Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

4:00 pm

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Adoption was first introduced into Ireland through the enactment of the Adoption Act 1952. Prior to that, there was no statutory adoption process in this State although there were very many children who were brought up in families other than their birth families. In the years between the enactment of the Adoption Act in 1952 and up until 1990, the vast majority of children adopted in Ireland were children who had been placed for adoption by their mothers within the State. During the same period almost 2,000 Irish children were placed for adoption outside Ireland, the vast majority of these children being adopted by Irish American families in the United States.

Today, we have a very different society and it is now a rare event for an Irish child to be placed for adoption outside his or her own family. As a result, many couples have looked to overseas to adopt and there has been a huge growth in intercountry adoption since the early 1990s. This trend was initiated by the Romanian orphanage crisis in the 1990s and has now spread to other countries. It is against this background that this Bill creates the appropriate legislative framework to ensure a well regulated regime of adoption which reflects the changing nature of adoption and the growth in intercountry adoption. The Government's aim in bringing forward this legislation is to support and protect prospective parents and, more importantly, the children for whom adoption services are devised and provided.

The Bill which I am introducing has been designed with four main objectives. First, it brings the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption into Irish statute law. Second, it provides for the making and recognition of intercountry adoptions in accordance with bilateral agreements. Third, it establishes the adoption authority of Ireland. Fourth, it provides for the repeal of the Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998 and for the bringing forward, restating or updating of the provisions of those Acts, as appropriate.

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was signed by Ireland in 1996. A core principle of the Hague Convention is that intercountry adoption should be child-centred, that is, in all stages of the process, the child's interests must be paramount. The provisions of the Adoption Bill 2009 will ensure all intercountry adoptions recognised in this country meet the standards of the convention, which is in Schedule 2 of the Bill and which, in accordance with section 9, will be given the force of law in this country.

The Bill also provides for the entering into discussions with states which are not party to the Hague Convention for the purposes of making bilateral agreements regarding the making and recognition of intercountry adoptions. Any such agreement entered into by the Government shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The standards that apply to such adoptions will accord with Hague standards.

As mentioned, the Bill also provides for the establishment of a new adoption authority which will take over the functions of the existing Adoption Board and act as a central authority for the purposes of the Hague Convention. The Adoption Board was established under the Adoption Act 1952 at a time when domestic adoption was being formalised for the first time in this country and when intercountry adoptions into Ireland did not take place. The adoption authority's role will be an expansion of the current role of the Adoption Board, taking on new functions in relation to the Hague Convention and with significantly improved governance and accountability structures.

I acknowledge that adoption is one of those policy areas which has given rise to a disproportionate number of Acts over the years. There have been six amending Acts since the first Adoption Act in 1952. This Bill repeals those Acts and provides for all adoption legislation in this Bill. This will be of great benefit to parents, social workers and anyone with an interest in this complex area of child law. Overall, this Bill provides safeguards for children who are being adopted into new families. It sets out a common standard for adoption procedures both in this State and abroad and will provide greater assurance for children and their families that appropriate procedures have been followed and that the adoption was effected in the best interests of the child.

Part 1 of the Bill comprises sections dealing with interpretation, repeals and revocations etc. Part 2 provides for the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Intercountry Adoption to have legal effect in this State and for judicial notice to be taken of the explanatory report in relation to the convention prepared by Mr. Gonzalo Parra-Aranguren. Thus, the Hague Convention is being brought into Irish statute law.

Part 3 provides for the placing of a child for adoption and provides for the care of a child pending placement. It also provides that an accredited body — adoption societies will be known as accredited bodies — shall not place a child for adoption unless the child is at least six weeks old. The accredited body must provide the mother placing the child for adoption with a written statement explaining the effect of an adoption order and the consents necessary for the order to be made. A signed statement by the mother of her understanding of the import of the written statement is required.

The Bill also sets out the right of the father of the child to give notice to the authority of his wish to be consulted in relation to the placement of the child for adoption, or for an application for an adoption order to be made in respect of the child, and outlines the pre-placement consultation procedure required. Where the accredited body is unable to consult the father, or where the authority is satisfied it is inappropriate for the accredited body to contact the father, the authority may, with the approval of the High Court, authorise the accredited body to place the child for adoption. The requirement for High Court approval before proceeding with an adoption where the father has not been consulted is a new safeguard provided in the Bill and is a further recognition of the father's rights in the adoption process.

In circumstances where the mother refuses to or cannot identify the father, this Part provides that the mother be counselled and that she be advised of the possibility that the adoption may be delayed and of the father contesting the adoption, and that the absence of knowledge of the medical, genetic and social background of the father may be detrimental to the welfare of the child. Following such counselling, the authority may, with the approval of the High Court, authorise the accredited body to place the child for adoption.

Part 4 deals with the authority's power to make adoption orders and provides that in relation to adoption, the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration. Adoption orders may not be made in respect of a child unless the child resides in the State, is not more than seven years of age and is an orphan or born of parents not married to each other. However, a child of married parents may be adopted in exceptional circumstances where the parents have abandoned the child. There are also exceptions to the seven-year age limit. If the child is over seven years of age, due consideration is to be given to his or her wishes, having regard to the child's age and understanding. This Part also deals with the required consultation with the child's father and with the consent requirements from the mother or guardian before an adoption order is made and it sets out the circumstances in which the High Court may authorise the making of an adoption order in the absence of such consent. There is also a requirement to provide relevant information about consenting to adoption and the requirements for consent to be valid.

The categories of people who may apply for an adoption order or for the recognition of an intercountry adoption include a parent of the child, a married couple living together, or a person who satisfies the authority that the adoption is in the best interest of the child. It is provided that the authority will not make an adoption order or recognise an intercountry adoption unless it is satisfied with the suitability of the applicants. Applicants are required to be of good moral character, in good health, of an age to have a reasonable expectation of being capable, throughout the child's childhood, of fulfilling their parental duties, with the capacity to promote the development and well-being of the child and to have adequate financial means to support the child.

Part 4 also provides that a person or married couple may apply to the HSE for an assessment of eligibility and suitability to adopt and sets out the procedure to be followed by the HSE following receipt of such an application. This Part also sets out the functions of adoption committees established by the HSE and provides for the preparation and delivery by an adoption committee of a recommendation to the authority to issue or not to issue, as the case may be, a declaration of eligibility and suitability. It also provides for the issuing of, or the refusal by the authority to issue, a declaration to applicants. The expiration and the withdrawal of declarations of eligibility and suitability is also provided for in this Part.

Part 5 lists the persons who are entitled to be heard by the authority on application for an adoption order and the circumstances in which an interim order for custody of a child may be made by the authority are set out. The authority's power to summon witnesses, acquire documents and the taking of evidence on oath or on affidavit is set out. It is also provided that the authority may refer any question of law arising from an application for an adoption order or from an application for recognition of an intercountry adoption to the High Court for determination. Any question of public policy arising with respect to entries in the register of intercountry adoptions shall be referred to the High Court for determination.

Part 6 provides that an adoption order, an intercountry adoption effected outside the State or an entry in the register of intercountry adoptions that relates to an intercountry adoption shall not be declared invalid if such a declaration is not in the child's best interest. It is also provided that if the adoption order is declared invalid, the court may, on application, make a custody order in the same proceedings, subject to section 3 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964.

Part 7 provides that the High Court may authorise the authority to grant an adoption order in favour of applicants if it is satisfied the child's parents, whether married or not, have for physical or moral reasons failed in their duty towards the child for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, that such failure is likely to continue without interruption until the child is 18 years old, and where that failure constitutes an abandonment of their parental duties. Legal costs incurred by the parents and the applicants for an adoption order under this provision shall be paid by the Health Service Executive. Part 7 mirrors the provisions of the Adoption Act 1988 which will be repealed on the enactment of this Bill.

Part 8 covers the recognition in this State of adoptions effected in another state, either in accordance with the Hague Convention or under a bilateral agreement between this State and the state of origin of the child. The competent authority of the state of origin must certify that the adoption has been made in accordance with the Hague Convention or the bilateral agreement, as the case may be. The adoption must also be in accordance with the public policy of this State. Provision is also made for the deeming as valid of foreign adoptions, as defined in the Adoption Act 1991, effected before and after the establishment day, unless such deeming would be contrary to public policy. This Part also provides that if the pre-existing legal parent-child relationships are not terminated by virtue of the adoption order, the birth parents are not freed of all their parental rights or duties.

