Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

4:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hoctor, to the House.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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This matter on the Adjournment concerns the need for the Minister for Health and Children to hasten the process for Irish citizens to adopt children from overseas. The Minister of State will be familiar with this subject and I hope she will be familiar with the extreme pain, difficulties and sadness this problem causes a large number of families in Ireland. I am struck by the number of people who have approached me on this subject who were frustrated by a system that works badly and could be improved quickly.

It is a simple equation in some ways. There is a supply of children overseas who need happy homes badly and there are approximately 2,000 Irish people willing and anxious to take them on board and to provide them with happy homes. Some of the children live overseas in awful conditions of great poverty and in orphanages and should be provided with homes. The only element that is lacking is a speedy and fair system to hurry up the ultimate solution, namely, a happy upbringing.

What is the problem? Many were under the impression that it lay in the adoption systems abroad, but that is not the case. There is some slowness in many countries. Traditionally, the further east, the more bureaucratic. However, much of the blame for the delay experienced by Irish people who are anxious to adopt lies in Ireland. No one should take away the need for a rigorous and robust assessment of parents who seek to give homes to children and the State must ensure, as far as humanly possible, that the children are given happy, safe and secure homes and parents who will care for them and raise them well. Nobody who is frustrated by the system contests the need for rigorous assessment. What is at issue is the extraordinary slowness and the pain it causes parents who believe they are on the road to bringing up children, but find themselves frustrated.

I hope the Minister of State's speech will give some comfort to the parents because the progress made in recent years is deplorable. The situation is getting much worse, not better. I will provide the Minister of State with a few statistics to which a response would be interesting. In 2002, there were 41.1 full-time equivalent social workers dealing with inter-country adoptions. At the end of June 2007, the latest figures I have, there were 45.5 such workers, an increase of approximately 10%. In 2002, there were 1,057 applications waiting to be assessed. As of June last year, there were 1,928 applications waiting. What does this mean? Whereas demand has approximately doubled, the number of social workers has hardly increased. The result is a slowing down of the process. In 2002, 653 people were on the waiting list, but there are currently 1,525 people on the list, a multiple of 2.5.

Not only is the process slowing, but an independent report on the adoption process in 1999 suggested that 20 to 24 cases per annum should be cleared by a trained social worker. I do not know from where the figure came, but I presume it was produced by people with an expertise. The HSE accepted it, but preferred to go for the lowest possible figure, as it tends to do, of the 18-20 range. The actual figure being processed only occasionally reaches double digits. We have a crying need for more social workers if the applications are to be processed with the rigour the State requires.

Not only do we need more social workers, we need an end to the systemic delays in the adoption procedure. When I examined it, I knew of the regional differences. For example, it is easier in Donegal than in Dublin for various reasons. The procedures and the stages through which people must go are so demanding, long and many that there is almost automatically an extraordinary delay.

The Minister of State will be more familiar with the situation than I am, but I counted at least 12 principal types of procedure through which a person wishing to adopt abroad must go in Ireland. This is absurd and ridiculous. Some of the procedures are bureaucratic and I do not have time to list them all, but there is an initial approach to the HSE, followed by what is termed an "information meeting", usually three to four months later. The applicants makes a formal written submission but there appears to be a delay in the HSE — often between two and three years — before the application is activated.

I do not know what in the name of God happens in that time period but potential parents who would be happy to provide a home for a child must wait two or three years before their application is activated. Legitimate inquiries, such as Garda inquiries, medical tests and income assessments, are then made in respect of those involved, but why can these not be done beforehand? Why must it wait for activation by the HSE? I do not know why this process cannot be shortened.

After Garda, legal and medical inquiries it is necessary to meet the social worker. The social worker carries out home visits to assess the home, ensure the family is happy and see that things work out. It is right that he or she should do so, particularly if other children are present. However, these home visits could take place months or even years earlier, before an application is activated.

The problem is the blockage in the bureaucratic system evident in the HSE's three year delay in activating applications, the lack of social workers and the fact that social workers seem to be missing their targets. It is unfashionable to criticise social workers, and I am not doing so, but an independent inquiry said they should process a certain number of applications and they are not achieving this goal. There should be an inquiry as to why productivity targets are not being met; if a processing level of 20 to 24 applications is sought why are only 12 processed when there is a queue of 650 applications?

There are other procedures that must be gone through as part of the process, including visiting the Adoption Board, which takes another year or so because it also has a backlog. This probably means more people are needed on the Adoption Board.

This is a serious human problem that relates to the laws of supply and demand and it can easily be resolved through more staff, more resources and by firmly asking the HSE why there are such long delays between applicants writing in and the activation of their applications. I do not understand why it is not possible to activate applications immediately.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Ross for raising this issue and extend my apologies on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brendan Smith, on his unavoidable absence.

This matter relates to putting intercountry adoption in context and I aim to address the issues Senator Ross has raised. Intercountry adoption has become an increasing phenomenon in recent years. The International Social Service has estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 children are adopted annually around the world. These children generally come from developing countries, or those in transition, and are received by families living in industrialised countries, particularly those in Europe and North America.

