There have been many advances in social attitudes, family law and children's rights recently. We have advanced from an era in which children born outside marriage were stigmatised with the label of so-called illegitimacy. We have moved on from the time when women were imprisoned and enslaved in institutions such as Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. Mothers had their infants taken away for adoption. We all accept in this House that these women were treated as less than second-class citizens. I am thankful that the widespread separation of birth mothers from their children owing to deeply conservative and social pressures and the oppression of women are no longer a feature of Irish society.

Many of the issues arising today concern the adoption of children from outside Ireland, the rights of adopted children and parents who have given up their children for adoption, and access to adopted children by their biological parents and relatives. There are also other issues to be considered and I will comment on these towards the end of my contribution.

Consider the full implications of section 58 of the Adoption Act 2010. They received relatively little attention during the passage of that legislation in the Oireachtas. The section states:

Upon an adoption order being made, or the recognition under this Act of an intercountry adoption effected outside the State—(a) the child concerned shall be considered, with regard to the rights and duties of parents and children in relation to each other, as the child of the adopters born to them in lawful wedlock,

(b) with respect to the child, the mother or guardian of the child, and the child’s father, shall, subject to , lose all parental rights and be freed from all parental duties.
This section extinguishes all the rights of natural parents and their relatives, such as grandparents. The Bill proposes to change section 58 of the Act to allow the natural parent or relatives to agree measures to facilitate ongoing access to the child. This would be done either with the adoption authority in advance of an adoption or the adopter afterwards. The Bill would also allow a natural parent to apply to the courts to seek access. There is a valid argument that the Act, as it stands, is too inflexible. It should allow scope for access by agreement. It is very important that the arrangement respect the rights of all concerned, especially the adopted child.

I was watching a television programme last night that referred to adoption, the rights of the family and the rights of the child. Our primary consideration should be the child. It should be emphasised that adoptive parents are real parents of the adopted child. It is recognised that emotional damage can be caused to children and adults by the severing of natural family ties. People now wish to address this problem. The legislation, as it stands, is seen as an obstacle in this regard.

We support the passage of this Bill. I would like to see its provisions teased out on Committee Stage, as the Minister stated, and I would like all its possible implications, both positive and negative, considered, bearing in mind the perspectives of the adopted child, adoptive parents and the natural parents and relatives.

There are other outstanding legal issues in respect of adoption that are not covered in this Bill but that need to be addressed. Perhaps this could be considered on Committee Stage. Some of the issues have been brought to the attention of Members. Let me give the Minister an example that was given to the former Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The problem was made known to me by one family but it affects a number of families across the State. When the husband of a young woman with a number of children died, she moved on, met someone else, fell in love and remarried. Owing to this experience and her desire for a stable family, she and her new husband considered the possibility of his adopting her children. Difficulties arose straightaway in this regard because of the inter-country adoption provisions. The lady was told she had to let go of her children and get her husband to adopt them. She had to formally adopt her own children afterwards. This is one of the anomalies in the law. The former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs said she was aware of the anomaly and that it might take a number of years to address it. That is not good enough. One should consider how the children involved are affected. They have to get their birth certificates changed to state they are adopted by their own mother. This is crazy. The law shows no sense of feeling for affected families. The mother in question said she went to a number of meetings attended by large groups. Therefore, it is not just a matter of one or two individuals affected in Ireland. This needs to be examined.

The current regime, apart from requiring a mother to adopt her own child, wastes resources. Families must be vetted by the Garda, and social workers must call out. The child has to be shown a photograph of his or her own parents to prove their identity. If this is how we enact legislation, we must reconsider it. We need flexibility rather than rigidity. The mother in question said that while it is great to receive sympathy, empathy and kind words, these are not enough. She said she wanted to see action and to know that no other family would have to experience what she experienced.

If we are really sincere about having an inclusive society, we should not be narrowing the confines of our laws to force people down paths down which they do not want to go. People want to move on with their lives. I have given a perfect example of a family that desired a new beginning. We should be making it easier for such families but, unfortunately, this is not what has been happening.