Part 9 of the Bill, which I will refer to later, deals with converting such adoptions into adoptions which do have that effect. It also provides that the validity of an adoption order is not affected by the subsequent marriage of the child's birth parents to each other. However, if the child has been adopted by one of his or her birth parents and their subsequent marriage legitimates the child in accordance with the Legitimacy Act 1931, the adoption order ceases to have effect.

If an adopted person or an adopter dies intestate, his or her property shall devolve as if the adopted person were the child of the adopter. A transitional provision allows for adoption proceedings commenced under the Adoption Act 1991 to proceed as if commenced under this Act. Thus, it will not be necessary for applicants to have to re-apply under the new Act as they can continue their applications under the provisions of the new Act.

Part 9 of the Bill deals with intercountry adoption and the role of the authority as the central authority for the purposes of this Act, the Hague Convention and bilateral agreements. This Part provides for the adoption authority to recognise certain adoptions effected in another state and for procedural arrangements in recognising such adoptions in this State, and for the conversion of adoptions from ones which do not have the effect of terminating existing legal parent-child relationships into adoptions which have that effect. Provision is also made for arrangements to be entered into by the authority, in exceptional cases, to allow for the adoption of a specific child who is a relative of the prospective adopters from a state of origin that is not party to the Hague Convention or to a bilateral agreement. The standards of such an adoption must accord with those of the Hague Convention. The Bill provides that the HSE must be informed, within three months, of a child's first entry into the State following his or her adoption or of a child's entry into the State for the purpose of being adopted in the State.

Part 10 of the Bill provides for the adopted children register and the register of intercountry adoptions. An t-Ard Chláraitheoir is required to maintain a register of adoption orders made by the authority and an index to that register shall be available for persons to search. Certified copies of entries are available from the register for a fee. A separate index is also to be kept by an t-Ard Chláraitheoir to make traceable the connection between each entry in the adopted children register and the register of births. This index will not be available for public inspection and information will only be released following a court order to that effect.

Provision is made for the register of foreign adoptions, previously maintained by the Adoption Board, to be continued by the adoption authority and to be known as the register of intercountry adoptions. There is a requirement for the adopters to ensure that, not later than three months after a child first enters the State after his or her adoption by parents habitually resident in the State, an application is made to the adoption authority to have the adoption entered in the register of intercountry adoptions.

Part 11 deals with proof and registration of adoptions effected outside the State and provides that where an adoption is effected outside the State, unless the contrary is shown, it shall be deemed to have been effected in accordance with the law of that state. It also provides that regulations may be made by the Minister regarding the proof of intercountry adoptions effected outside the State and the regulations may make different provision for different states and different classes of adoptions.

Part 12 provides for the establishment of the adoption authority. The authority's functions will include performing functions previously carried out by Adoption Board; performing as a central authority under the Hague Convention; providing general advice to the Minister about adoption; undertaking or assisting in research; compiling statistical information; maintaining the register of accredited bodies and maintaining the register of intercountry adoptions. This Part provides that membership of the authority consists of seven members, the chairperson, deputy chairperson and five ordinary members appointed by the Minister. The chairperson and deputy chairperson are required to be a judge or to have been a judge in the preceding two years before appointment or to be a solicitor or barrister of ten years standing. The five ordinary members must include two social workers, a medical practitioner, a barrister or solicitor and a person trained in psychology. The authority is required to hold at least 12 meetings each year.

Part 12 also provides for the appointment of a chief executive officer and for the establishment of committees to provide assistance and advice to the authority. Governance arrangements for the authority, including codes of conduct, annual reports, business plans and financial reports are provided for in this Part. This Part also sets out the accountability requirements for the adoption authority to the Minister and Oireachtas committees and the standards of integrity to be maintained by members of the authority and its employees. Arrangements for the recruitment of employees to the authority are also provided in this Part.

Part 13 provides for the adoption societies register to be continued and to be known as the register of accredited bodies. It provides for the registration, renewal, cancellation or amendment of registration, and for appeals to the District Court against a decision by the authority in this regard. This Part sets out the arrangements for such bodies which are required to furnish the adoption authority with information in regard to their constitution, membership, employees, organisation and activities and permits the authority to inspect and make copies of all their books and documents relating to adoption.

The making of arrangements for the adoption of a child is an activity restricted to an accredited body or the Health Service Executive. However, a parent may place a child with a relative or the spouse of a relative for the purpose of having the child adopted by that person. The authority is responsible for the issuing of certificates of registration to an accredited body specifying the activities in respect of which that body is registered.

Part 14 covers the dissolution of An Bord Uchtála and the transfer of employees, property and liabilities to the authority. This Part deals with the arrangements for the transfer of employees from the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the adoption authority. It also deals with the transfer of property and liabilities to the authority and includes provisions dealing with pending adoption proceedings and other legal proceedings and the transfer of all rights and liabilities by virtue of any contract. It also deals with the transfer of records.

Part 15 provides for offences under this Act, including the prohibiting of certain advertisements about adoption, and the receiving, making or giving of payments and rewards in consideration of the adoption of a child. The making of false or misleading statements to the authority or to an accredited body is also an offence. Accredited bodies may receive reasonable costs and expenses and also donations with the prior approval of the authority. The penalties for offences under the Act are set out in this Part.

Part 16 provides for the Minister to make regulations. This Part covers various regulation making provisions whereby the Minister for Health and Children may make regulations as are considered appropriate in respect of adoption, including regulating the activities of accredited bodies. Part 17 provides for consequential amendments to other Acts and for transitional arrangements in respect of applications made under the Adoption Acts.

There are four Schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 provides that the Adoption Act 1952 and its amending Acts are repealed and that certain statutory instruments are revoked. Schedule 2 is the text of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. Schedule 3 provides for particulars of adoptions to be entered in the adopted children register. Schedule 4 provides for an amendment to the Second Schedule of the Civil Registration Act 2004.

As already mentioned, the Bill will give force of law to the Hague Convention on the protection of children and intercountry adoption 1993. A core principle of the Hague Convention is that intercountry adoption should be child centred, that is, in all stages of the process the child's interests must be paramount. The convention puts in place the equivalent of a contract between states to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. This provides a safeguard for children being adopted into Ireland regarding the standards that are being applied in their country of origin, over which we have no jurisdiction.

As a country which has a growing rate of intercountry adoption, it is especially important for us to have confidence in all aspects of the intercountry adoption process. I firmly believe that this legislation, when enacted, will provide an assurance for children, their families and the State that standards in accordance with the Hague Convention have been followed in all adoptions and that adoptions are effected in the best interests of the child. To conclude, it is very important to have a rigorous adoption system in place in which we all can have confidence. The Adoption Bill 2009 ensures that the welfare of the child is given first and paramount consideration and it promotes the best international ethical and legal standards throughout the adoption process. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to hearing the views of Senators.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and the publication of the Adoption Bill 2009. Our current adoption law is outdated and has allowed confusion, insecurity and inconsistency to develop within the adoption system. I welcome the new legislation but it is difficult to praise the Government for introducing it when it is so long overdue. This Bill incorporates into Irish law the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions 1993. Sixteen years have passed since Ireland ratified the convention; it has taken that long to produce this legislation and there has been much confusion in the meantime.

Adoption is an issue that evokes very strong feelings for everybody. It raises issues such as the rights of the child, the rights of natural parents and matters regarding who can adopt and at what age. We have had very emotive debates on adoption. There have been dramatic changes in adoption in this country. Previously there were only domestic adoptions, and there were thousands of them. It was salutary to hear the Minister mention the 2,000 Irish children who were adopted by Americans. That situation has changed dramatically and we have moved from domestic adoption to intercountry adoption. That raises a set of new challenges, which this legislation goes part of the way in addressing.

I welcome much in the Bill. I will not speak about the technical details outlined by the Minister, which I welcome, but will refer to issues such as recognition of the rights of the father and greater consultation and work with the mother regarding the identity of the father, making absolutely clear the consequences of the father not being known and how that might lead to the adoption order being challenged. That is very important. I welcome the welfare of the child as the paramount consideration. That is really important. I also welcome the fact that more work is being done with the mother to help her understand the consequences of the decision she is making and that there will be written statements outlining those consequences.