This trend is reflected in Ireland, as requests for intercountry adoption assessments are continuously increasing. The study on intercountry adoption, undertaken by the Children's Research Centre in Trinity College, revealed that Ireland has one of the highest rates for intercountry adoption in Europe. It is against this background that the Minister of State's office is continuing to work to create the appropriate legislative, policy and administrative frameworks, which will ensure a well regulated regime of adoption. The aim is to support and protect prospective parents and, even more importantly, the children for whom adoption services are devised and provided.

The first priority is the ratification of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption, 1993. A core principle of the Hague convention, which will be ratified by Ireland in a Bill to be published shortly, is that intercountry adoption should be child-centred, that is, in all stages of the process the child's interests must be paramount. Legislating for intercountry adoption is essential to give protections to children in the process of adoption. The Hague convention has put in place the equivalent of a contract between states to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. It is an additional safeguard for a receiving country like Ireland in terms of the standards that are being applied in the sending country, over which we have no jurisdiction. As a receiving country it is especially important to have some confidence in the process of consent to the adoption, the status of the child as adoptable and a guarantee of no improper financial gain from the process.

Legislation, specifically the regime of the Hague convention, is at least some assurance for individual children, their families, and the State, that appropriate procedures have been followed and that an adoption was affected in the best interests of the child. The convention is based on the premise that intercountry adoption should only be considered when a suitable family cannot be found for the child in his or her country of origin. Accordingly, a series of options, such as the child being cared for by relatives or in a family within his or her own country, are considered. The convention does not oblige a sending country to engage in a particular amount of adoptions; rather sending countries are advised to only engage in as much intercountry adoption as they can reasonably control. The Department fully supports this approach.

It is worth noting that despite the situation in individual countries, on a global scale there appears to be fewer children available for intercountry adoption. Many developing countries are no longer able to release enough children to respond to the adoption requests of receiving countries. The demand for children to adopt is greater than the supply and this situation can create pressure on sending countries, which can carry the risk of the interests of the child not being paramount. Department officials and the Adoption Board, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs, are working on an ongoing basis to identify and negotiate with countries that continue to seek homes abroad for children in need of alternative care that cannot be provided domestically.

As regards the assessment process, a family that wishes to adopt should be recognised beforehand as able to promote, safeguard and support the development and well being of a child in need of adoption in a lasting manner. The Minister of State is conscious that persons applying for intercountry adoption are experiencing delays in the assessment process and he appreciates the frustration this causes to those who are anxious to adopt and who are more than willing to participate fully in the necessary assessment procedures.

The HSE has been assessing the provision of services in the context of moving from the health board system to a single executive. It has acknowledged that there is a divergence in the provision of services and is committed to addressing those differences. In a number of areas the HSE has improved waiting times by contracting assessments out to non-statutory agencies that are registered with the Adoption Board and which have the appropriate expertise.

It should also be noted that increasing numbers of adopted children from abroad create additional pressures on intercountry adoption teams within the HSE. This is because these teams provide post-adoption reports to the sending countries, at the request of those countries, with the agreement of the adoptive parents. This is an important component in the willingness of countries to consider Irish applicants for adoption.

At the request of the office of the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brendan Smith, the HSE is undertaking a review of the intercountry adoption service. This review is examining staffing, business processes, resources and there will be proposals to improve this service based on the outcome of the review.

It is the Minister of State's view that the issue of waiting lists for adoption is far from simple, and he urges caution in discussing discrete aspects of intercountry adoption in isolation. The Minister of State and each of his predecessors have introduced a range of measures to improve waiting times for intercountry adoption, which continue to be overtaken by the escalating demand.

Adoption, particularly intercountry adoption, is different to having biological children. It is different emotionally, socially and practically because of the international component and because of the legal processes and bureaucracy involved. Although the assessment process can be lengthy, it is very important for prospective parents and children. The Minister of State and his officials are continuing to work closely with the HSE and the Adoption Board on the streamlining of services and the development and implementation of best practice on a consistent basis around the country with a view to achieving improvements in the service.

I want to assure the Senator of the Minister of State's attention to this issue and reiterate the importance of a rigorous and effective assessment system that is provided on a timely, fair and transparent basis.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I have been a Member of this House for a very long time but I do not believe I ever digested such rhubarb as was offered in that reply, which was unbelievable garbage. I am extremely disappointed as it is no good to tell us there will be reviews of this, that and the other. The next time this matter arises I hope the Minister of State will not wipe his hands of the issue, as happened today, because it is difficult due to the involvement of other regimes. We need more than reviews as they are merely a political way of choosing inaction. What will be done for potential parents who must sometimes wait for up to eight years? There is a clog in the system and the Irish bureaucracy is at fault. The Minister of State's reply offers no comfort whatever. Perhaps she could ask the Minister for Health and Children what action will be taken immediately by the Health Service Executive to remove this blockage.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
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I do not accept that the Irish system has sole responsibility for the delay in inter-country adoption.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I did not say the Irish system was solely responsible.

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad the Senator has clarified his remarks. I will relay his concerns to the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Brendan Smith.