I welcome the Bill. The House needs to consider this area. While I acknowledge the difficulties that arise and the considerable demand to adopt children and while I realise the law needs to be very strict regarding new adoptive parents, we must consider what is best for the child and prospective families under the new structures. I thank Deputy Anne Ferris for introducing the Bill. There have been significant changes in social attitudes.

I hope her story will prevent other families or individuals having to endure the same experience in the years ahead. The Bill is about responding to the needs of society and, as such, I welcome the decision to allow it to proceed. I hope, however, it does not get stuck in committee for two, three or four years. The Minister is new to the portfolio and could do a great deal of good for by progressing the legislation.

11:45 am

Photo of Clare DalyClare Daly (Dublin North, Socialist Party)
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I, too, welcome the Bill and was delighted when it was selected. It is great that the House is discussing a positive and proactive proposition on adoption. The Minister noted that he spoke about adoption in his maiden speech several decades ago. That the House is still discussing the issue demonstrates that it has not been taken seriously. We have unnecessarily complicated the issue of adoption. Our approach to the matter is, in many cases, a serious abuse of human rights because it does not reflect the rights of the child or the fundamental principle that everyone has a right to his or her identity.

I appreciate that the Minister's predecessor, the new Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, discussed this matter on many occasions. Nevertheless, the adoption (tracing and information) Bill, which the Government promised three years ago on taking office, has been repeatedly delayed. I will return to the legislation in a few moments.

This discussion is welcome. It is ironic that the film, "Philomena", has had such a public impact in shining a light on adoption and the practice in the past of separating thousands of young Irish women from their children. These separations were forced, illegal and, according to the Adoption Rights Now group, a form of torture. Everyone who watched "Philomena" will have been struck by the realisation that the mother and son characters were searching for each other and spoke to the same people but were lied to and deceived to prevent their reunion. Even speaking about the case is sickening. It is even more upsetting that this story is representative thousands of other similar stories.

Last year, I spoke about a letter I received from a woman who had a baby in the mother and baby home in Castlepollard in 1966. Her daughter was taken from her without her permission and she spent 30 years searching for her. When she sought information from the Sacred Heart Sisters, she was given misinformation and sent in different directions. At one point, she urgently needed to meet her daughter for medical reasons. However, she did not get anywhere for decades. As I pointed out in the House, within ten days of my office contacting the Adoption Rights Now group, we were able to bring mother and daughter together and it transpired that the daughter had also been searching for her mother. When I told this story Deputies from all sides informed me that they had been contacted in their clinics over the years by people with similar stories. Unfortunately, however, they could not obtain information when they tried to help the individuals in question. That is simply not good enough. If Deputies from all sides cannot change the position, what is the point of Parliament? The issue can be resolved if we show much greater urgency than has been shown to date. The reason information has been held back in many of these cases is that the adoptions were illegal and the placements were organised in mother and baby homes. The 1952 Act and the Adoption Board in many ways facilitated separation and the severance of the link between unmarried mothers and their children. We must also make clear that the practice was based solely on marital status.

Deputy Anne Ferris's Bill is necessary because the 2010 legislation did not address the issue. In 1976, the British Government passed legislation to allow access to birth records to all adopted persons aged 18 years and over and limited access to those aged under 18 years. Why is it taking this State so long to catch up? The reason must be rooted in the illegal nature of the activities that took place in the mother and baby homes. We have only reluctantly come to terms with issues such as the Magdalen laundries, although I do not claim that matter has been fully resolved, and those who were the victims of abuse in residential institutions. The activities that took place in the mother and baby homes form part of that process. At one point 97% of children born to unmarried women were placed for adoption. The number of adoptions subsequently declined to a handful as a result of the introduction of allowances and payments for lone parents, which allowed women to keep their children. Similarly, many women in other countries who currently give up their children for adoption would prefer to keep them.

A couple of weeks ago, the Minister's predecessor informed the House that the adoption (information and tracing) Bill was imminent and the heads of Bill would go to committee. While she was not sure exactly when this would occur, it was hoped it would be this side of the summer recess. Will the Minister advise the House of the current position? His predecessor also hinted that some vague legal complications could delay the process. I do not accept that and would like to see the evidence. The previous Minister stated that Deputies would understand the position better when we saw this evidence. I do not understand the reason we cannot be informed of the nature of these complications. Much of the problem seems to be related to arguments concerning privacy and the I O'T v.B case. Deputies should be cognisant of the fact that this was a highly disputed judgment which related to a fostering case, rather than an adoption case, and that the 1952 Act is open to question in this regard.