The establishment of the new adoption authority is very important. Most important, however, is the implementation of the Hague Convention and its higher standards. We have seen from international examples that there can be outrageous standards in this area. In poor countries one can see adoption being abused. There is no doubt about that. Everybody has seen instances of it. On the other hand, one can see intercountry adoptions giving great joy to families, working extremely well and being totally to the advantage of a child who would otherwise be in an institution. In the middle of all of that complex social scenario the Minister is trying to bring in legislation that looks after all of those issues and sets a standard, and that is really important. This Bill does that. It seeks to bring in international standards to the arena, and I welcome that.

However, in some ways this Bill is also a missed opportunity. In the short time available I want to highlight a range of issues and ask the Minister of State and his Department to consider them.

I also want to make a request that this legislation go before a joint committee to which we would invite some of the key players to get their reaction and to hear what they have to say about it, what improvements they might make, what they like about it and how they think it could be strengthened. It would be worth doing that. I accept there has been lengthy consultation in this area, but it would be worth the Joint Committee on Health and Children spending a day or two getting the reaction of the different groups and availing of their expertise, and then move on with the legislation. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.

There is a number of points I want to make on some of the problem areas in adoption which need to be addressed. In 2006 the inadequacies of our adoption procedures were exposed by the Baby A case. In this case the natural mother of Baby A placed her for adoption but subsequently withdrew her consent before the agreement was finalised. The baby remained with the adoptive parents for an entire year before the case was resolved. If the formal procedures for adoption had not been so lengthy and arduous then the adoption agreement would have been finalised and Baby A's natural parents would not have been legally entitled to initiate proceedings. At the same time, if social services had been resourced properly and dealt with the case immediately the child would have been handed back to the natural mother before Baby A could have been at risk of any substantial or further damage. In his judgment, Mr. Justice Hardiman noted that the delay in the adoption authorities responding to demands for Baby A's mother to desist from proceeding with the adoption process as — Ms Justice McGuinness may have said this as well — one of the most disturbing aspects of the case. That is salutary and we need to note it.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify why the Bill has not attempted to streamline or simplify the adoption process somewhat further. The length of time taken in various legal proceedings, for example, if there is a change of mind, is considerable. We could safeguard everyone's rights but that area of the effects of the lengthy legal time and procedure needs to be looked at further. The time involved at present may be too long and lead to considerable uncertainty for the child. That is a matter at which the Minister of State could look. I suppose the case I quoted illustrates some of the weaknesses in the system — the waiting lists for assessments and other formal adoption procedures, and the lack of vital support for post-adoption services for children and the family, which is an issue we must address.

All adoption procedures should be framed on the basis of protecting and ensuring the rights of the child. Section 24(2) of the Bill provides for children over the age of seven to be heard on an adoption order. However, I want to raise with the Minister of State the issue of why he has not opted for a guardian ad litem provision and hear his response. I worked as a guardian ad litem when I was a social worker employed in England where the adoption law allows for guardian ad litem. It is a good provision for children because it means there is an independent person involved in the assessment but looking at it purely through the lens of the child, whatever age he or she may be. There is the social worker and people working for the natural parents, there are people working for the would-be adopters but then there is this person whose responsibility is to look at the matter purely from the point of view of the child and submit a report to the court. In my experience it worked well and added immeasurably to the entire procedure. It is something we ought to consider putting in place. It is in place in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister would indicate if the Government would be open to considering such a provision.

The other group of children I want to mention are those who are in long-term foster care. I think I am correct in stating that under this legislation these children are still not offered a second chance. This is an issue which affects hundreds of children in Ireland and it is one which we should address. There are many children who have no contact with their birth parents and yet they are not eligible for adoption, and I think that is really wrong. Obviously, many long-term foster parents would like to adopt as well. That is an issue that needs to be addressed as well and I would like the Minister of State to update the House on his plans in this area.

A number of organisations have been in touch with us. As this is such a complex Bill many of the agencies state that they would like more time to consider the provisions. That is why I suggested they should come into the committee so we can get their responses to the legislation.

A point which they made strongly, however, is that they would like to see adequate support built into the Bill for pre and post-adoption services to support the adopted child. There is need to provide for this in the Bill. There have been a number of studies done on it. Most recently, one by Trinity College Dublin, entitled "A Study of intercountry Adoption Outcomes in Ireland 2007", verified the need for post-placement support in intercountry adoptions. It is clear that this is needed and we should build in statutory provision for it.

Another area omitted — I am focusing on some of the issues where the Bill could be strengthened rather than on the good provisions which I acknowledge are in it — is the question of putting the tracing services on a statutory basis. The lack of a legislative framework for tracing services and information services is extremely disappointing and it may be in breach of Article 22 of the European Convention on the Adoption of Children. Why not put this on a statutory basis, if the Attorney General is confident that Ireland is in compliance with the European Convention on the Adoption of Children? We ought to look at that area because it is problematic. Barnardos, as the Minister of State will be aware, has been providing this service on a voluntary basis for a long time and it has given great support to individuals who have wanted to trace their origins or who want at least to talk about it or get counselling. That is an essential service that people need. It is an area that could be strengthened and on which the Minister of State might report back, either to committee or the House, on the Government's views.

There are many practical issues in the Bill. The Government is developing a new adoption authority. Perhaps the Minister of State would give us more details on how An Bord Uchtála will be disbanded. Will there be an automatic transfer of power to the adoption authority? From what he stated today, it looks like there will.

The HSE, under the Bill, will have the power to establish adoption committees to advise and assist the new adoption authority. Given the state of resources within the HSE, I am concerned that one could encounter a real roadblock there in these cases and I want to ask the Minister of State again about the resource issue in the context of the HSE. How will the HSE be able to handle this new responsibility? Given the HSE's significant problems, that we have discussed in this House, in even dealing with the most urgent cases of abuse, the HSE is not able to allocate resources even to the most urgent cases. There are many closed cases on the shelves that have not even had a social worker assigned to them and I have concerns about the resource implications of giving the HSE this job to do. I wonder whether the HSE is the right place to go with it. I do not know where else one can go but I am not sure whether the HSE, given this power, will be able to live up to the remit the Minister of State is giving it.

The issue of the Hague Convention and the international powers is most important.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Fitzgerald has one minute remaining.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael)
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There are a couple of points I want to make about bilateral adoption. More than 4,000 foreign adoptions have been registered in the Republic since 1991. Some 400 of those children are adopted from Russia, China and Vietnam. I do not have time to go into all of the details but the Minister of State will be familiar with them. There is a problem that Ireland does not have bilateral agreements with some of the countries such as Russia and Vietnam — there is an agreement with Vietnam but it expires in April. I expected to hear an update in the Minister of State's speech. I ask him to bring us up to date on what is happening with the bilateral agreements so parents who have adopted from these countries, and especially those who are in the process of adopting, will know what is going to happen when the Adoption Bill comes into force.

The Minister of State will be familiar with the concept of the grandfather clause, which is not contained in the Bill. If a family has adopted a child from Russia already, such a clause would enable them to adopt a second child. Even though it is not covered by the Hague Convention, I ask that the Minister of State have a grandfather clause inserted in the legislation to allow this to happen. This ought to be examined.

I want to mention one other important area, namely, the changing face of adoption, which is not addressed in this Bill. There is now much more open adoption in most countries. I am familiar with that from working on adoption issues in Ireland. Here we are moving more towards an open adoption situation as well, where a good deal of information is given to the adoptive parents and the adopted child. Very often there is ongoing contact with the natural parent. This legislation does not reflect the growing number of open adoptions occurring in this country, under which birth parents reach a legal agreement that provides them with some access, visiting rights etc. to the child. It must be asked why the Bill is not addressing this issue because we need a legal framework to deal with this new situation of more open adoptions. Perhaps it is in the detail of the Bill and I have missed it. If so, perhaps the Minister of State will inform me and I shall be delighted. However, it seems that this area is not adequately covered in the Bill.