Births are a public record and to deny adopted persons access to such records amounts to blatant discrimination. Serious problems persist in the operation of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. The Adoption Rights Alliance claims that the Health Service Executive and private adoption agencies are in possession of up to 60,000 files. The Adoption Authority of Ireland claims that only 11,000 people seeking to trace their loved ones have registered with it. It is not good enough that only 660 cases of reunification have taken place since 2005. This figure is nowhere near as high as the number of people seeking information. An independent investigation is needed into how to improve access to these files. While the former Minister referred to this issue, in practical terms we have not seen much evidence of improvement.

I welcome the decision to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. It is also positive that Deputies are discussing these issues in the Chamber. I agree with the President's recent statement that it is horrific to deny people basic information about their identity. The Australian Government has gone further and officially apologised to all those in Australia who were illegally adopted. The former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, also apologised for the state's role in illegal adoptions. Similarly, the Irish Government must acknowledge the wrongs that were done to women and their children here and face up to the illegality it facilitated and operated for decades. While this would not undo the damage, it would assist reconciliation and help correct matters for the future. Openness and transparency are important elements of any such resolution.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity speak to the Bill and congratulate Deputy Anne Ferris on introducing it. There is nothing like the experience of direct involvement to be in a position to promote legislation in the way she is doing. Deputy Ferris is to be congratulated on that. It reminds us all of the necessity to listen to what others have to say and put oneself in their shoes if we are to reach conclusions in respect of any matter, particularly one as sensitive as adoption.

It also focuses attention on the manner in which mothers, particularly young mothers, were treated over the years not only in this country, but in a number of other countries also. A closed, shadowy, furtive and uneasy attitude prevailed. Society seemed to be ashamed of something it should not have been ashamed of in the first place. There is a need for openness, which is the crucial word in the legislation. Anything that becomes secretive and shadowy obviously leads to trouble, trauma and stress. There was nothing so poignant and heart-rending as reading about, seeing and listening to situations whereby children were forcibly separated from their mothers. They were not always forcibly separated but in most cases, they were. It was expected that it was the natural thing to do when it was anything but natural. There is no stronger bond than the maternal bond and this goes right across our society and civilisation. The recognition in this country even at this late stage that such situations need a more sympathetic and understanding approach is very welcome.

The questions raised in respect of the legal position are fairly well known. There is a bit of difficulty, but I am sure the previous Minister and the new Minister will find ways and means of addressing them. I congratulate the new Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on his new position and his predecessor on having forged ahead in an innovative fashion in respect of the new Department that was formed and in which the new Minister will no doubt excel. When it comes to the legal situation, we know there will be individual circumstances where the mother may have not have felt confident for one reason or another that she could look after a child. We can well understand how, at the vulnerable and uncertain time after a birth, a mother might have doubts. Notwithstanding all that, with the passage of time, it naturally follows that the mother and the child will want to have some communication out of curiosity and a natural wish to be part of and acknowledge a family they know or feel exists out there for them. As a society, we must be accommodating in those situations. We recognise that there are individual situations where it has not always been smooth and easy and where it has not always worked out. Generally speaking, it works when the meetings have eventually been arranged and reconciliation has taken place. That is human nature, the way it has always been and the way it should be.

It is good to see the natural order taking its place in society. The natural order was set aside for many years and, to say the least, we were uncaring in many ways, not least in this situation. It is good to see that we are recognising this and that we have people in the House bravely setting out the circumstances, as Deputy Anne Ferris has done, and doing so having regard to their own personal experience and what is likely to be the experience of others yet to come.

11:55 am

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to be able to speak on this Bill which effectively will allow adopted children access to blood relatives. I thank Deputy Anne Ferris for bringing this Bill before the House. This is a lady who has been through the mill of the adoption process. It is great to see that Deputies who experience some issues in their private lives can bring them to the floor of the Dáil in a Bill like this and ensure families, parents and children can benefit from good legislation. Therefore, I thank the Deputy for bringing the Bill before the Dáil.