A number of particular domestic issues are not addressed either. For instance, a case in which a couple marries, the woman already has a baby and the marital father wants to adopt is a very complicated area. In Ireland, the mother, in effect, ends up adopting her own child, and a couple must address highly complicated legal procedure in order for the husband to adopt. This is a case where the natural father is not on the scene at all, and the legislation does not deal with that.

I welcome the Bill since it incorporates the very important provisions of the Hague Convention, 16 years later. There are a number of issues, however, where it should go further and it avoids some key issues that are relevant to the current adoption debate and the way adoption has changed. In conclusion, I welcome the attempts to provide a secure service for inter-country adoptions. Legislation, as the Minister of State knows, is only one element, however. The other elements are implementation, the resourcing of social services to deal with it, international co-operation and post-adoption services. I should like to see a commitment to all of those levels as well because we need to protect children in this situation. I welcome the fact so many children are being given a secure future by increasing the standards in relation to inter-country adoption.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him and the Department on the fine Bill which will bring together all the adoption legislation into one concise Act. I also compliment him on his first-class speech, which is a pleasure to read, as it is most informative.

I agree with what Senator Fitzgerald said to the effect that three of the Members in the House this afternoon are members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, namely, Senators Fitzgerald, Prendergast and myself. It would be a first-class idea, I agree, to invite the different parties to attend that committee to hear the concerns raised as regards this Bill. The first legislation dealing with adoption in Ireland was the Adoption Act 1952. This Act has been amended six times, most recently in 1998. In recent years the number of Irish children being adopted has fallen, and so a trend has emerged of prospective parents looking abroad to adopt. The pleasure denied to couples of having their own child is hard to describe and cannot be fully appreciated unless a person has been through this for himself or herself. Therefore the possibility of adoption for couples who do not have children must be a wonderful prospect. I agree with Senator Fitzgerald, as well, however, that the length of time it takes seems to be excessive.

I am not saying, by any means, that there should be merely cursory examination of the potential parents, but the length of the waiting time tends to put people off. It can take three or four years or whatever. It is vital, I know, that the safety of the child is paramount, but given that, there must be some way the process may be expedited. It is a very stressful and difficult time for prospective parents and I am sure there are areas which could be addressed to make the process easier.

During the Christmas recess I visited a friend who is working in an orphanage in Haiti. It was very heart-warming to see the level of care the children in the orphanage were getting. They are dumped on the street by their parents, who do not want to know them, particularly if they have any indications of a mental or physical handicap.

There are people in Ireland who would really like to adopt children from countries such as Haiti. I should like to see interested groups attending the health and children committee to hear the contributions from the different parties. That is a very good idea, as suggested by Senator Fitzgerald. Moving on, this Bill will give the force of law to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption 1993. The objectives of the Hague Convention are to establish safeguards to ensure inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child, with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised under international law. A further objective of the Hague Convention is to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure those safeguards are respected, thereby preventing the abduction, sale of or traffic in children. Another objective is to secure the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention.

The Adoption Bill 2009 gives legal effect to the Hague Convention in Irish law. Ratification of the Hague Convention puts in place the equivalent of a contract between states to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. The Bill provides for the making and recognition of inter-country adoptions in accordance with bilateral agreements in those countries which have not yet ratified the Hague Convention. Priority is being given to those countries which Irish applicants have traditionally adopted from, such as Russia. Another important feature of the Bill is the right of the father of the child to give notice to the adoption authority of his wish to be consulted in relation to the placement of him or her for adoption, or for an application of an adoption order to be made in respect of the child.

The Bill outlines the preplacement consultation procedure required. Where the adoption authority has been unable to consult with the child's father, it may authorise that he or she be placed for adoption, but it must seek High Court approval before proceeding with the adoption. This a welcome recognition of a father's rights in the adoption process. Part 4 provides that the welfare of the child is the first and paramount consideration in the adoption process. It reaffirms the important change introduced in the Adoption Act 1988, whereby any child, irrespective of the marital status of his or her parents, may be eligible for adoption, where the court finds they have failed in their duty to the child for a physical or moral reason or have effectively abandoned him or her. These are exceptional cases, rare in practice, however.

Furthermore, the Bill gives children over the age of seven the right to voice their opinion, and due consideration must be given to his or her wishes having regard to age. Another notable inclusion is the provision for a register of foreign adoptions, to be known as a register of inter-country adoptions. The Bill dissolves An Bord Uchtála and establishes the adoption authority. As the Minister of State has said, it will comprise seven members with backgrounds in law, medicine and psychology. Finally, Part 15 provides for offences and penalties including the prohibition of certain advertisements about adoption, and the receiving, making and giving of payments and rewards in consideration of the adoption of a child.

It is important to note that it is an offence to make false or misleading statements to the adoption authority or an accredited body. As spokesperson for children, I am disappointed the Bill does not make provision for post-adoption services. Studies of inter-country adoption outcomes in Ireland by the children's research centre show families feel strongly about the need for effective, accessible and timely services for them and their children. It is invaluable to the well-being of children and families that they receive support when they need it. I call on the Minister of State to examine this area and take urgent action to address the gap in care. I hear anecdotal evidence to suggest difficulties in adopting children and the perception exists that the children can encounter challenges as they go through life.

I commend the Minister of State and his officials on bringing the Bill before the House. Please God, it will enhance the life of children who are not wanted or whose birth parents are unable to care for them and bring happiness to their adoptive families.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Bacik.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This Bill is overdue and I compliment him on introducing most, although not all, of the measures required of it. Unfortunately, however, substantial gaps remain in the legislation. Astonishingly, legislation to regularise adoption was first introduced in 1952. Adoptions had previously been arranged informally and certain rather unfortunate circumstances arose as a result. Approximately eight amending Acts have since been passed but this is the first time a major step has been taken on the matter.

I welcome that the Minister of State makes clear that the rights of the child are paramount. That is as it should be. I am glad too that he gives a degree of recognition to the rights of fathers. I hope to God that may to some degree cork up John Waters because he is completely obsessional on this issue. I have spoken about it but he seems to think it is the only thing on the face of the planet. A right has been set out in that regard and I am glad fathers have been given a consultative role. While the Bill probably does not go far enough, at least it moves in the right direction.

In regard to the very difficult situation in which the mother cannot or will not identify the father, genetic information is increasingly important in terms of disease control, advance warning and questions about the subsequent marriage of children. I am grateful, therefore, that measures have been introduced in this regard.

Two principal gaps exist in the Bill, the first of which is the complete absence of post-adoption counselling. This has been recommended by all the bodies consulted about the legislation and I wonder if the omission is simply due to an absence of cash. I am aware that we are facing a grim situation but this represents the future, and I ask the Minister of State to reconsider this issue.

The second gap comprises the missed opportunity in regard to same sex recognition. Last week, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties gave a valuable briefing on this subject which was attended by Members of the Minister of State's party. I imagine he is the kind of man who would have attended were he not in office. A Bill has been proposed on same sex recognition but the one issue it signally fails to address is adoption, even in regard to a gay person's own children. Some people in this House have produced ludicrous waffle about the family as if they are unaware that in certain circumstances the family is toxic to children. I am not going to rehearse the arguments made by these people, who we know well enough. Even today, a slightly batty article was published in The Irish Times by a priest who suggested that the family is so dreadful that everyone should become a priest. He argued that the family is awful and leads to alcoholism, abuse and separation. The article is actually quite funny if it is read in a certain way.

It emerged in the briefing by the ICCL that the British Government used the opportunity of reforms to that country's adoption legislation to introduce full adoption for gay parents in advance of domestic partnership legislation. We often follow the example set by the British Government but it is a pity that we have not done so in the context of this Bill. I am aware the issue is a political hot potato but the backwoods people can certainly be faced down. Is it not idiotic that one gay man or woman can adopt whereas a gay couple cannot be regarded as a family? If the adoptive parent dies, the child has no right to inherit from the non-guardian parent. That is legal nonsense and it represents a missed opportunity. These two lacunae vitiate the Bill. The legislation is lacking, although that does not mean it does not make improvements.

I presume the issue of inter-country adoptions has been raised previously. Of the approximately 4,500 adoptions which have been carried out since 1991, between 30% and 40% have involved non-Hague Convention countries. That issue is not adequately addressed in the Bill for various reasons. Russia would fall outside the Bill's remit because although it has established bilateral arrangements with other countries, we have no such arrangements. I remind Members of the work done by Adi Roche and the way in which the Chernobyl children have gone to the hearts of Irish people. If Irish people want to adopt and cherish these children, for God's sake let us not block them. Obstacles arose on the other side when children were unable to obtain visas to come to Ireland because of bureaucratic problems in Russia. I want to know the Minister of State's plans regarding Russia. Ethiopia is a huge mess but recent analysis indicates that its adoption law is compatible with our system. However, we have not established a bilateral agreement on adoption. Vietnam is one of the most popular countries for adoption and I am aware the Minister of State has stated his intention to establish a new bilateral arrangement. However, the current arrangement expires at the end of April and the exchange of draft agreements has not yet taken place. I ask him to outline to the House the current state of play in that regard.

The Law Reform Commission and all the adoption agencies sought the inclusion in the Bill of a grandfather clause. If a family in Ireland adopts a child from a non-Hague Convention country, a grandfather clause would make it easier to adopt a second child. The reason this is regarded as valuable is because a child from a distant country and alien civilisation might otherwise be denied the opportunity of being raised with a sibling.

The basis for the creation of an adoption court or a fully independent adoption agency appears insufficient. Everything must pass through the Health Service Executive bureaucracy, which is already overwhelmed.

The Children's Rights Alliance sets out four wishes for the Bill and the Minister of State has provided for all of them except the last, that is, post-adoption counselling. Information is also important. I have been approached by middle aged and elderly people who have no idea of the identity of their parents. Some of them were surrendered to Church of Ireland homes by well meaning people but for social or other reasons, records of their parents were deliberately not kept. That is an awful deprivation for citizens of this country.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and join other Senators in commending him on the introduction of this long overdue Bill which provides for a positive overhaul of adoption legislation previously set out in the 1952 Act, as amended. I should declare an interest in that as a practising barrister I have acted in cases concerning adoptions and related areas.

I concur with Senator Fitzgerald on the need for allowing ample time between Second Stage and Committee Stage for the drafting of amendments. This is a lengthy Bill and it would be valuable to have time to review it in detail. It would also be a good idea to have joint committee hearings at which interested groups and parties could make submissions. This was done by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in its discussions on the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which was a valuable exercise for all Members of the committee.

I would like to address a number of points wherein I believe the Bill could be strengthened and do so in a spirit of welcome for the Bill and in an effort to be constructive. The first relates to an issue which it was recommended many years ago be legislated for. The Review Committee on Adoption Services, chaired by the late Dr. Joseph Robins, recommended in 1984 that there should be a way of applying for special guardianship of a child, in particular in respect of long-term foster carers. This is a difficult issue, one which could well have been tackled in this Bill. I am interested to hear if the Minister of State will contemplate amending the Bill to address this issue given the strength of recommendations in this regard dating back to 1984.

More recently, in January 2005, the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Brian Lenihan, published a report on the consultation process on adoption legislation. I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of it. That report recommended that long-term foster carers who had cared for a child for five years or more be permitted to apply for guardianship of that child. The model for this is contained within the British Adoption and Children Act 2002, which is more comprehensive than the legislation before us in that it addresses issues beyond adoption. Also, it addresses the issue of special guardianship. Section 115 of the British Act allows a court to make a special guardianship order in respect of a child who has lived with foster parents for at least one year prior to the application. The advantage of this is that it gives a child a measure of security beyond placement in foster care while falling short of the severance of ties with the birth parents that adoption tends to entail. This can be a valuable measure. It has been invaluable in Britain in allowing foster parents and children in their care to have some measure of security.

Special guardianship allows the foster parents to take on parental responsibility for the child, including day-to-day decisions in respect of care and upbringing while retaining some rights for the natural parents, including the right to consent or not to the child's placement for adoption. I ask that the Minister of State consider inserting into the Bill a similar provision in respect of special guardianship given the strength of recommendations in this regard which date back some time and the difficult position in which children in foster care may find themselves in terms of security and permanency.

The second issue I wish to raise is one which Senator Norris also raised, namely, eligibility to adopt. An opportunity exists to amend this Bill to be more inclusive. I am disappointed that section 33 of the Bill retains the current restrictions allowing only couples who are married to each other to adopt. Under the current provision only opposite sex couples or single people may adopt, which is anomalous. A single person, in a cohabiting relationship, either same or opposite sex, can adopt as a single person but not as part of a couple. This appears to be anomalous and in breach of the Government's stated policy in favour of civil partnership. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify whether the civil partnership Bill will be changed, as I believe it should, to provide that couples who enter a civil partnership or are in a presumed cohabitation relationship within the terms of the civil partnership Bill as proposed, would be able to adopt as a couple rather than as individuals. It is anomalous they are currently not allowed to do so.

Interestingly, the citizen's information page provides information for same sex partners. I, and I am sure many others in the House, know there are already in Ireland many families involving same sex parents with one or more children in their household yet the non-biological parent in the same sex relationship has no rights in respect of the child and, more important, the child has no rights in respect of the non-biological parent. We saw powerful testimony on the "Late Late Show" from a grandmother of a child born to same sex parents and who was in that difficult position whereby the non-biological parent had died. The citizen's information section states quite correctly that under current legislation it is not possible for the partner of a same sex relationship who is not the biological parent to apply to become a guardian of the child nor is it possible for same sex partners jointly to adopt a child even if one is the birth parent of a child. In my view, that is anomalous, unjust and discriminatory against children who are living in family households where the parents are of same sex and who wish to have a legal relationship with a non-birth parent. I ask that the Minister of State consider introducing amendments to the legislation to address this discrimination against children of same sex couples. I do not see why this cannot be extended. Prior to the introduction of civil partnership in Britain, a change was made to the law in respect of adoption to allow couples or individuals to adopt children.

I accept that the most important and paramount consideration must be the welfare and best interests of the child. Given this is the case, I do not understand how we can limit eligibility to adopt to married couples or single persons. The best interests of the child may well lie in allowing a cohabiting couple who have been parenting them to adopt them. Another point in terms of eligibility that is a disappointment is section 32 which makes the presumption that parents who adopt be of the same religion as the child. I am not sure why that remains the case. It seems to be a throw-back.

My final point relates to the abandonment of parental rights. The proposed provision in section 54 restates current law on abandonment. It is a difficult test to fulfil. The court may make an order dispensing with consent of parents where the natural parents have failed in their duty to the child and that failure amounts to an abandonment of all parental rights. The Supreme Court emphasised how rigorous that test is in the Western Health Board case in 1995. The difficulty is that it is too high a hurdle and that it can come into conflict with the best interests of the child, which should be the paramount test.

I am glad the Baby A case which Senator Frances Fitzgerald mentioned is addressed in the Bill through section 59 which provides that an adoption order is not invalidated if parents subsequently marry. However, the Bill highlights again the need for us to ensure that in all legislation concerning children, adoption and guardianship, the welfare of the child is a paramount consideration and that no other considerations obstruct us reaching that conclusion.

Senator Fitzgerald referred to the need for the guardian ad litem provision. While the statutory power to appoint a guardian ad litem exists, it needs to be fleshed out. There is a difficulty in the courts, day to day, in terms of responsibilities and duties of guardians ad litem. It would again be useful if the Bill could encompass those measures along with the adoption measures.

5:00 pm

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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In common with many people in this county, my family background includes people close to me who are adopted and others who have become adoptive parents. This has allowed me to understand the experience of adoption in this country.

There has been much legislation on this issue from the 1960s, this Bill being the most recent, despite its long delay in terms of years in reaching the Statute Books. However, the Bill is welcome in that it incorporates the Hague Convention and attempts to regularise the situation in terms of inter-country adoption. Like other speakers, I welcome the Bill and its content. I will concentrate on areas I hope the Minister of State will consider in the course of the Bill's passage through Committee and Report Stages in this House.

I agree with other speakers that it is unlikely we will regularise the situation in regard to the treatment of married couples, same sex couples and single people. The true disconnect in terms of many family units in this country is that there exists same sex couples with children, both of whom are not permitted to have a legal parental relationship with those children. I do not believe it is possible to deal in this Bill or the forthcoming civil partnership Bill with that issue. However, there must be a statement of intent that it is the next area of reform in the adoption area.