When I was growing up, the church was very involved with the State and vice versa. I believe this had a very corrosive effect not just on the State, but on the church also. I am delighted that we are much more open and liberal because it is good for the State and the church. We grew up at a time when the small town or village mentality prevailed. Most families were nuclear or elementary families. I will not say that this was dictated by the church but this was the way it was in western Europe. There was no great flexibility. We are now talking about flexibility. We must be flexible and realise that one size does not fit all. People are different. We must recognise the different situations and that is what the Bill is doing.

Society was very cruel then. I know of many young women who wanted to keep their children but their families, even in later times, put such pressure on them that they had to give up their children. This was because their families worried about what the neighbours would think and because we did not want to be different. There is a great willingness now to look at all aspects.

The legal position was and is closed. Parents and families are sitting down together and working closely together, and have come up with innovative solutions in many cases, but it has not been so in many other cases. The Bill proposes to change the situation to allow the natural parent or relatives to agree measures to facilitate ongoing access to the child. That involves working with the Adoption Authority in advance of an adoption or afterwards. I welcome this.

We saw the film "Philomena", which told the harrowing story of Philomena Lee. Coming in the wake of the Magdalen laundries, it was horrific and there was a huge public outcry. Since the foundation of the State, over 100,000 children were either adopted or passed through the various agencies. This was an issue that we do not fully understand. There are 100,000 families or many more around the world affected because this country had too close a link with the church. On many occasions, this was very positive but on many other occasions, it was very corrosive and unnecessary. I was horrified by the story of Philomena Lee which involved a lady searching for her son. For some reason or another, the information was never passed on, which is unforgivable. Much good work has been done by the nuns over the years. They took responsibility for education and many other things that the State simply could not and would not provide. I sometimes think that there is a herd mentality and that it is an attack on the church, the nuns or the Sisters of Mercy. I acknowledge that there were many great nuns who were compassionate and provided a service to this country. I read an article dated 9 November 2013 in the Irish Independentwhich contained a voice that was not heard.

She said that even though this film was not a documentary, it was very misleading in many ways and did not tell the whole truth. There are two sides to every story and it is our job as politicians and legislators to see that a story is not just black and white but has grey areas.

Adoptions from other countries have been a source of great joy and love on all sides. The former Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has done great work in this area. I welcome the new Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, here today and thank him for his interest in this Bill. I understand his maiden speech was on this issue. We must now work to ensure that adoption from Haiti, Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia and many other countries is a smooth process. Many families are anxious to see this improved.

I thank Deputy Anne Ferris for bringing the Bill before the House. It must be supported. I was delighted to speak on it today. I wish the new Minister every success in the coming years and congratulate him on his appointment.

12:05 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Anne Ferris and all the other Deputies for their contributions and comments. It is a given that adoption is a sensitive, personal issue. It is important that at all times we learn from real experience. I warmly congratulate Deputy Anne Ferris on the manner in which she has approached this issue and on the content and format of her Bill. Deputies Anne Ferris, Robert Troy, Seán Crowe, Clare Daly, Bernard J. Durkan and Frank Feighan have all made positive contributions and outlined their support for the legislation, which is presented on a cross-party basis.

Access to records and greater access to birth information will meet some of the needs of adopted persons who wish to know their identity, particularly those who will not benefit from any future changes in the law which might permit open adoptions. In March 2014, my predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, made the Government aware of her intentions in a memorandum for information, including the provision, through the adoption (information and tracing) Bill, of a greater level of access to records and birth information in so far as possible. This was in line with legal advice received. This would apply to persons previously involved in adoptions, notwithstanding the significant operational and legal complexities which arise in giving effect to this objective. The second intention is to introduce in the same Bill provision to ensure access to adoption records and birth information for persons adopted in the future, and, third, to have the general scheme and heads of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill finalised on this basis as soon as possible. It will then be submitted for the Government’s consideration in advance of referral to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative hearings. It is also intended in parallel to examine and implement further operational improvements to arrangements for the preservation of and access to records.