I agree with Senator Bacik on the need to look at the ability of long-term foster carers to adopt. While this appeared to be an element of Government policy, it is not addressed in the legislation before us. The Minister of State, when responding, might indicate what are the barriers against insertion of such a section in this Bill. While a large number of people may not be affected by this, it affects some who want to regularise what are in effect family relationships, though they cannot exist in any legal format owing to a lack of proper adoption legislation to assist them.

The Bill could and should also deal with the area of reform with regard to the Civil Registration Bill, which is a matter for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and one on which I commented when a Bill went through the other House a number of years ago. I continue to believe it is regrettable that we have an attitude in this country with regard to adopted people seeking information about who they are and what they are part of.

The registration of adopted people and their certificate of adoption, as opposed to their birth certificate, lists all adopted people as being born in Dublin, whether they are born there. This is meant to prevent questions about the number and type of births in particular areas if such information was provided. It is highly anomalous that our neighbouring jurisdiction has more liberal laws. The effect of such laws is that Irish people who were adopted in London through Irish agencies based in the UK find it far easier to get birth information about themselves than Irish adopted people who were born in this country. So long as this remains an anomaly, the position of adopted people will be less than it should be as they cannot claim to be full citizens without having such information about themselves.

Not only is this required of adopted people, it is required for those by whom they are adopted — their new adoptive family and those with whom they live. The loss of possibly vital family background medical information, which is never available, is an issue adoption legislation can and should address.

With regard to the inter-country adoptions, other speakers pointed out the difficulty Ireland has with a number of countries. The Minister of State has gone on record with regard to the countries with which we are strengthening the relationship in terms of bilateral agreements. I offer support to the Law Reform Commission's call for a grandfather clause for adopted families where there is more than one child. Where it is possible that a second child can be adopted through the same avenue as the first, this can offer cultural support and greater family cohesion. Barriers are put in the way of people who have already proved themselves in the adoption process as good parents and who are able to offer a stable family background for whomever is adopted. The same obstacles should not recur to a greater extent when considering the idea of a second adoption for such families.

While I have highlighted several areas in which the Bill may be deficient, in overall terms it is a huge advance in adoption legislation. However, it is an area where, since the first Adoption Bill in the earlier years of the State — there are at least a dozen such Bills — we have always moved far too slowly, concerned, I believe, about social niceties rather than the needs of adopted people. While this Bill advances those needs in a significant way, we will still leave too many of those needs unmet unless we are prepared to consider finalising this Bill on Committee Stage and Report Stage to make it the best it can possibly be.

Photo of Phil PrendergastPhil Prendergast (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While I welcome the Bill in its intention, I am worried about its limitations. I am concerned that these limitations could lead to yet further delays in getting the very necessary provisions contained in the Bill passed.

In dealing with this matter, I am keen not to be partisan, but the Government does not have a good record on child protection and has dragged its heels on this issue. In approaching the Bill, therefore, we have a quandary. Do we seek amendments to extend its scope, which could delay its passage even further, or do we support it because it addresses some of the issues concerning the whole area of adoption? Simply because it consolidates all the existing law on adoption does not mean it addresses all the matters of concern in this area, a point raised by other contributors to this debate. If we give the Bill support, are we kicking off a whole new cycle of legal judgments, leading to more uncertainty and perhaps more legislation down the line? We must be vigilant as legislators to get it right and to do so in a spirit of co-operation.

We heard impassioned speeches from all sides of the House last week in support of children's welfare, so it behoves us to take a strong interest in the Bill. This type of legislation is always difficult because it needs to be sensitive to the needs of so many people. The child's interests, of course, are paramount but many other parties must also be accounted for, such as siblings, the natural and adoptive parents and extended families. If the Bill is to progress more or less as it stands, we must keep the other issues on the agenda. The Labour Party leader in the Seanad, Senator Alex White, will certainly do this and I have no doubt others will also.

I am aware there has been considerable delay in ratifying the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption so I welcome the fact that the Bill has finally been brought forward to address this anomaly. What is the position where people are currently trying to adopt children from, for example, Vietnam? This is causing great concern to those who are in the process of trying to adopt a Vietnamese child. I realise this question is specific but, without going into the details, it is one that needs to be answered.

The legal situation in regard to the adoption of foreign children by Irish couples is inadequate, as the Tristan Dowse case so clearly illustrated, and the issues are very complex. The Law Reform Commission, which produced a report on the matter, is categorical. It stated that although it is generally assumed that foreign adoptions may be recognised under existing law, the circumstances in which recognition may be afforded have never been clearly defined either in case law or by statute. Since there are probably a number of people living in this country, children and adults, who have been adopted abroad, it is a matter of concern that their status under Irish law remains uncertain.

It is to be hoped the Bill will clear up the uncertainty in this respect but it only directly legislates for inter-country adoptions where the child's country of origin has ratified the Hague Convention. However, an estimated 10% of adopted foreign children in this country are from countries that have not signed up to the convention. This means bilateral agreements are needed with those countries if adoptions from these states are to continue. The Minister of State with special responsibility for children said that Ireland has already made diplomatic contact with the Vietnamese on the issue, but Russia and Ethiopia also account for many adoptions and discussions are needed with these countries also. The Bill provides for bilateral deals, which is a worthy provision, but swift action must follow.

The Bill also provides for the establishment of the adoption authority of Ireland to succeed the Adoption Board. I very much hope it has the powers and resources in practice to act on the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission. By the time it succeeds the Adoption Board, the guidelines for verifying the authenticity of foreign adoption documentation should be established and the independent legal advice it will need should be made available as recommended.

I also strongly support the commission's suggestion that a designated High Court judge be appointed to deal with all adoption cases. This approach has worked well in other courts, such as the Commercial Court, and the commission recommendation that section 6 of the Child Care Act 1991 be amended to provide statutory post-adoption services for both domestic and inter-country adoptions should be acted upon. This is also contained in the Hague Convention.

It is important to remember that the process of adoption entails a strong degree of trust between the agency facilitating the adoption and the adopting parents. Therefore, it makes sense that agencies accredited under the convention are allowed to provide post-adoption services if this is what the adoptive parents want. This would not prevent the parents using the health board that processed the adoption if they so wish.

There is much to discuss on Committee Stage and I urge all sides of the House to work together on this important legislation. I thank Senators for their contributions and I hope some of the specifics I raised will be addressed.

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the Bill, particularly ratification of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. In recent years, we have seen a lot of change in Ireland. We have gone from being a country from which people adopted children to a country whose people travel to other countries to adopt. Part of this reflects the change in the number of children who are available for adoption within Ireland and, consequently, changing attitudes to single parenthood. However, since the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, is present I take the opportunity to raise concerns regarding the number of foster children who remain in long-term care, who have no opportunity for adoption and of whom this Bill does not take account. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children has heard submissions from several organisations suggesting there are hundreds of such children in long-term foster care who would benefit from access to adoption. However, because of the current legislation these children are not in a position to access it. Will the Minister of State take account of this point? I realise it may be necessary to hold a constitutional referendum. I will revert to this matter at a later stage.

The ratification of the Hague Convention has the potential to be a very powerful, positive force in inter-country adoption, ensuring best practice is in the interests of children's safety, and encourages the countries which have not formalised their processes yet to do so. I welcome the core principle that inter-country adoption should be child-centred, that is to say, the child's interests should be paramount at all stages of the process. This is very welcome. I especially welcome the establishment of a system of co-operation among the contracting states to safeguard children's best interests and to prevent the abduction, sale or trafficking of children.

I refer to the issue of unaccompanied non-national children who have gone missing from Health Service Executive care. It is estimated there is in excess of 300 such children. While it is believed some of these have left the care of the HSE of their own volition to join family members already here, some indicated upon entering the country they were unaccompanied. Having secured entry to the country and HSE care, some have left that care. There are significant concerns to the effect that several of these children have been the victims of trafficking. Will the Minister of State indicate what steps have been taken to find these children, to establish their safety and to establish how they came to be in the country in the first place? At a time when we are introducing legislation to ratify the Hague Convention, it is especially important to examine the practices and occurrences in the country and question whether we have unwittingly become the recipients of children who have been trafficked or sold.