I am conscious of what Deputies Robert Troy and Clare Daly said about the timeframe. I am anxious that matters be advanced. I ask them, however, to be conscious of the fact that there are real and substantial legal issues to be dealt with. It would be futile to bring forward legislation or provisions if they were to fall foul of a constitutional challenge. The Office of the Attorney General has provided comprehensive legal advice to the Department and has assisted in identifying the constitutional parameters within which the heads of the Bill must be drafted. On the basis of that advice, we are indicating the need to take into consideration the birth mother’s constitutional right to privacy. I am anxious to ensure that as much information as possible can be facilitated. I firmly believe open adoption is the way forward. I want the legislation to provide for birth information to be available to adopted persons.

In the case of historical adoptions, it is essential to examine the legislation and resolve - on an all-party basis, led by the Government - to allow this to go as far forward as possible. These are difficult issues. I intend to finalise proposals and bring them to the Government as soon as possible. They will then go for further consideration by the Joint Committee on Health and Children.

I thank Deputy Anne Ferris for a very important service in the process of bringing forward this legislation, having it approved on Second Stage and sending it to Committee Stage. I will ensure we can proceed to have firm Government backing for the legislation and proceed along the lines I have outlined.

Photo of Anne FerrisAnne Ferris (Wicklow, Labour)
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I thank the Minister for his support. It is uncannily coincidental that his maiden speech was on this issue. It is a happy coincidence. I thank all the Members who were here today to support me and supported the Bill. Many good points were made. The issue Deputy Seán Crowe raised about the family he spoke to needs to be addressed.

Deputy Clare Daly mentioned the Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. We have all heard stories that would make one’s hair stand on end. I thank the former Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and wish her well in the future in her new role. She had a great commitment to this area and did a lot of work on it. I also thank the Adoption Rights Alliance, which has been advocating for change in the legislation for a long time.

I am delighted to hear that the adoption (information and tracing) Bill will come forward. While there are constitutional problems with regard to people’s right to privacy, I say let someone challenge it. I know the Minister cannot agree with that. It is very important to have a right to information about one’s identity, to know who one is.

I was adopted into a very loving family; I did not go down the mother and baby route. I have discovered that I have half-sisters and brothers. Only last month I received an e-mail from someone living in London who appears to be a half-sister. She hopes to come over in July and I will meet her then. My journey as an adopted person continues.

That same loving family that adopted me took the decision, when I was a foolish teenager and became pregnant, that I would not be able and mature enough to raise a child on my own, rightly or wrongly, and for 23 years I lived with the pain in my heart that I had lost my own baby. Many say and I know all too well that one loses a baby to adoption even if one is lucky enough to be reunited, as I was with my daughter. I came face to face with an adult woman whereas for years I had hankered for the baby I had lost. There is still a sense of loss. It is a great privilege to find the person one lost so many years ago, but the dynamic is different.

As Deputy Frank Feighan said, all those years ago it was church, State and neighbours. We worried about what the neighbours would think and had to hide these things, as we could not have the neighbours talking about us.

Again, I am delighted. I suggest that before the Bill is taken on Committee Stage, the committee consider holding hearings on the issue. I am not a member of the committee and do not know if it has held hearings to date, but it would be no harm to have public hearings with interested bodies. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality holds many hearings, on the various pieces of legislation we are hoping to draw up and those which are before the Houses.

I again thank the Minister and I am delighted that my Bill, Open Adoption Bill 2014, is before the House on his first day. There are many thousands like me. Had there been open adoption legislation in place when we lost our babies, we would not have endured that grief for many years because we would have been part of our children's lives when they were growing up. I thank every Deputy for his or her contribution and the cross-party support for the Bill.

12:15 pm

Photo of Peter MathewsPeter Mathews (Dublin South, Independent)
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With the Chair's permission, I apologise that I could not be present for all of the debate. I commend Deputy Anne Ferris for wonderful legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of John LyonsJohn Lyons (Dublin North West, Labour)
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As this is a Private Members' Bill, it must, under Standing Orders 82A and 118, be referred to a select or special committee. The relevant committee is the Select sub-Committee on Children and Youth Affairs.