I raise another issue regarding such children. There are instances whereby they are in the care of the HSE and supposed family members make contact, appear and seek reunification. Will the Minister of State review the procedures for reunification? My understanding is that, at present, reunification only necessitates the provision of a similar story to the HSE from the child and the supposed parent. Given the scientific advances available, it would be of greater benefit if DNA testing or a blood test were used. I am concerned that such children could be the victims of trafficking. They could have been told the story to relay upon arrival and the supposed parent could provide a similar story to the HSE. On the basis of two such similar stories a child could be dispatched into the care of an adult previously unknown to the HSE. I urge the Minister of State to take this point on board.

I especially welcome Part 3, which sets out the right of the father of the child to give notice to the authority of his wish to be consulted on the proposed placement of the child for adoption, or on an application for an adoption order to be made in respect of the child, and outlines the preplacement consultation procedure required. This is a very welcome recognition of the rights of fathers. I also welcome the provision to give consideration to the views and wishes of children more than seven years of age concerning prospective adoptions, which is in adherence with the practices we seek to adopt in the best interests of the child.

Several concerns exist among adoptive parents regarding future inter-country adoptions, especially those involving Vietnam and Russia. I do not wish to repeat the comments of my colleagues, save to say that I have been approached by several families who have adopted children from these countries who wish to adopt siblings for a son or daughter and who are concerned this may not be possible in future in light of the legislation. I realise the Minister of State has sought bilateral agreements and has encouraged relevant countries to ratify the Hague Convention and demonstrate they are in adherence or compliance with best practice regarding child safety. Will the Minister of State explain the position regarding the signing of bilateral agreements with such countries?

I wish to raise concerns regarding Part 7, which makes provision for the High Court to allow the authority to grant an adoption order in favour of applicants if it is satisfied the child's parents, whether married, have, for physical or moral reasons, failed in their duty towards the child for a continuous period of not less than 12 months and such failure is likely to continue without interruption until the child is 18 years old. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children has heard several submissions from several organisations and senior counsel in this regard. These have indicated there is a considerable difficulty in establishing the standard for this requirement and how to meet it. Those who have made submissions believe the difficulty is such that in many cases it will not be possible to establish the standard. We believe the standard should be provided for the authority. I am unsure if this will be available in practice under the legislation. Will the Minister of State provide the House with the practical plans to establish clear, concrete criteria showing how this standard could be met?

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I call on the Senator to prepare to conclude. I am advised she is in injury time.

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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A good deal of the information available tends to be anecdotal, because we do not keep records in the family courts. Will the Minister of State explain if it will be possible to keep such records in future, because it could inform our practice and future legislation? There may be benefits from some degree of record keeping in the family courts. It would be a good deal better than relying on anecdotal evidence and we would be better served in that regard.

I am concerned there seems to be no provision for the placement for voluntary adoption of children by married parents, which is unfortunate. This has resulted in a number of children in long-term foster care who cannot access the opportunity for adoption. This is the case even where married parents have indicated they would be in favour of the adoption of the child. I call on the Minister of State to address this.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I am glad to see the Adoption Bill, which has a significant resonance in my life. I have adopted two children, one from Ireland and one from abroad. I am very familiar with the Hague Convention, although its adoption here is some 16 years late. Social workers brought that matter to our attention some time ago. It is interesting to examine how adoption has changed, even since the mid-1990s. Some 77% of all adoptions of Irish children are family adoptions. We have one of the highest rates of inter-country adoptions in the world, with just under 5,000 such cases since 1991. The area of foreign adoption is the most relevant outside of family adoptions in Ireland. I wish to address some of the issues from the point of view of families wishing to adopt, based on personal experience. One of the biggest issues is requests for assessment. The social worker has a critical role. No matter how tough social workers are, it is right and proper that the child is central to the process. It is important, however, that the social worker does not act as God and does not prevent a couple that has difficulty dealing with the assessment from being parents, for that is the right they seek. It is terrible for couples to have to wait three years to be assessed and a total of four or five years before they can be approved to adopt. This needs to be examined. I support the establishment of an independent assessment agency that would work under the same terms and conditions as the Health Service Executive, HSE, which conducts 90% of the assessments.

We must ask questions about putting couples through the mill about so much work on fertility and childlessness, which is excessive at times. The adoption process is fraught with serious emotional and social considerations.

There is often a time delay between a baby being allocated to a family and the couple being allowed to see the baby. Social worker empathy is critical in this situation in order not to destabilise the family. Friends of mine almost lost their opportunity to adopt because they became so anxious and the social worker decided they were perhaps not capable and fit and strong enough to adopt.

The importance of meeting birth parents cannot be underestimated. It is a wonderful thing because the couple gets information about health, etc. A conversation of one hour can provide enough information for life. It also demystifies the birth parents who are sometimes put on a pedestal as being magical and mystical creatures when in fact they are just normal people with as many flaws as ourselves. When such a meeting can be encouraged and facilitated it is brilliant. The possibility of meeting the birth parents of a foreign child is poor.

Tracing birth parents is also critical as the child gets older. I strongly encourage access to the original birth certificate once the child is 18 but absolutely not sooner than that. It is difficult to be a teenager and to come to terms with being adopted. At every stage of his or her life a child will ask a different question about being adopted.

What is the position when the father does not wish to be named? I understand the rights of fathers who wish to be named but there are those who do not wish to be named yet may become known to the adoptive parents. It is difficult for them to hide that information forever from a child.

Post-adoption services are crucial. It is important there continues to be support available for tracing and for services such as speech and language therapy. When one adopts a child from abroad there may be a language delay. Language therapy is a serious issue for native Irish children but may be an even bigger one for foreign adopted children. Psychological support is important because the trauma of separation is a big issue, especially as the child grows older. I support what other speakers have said about foster parents and strengthening their rights to adopt and doing it sooner. They are often carers of a little child for three to four years before even being considered and they may be the best parents for the child.

It is time to ratify the Hague Convention and it is good to have a single standard for adoptive parents and children regardless of location. A problem arises, however, if the state of origin does not meet the terms of the Hague Convention. Millions of children languish in institutions around the globe and despite the willingness of Irish families and applicants to provide loving and secure homes, we are prevented from helping more children through inefficiency and bureaucracy in these countries. Irish adoptive parents are extremely well prepared and capable of helping these children as research into outcomes for these children shows.

The Minister of State can play a significant role internationally by advancing bilateral agreements with some of these countries as a human right. Two thirds of the babies adopted in Ireland last year came from Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Those countries are now in doubt because they have not done the necessary work on bilateral agreements. Time is critical for the renegotiation of the agreement with Vietnam if we are to avoid a collapse of adoptions from Vietnam. No one wants to see up to 20 children a month being deprived of families in this country. That will happen if the agreement with Vietnam is not renegotiated. These children may never be adopted owing to our authorities' lack of commitment. I encourage the Minister of State to act on this and on the agreement with Russia. What will happen to couples who are in the middle of the process while this Bill is going through the Houses? How can we enable these countries to move forward with their commitments?

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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The Senator's time has expired and other people are waiting to speak.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I want to make one final point. I thank the other Senator for his grace.

There should be a grandfather clause to allow families to adopt a second or subsequent child from the same family. One of the greatest needs of adoptive children as they grow up is to know someone in their own image. That can be enabled through a grandfather clause. I thank the Acting Chairman and the Minister of State and look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I dtosach cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach inniu chun an Bille Uchtála a phlé. Is Bille an-tábhachtach é seo.

Adoption was a strong feature of life three or four decades ago in this country when single girls who were pregnant allowed their children go for adoption and when children were orphaned. Many who have grown up as children of adoptive parents testify to their valuable role and input in shaping them in their adolescent and formative years. We could not underestimate the contribution of such parents. Many couples, for medical reasons and otherwise, are unable to conceive. Many children from Romania and other areas have received an opportunity they would not have had but for the strong Christian ethos of those who wanted children, brought them into their homes and raised them. That should be commended and it is important that the Bill regulate the process.

I have listened to some arguments and know that some Senators come from a different agenda although they might introduce their comments by saying that the emphasis should be on the well-being of the child. Without a doubt that is the case. Children should not be used as a tool for promoting agendas under the pretext of equality or in any other way.

I am not sure that adoption should be extended to those in a civil partnership. We have read many studies that show that the stability of the family is best served by those who are married and have entered into a lifetime commitment. There are dysfunctional families with that status, the well-being of whose children becomes an issue as we have seen in a recent example. In general, however, that family framework is more stable. That is not to say that there are no children in other family structures who are not enjoying the same protection and the same level of love and commitment. However, there are sufficient statistical data to show that where people have failed to enter into that lifestyle commitment, there is a higher propensity for relationships to break down than when they are married. That has its own impact on the children.

It is probably desirable that the children should be adopted by people of the same religion, especially in the interest of the child. There is still quite a strong adherence to religion here. Whether that is to the dominant faith in the country or some other faith, children reared in that environment generally tend to have a value system which stands them in good stead as they grow up and go through life.

There is an issue with children being adopted by single people. Some argue that there are anomalies in this and it must be recognised that they exist. If the emphasis is on the well-being of the child, we should not reduce him or her to some sort of appendage in society. Where good, stable parents can be identified for adoption, that is a preferable developmental framework for the rearing of children to that offered by single people. I say that as someone who was reared for most of my childhood by a single parent. I am acutely conscious of what this provides in the life of a child. Others who have been in my position would acknowledge the same situation. I am inclined to the view that where single people adopt, there should be some relationship with the child. If we place the emphasis on the well-being of the child, then we should recognise the ideal arrangement for the child. Being reared in a loving home with a mother and father provides the best opportunity for the development and well-being of the child, and provides the best opportunity for the child to grow into a good, responsible citizen for the future.

The Minister of State has taken a reasoned approach to this. We need to be cautious in how we progress this issue, because it is contentious. The Bill before the House underpins much of what I support.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, and I congratulate him and his officials on the work they have put into this Bill. Anyone who had the opportunity to listen to Eamon Dunphy on the radio last Saturday morning would have heard an interview with a very interesting individual. Dr. Paul Mooney is the president of the National College of Ireland, and he told me a wonderful story of how he adopted three children, the first of whom was adopted 18 years ago. Her name is Amy and she was adopted in Taiwan. He wrote a book, Amy, about that experience. I suggest that everyone read the book as it contains a very interesting story and is a reminder of the difficulty of adopting, especially from outside the State.

This Bill is welcome as it puts the interests of the child first. This will address the issue of inter-country adoptions which currently are subject to different standards than those of domestic adoptions. It is correct that all children adopted by parents in Ireland must be subject the same set of standards. In essence, the Bill reflects the fact that adoption has changed greatly since it was legalised in the Adoption Act 1952.

Once the Bill becomes law, it will be possible to adopt children only from countries that have ratified the Hague Convention or countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement. This means that Irish parents will not be able to adopt from countries such as Russia and Ethiopia unless an agreement is reached. How great is the possibility that bilateral agreements will be made in the near future with countries such as Vietnam, Ethiopia and Russia?

A total of 229 domestic family adoption applications were received by the Adoption Board last year. These were mostly in cases where the natural mother had a child outside marriage and later married a man who was not the natural father. The natural mother and her husband applied jointly to adopt the children and the couple took on joint legal rights and responsibilities. The Adoption Board acknowledges that the procedure is not always ideal in step-parent families. The Adoption Board's annual report states that it "considers that some other legal means should be devised to establish the rights and responsibilities of a natural mother's husband without extinguishing the rights and responsibilities of the natural father". This Bill provides the ideal opportunity to strengthen these rights for the stepfather and I believe it would be an oversight not to recognise this relationship in the Bill.

It is of great importance that adopted children are able to get access to the medical records of their biological parents or, where that is not possible, that they be kept on the files of the Health Service Executive. For example, I know of a specific case where an adopted child had a particular illness which was very difficult to diagnose. He met his birth mother many years later and it turned out that he inherited his illness from his father. A vital amendment to the Bill would be a provision to allow the adopted child access to medical records in the case of hereditary diseases. It would be possibly life-saving information. The person's anonymity would remain intact as no other information would be given out. I urge the Minister of State to include this provision in the Bill. I am not sure how this could be done, but if the individual in my example had known of his hereditary illness much earlier in life, he could have taken steps to overcome it much earlier as well.

The Bill does not impose an upper age limit, which means that many couples will still not know whether they can apply for adoption. Without a defined upper age limit, couples wishing to adopt are left unclear about whether they qualify, leading to some being rejected while others of the same age are allowed to adopt. I do not know the answer and I would hate to put a limit on the age of the parents because they could be the perfect parents. The Bill provides a clear opportunity to set down an age limit which will help to clear up any confusion and inevitable disappointment for couples. On the other hand, perhaps it is better to leave it up to the authorities to decide themselves.

A few years ago a couple approached me in one of my supermarkets and asked me what champagne they should buy. I got talking to them and discovered that the gentleman had been looking for his birth mother all his life. He had never been able to trace her so he took three days off to try to find her. She was not living in Ireland. When he contacted her by telephone, he asked her if a particular date meant anything to her. He gave the date of his birth. He said that she was quite emotional when she heard the date. When she asked him who he was, he said that he was born in a certain hospital in Ireland on that date. She had been looking for him for many years. She had wondered whether she could find him. He had been looking for her as well. She was coming to Ireland that afternoon. They were going to the airport to meet her. That is why they wanted champagne. It was an emotional experience for me. I remember taking great pleasure in giving them the champagne. I was reminded of the trauma people go through in their lives. I am aware that the Minister of State has attempted to cover this in the Bill before the House.

According to the most recent annual report of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, at the end of 2007 almost 7,000 people were registered on its information and tracing service, which aims to reunite adopted people. The report points out that:

The Register gives adopted people and their natural families an opportunity to confidentially state their preferences on the extent and type of contact they wish to have ... In particular, the Register has given natural fathers and other natural relatives of the adopted person a recognition that many felt they did not previously have.

Some 297 matches between parents and adult children have been made since the authority was established in 1952. It is clear that this is an emotional matter. The authority's report noted that older natural mothers have been reluctant to add their names to the register. We all have experience of that. I am aware of such a case. If one gave one's child up for adoption 20, 30 or 40 years ago, one might find it traumatic to be reminded of what one went through. Future publicity campaigns could make a greater effort to persuade such people to add their names to the register. At the same time, we must be careful to maintain confidentiality as many people might not want their names to be known.

I would like to reflect briefly on two points that have already been made. I refer first to the need for a grandfather clause to allow the relatives of children to adopt them. I hope it will be possible to achieve that. I know it is on the agenda, but I am not quite sure how it will be achieved. Second, we need to take steps to reduce the amount of time it takes to adopt a child. I accept that it is important to be careful in this regard. However, it seems to me that there must be some way of speeding up the process, especially in cases in which it is fairly clear that there is no problem, so that it does not take very long. I admit that I do not have much experience of these matters. In the past, people who have wanted to adopt have not been able to do so.

Senator Walsh and others spoke about different religions. Approximately 32 years ago, I knew of a Protestant man and his Catholic wife who were finding it difficult to adopt a child in Ireland. At that time, most birth parents left instructions to the effect that they wanted their children to be brought up with one religion or another. We managed to introduce the couple in question to a person who was involved in these matters. He knew of a case in which the birth parents had left no instructions. The couple adopted a girl who is now a wonderfully successful woman. Many things can be achieved. People who have no chance of having children experience great joy when they are able to adopt.

The Minister of State and his officials have done a great deal of work in this area. It is important for us to take our time with this legislation so that we get it right. This work will be well worthwhile when it leads to great rewards for so many families, children and adoptive parents. I congratulate the Minister of State on the steps he is taking at this stage. As we consider the Bill on its next Stages, we need to ensure we improve it. If there are any flaws in it, we need to find ways of making it better. If we do so, it will have worthwhile benefits for many people.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews. I particularly welcome this long overdue Bill which introduces into Irish law the contents of the Hague Convention. That measure, which is long overdue, is one reason to welcome the introduction of this Bill. I want to make one or two other comments on this timely Bill. We need to update and modernise our legislation. Senator Quinn spoke about the joy this Bill will bring to families and to children in the care of the State. It is far nicer to be in a caring and loving home than to be in the care of the State. We should try to facilitate the swiftest possible placement of children in permanent homes.

I agree with Senator Corrigan that foster parents who have built relationships with children should be able to adopt them where possible. She also referred to one of the flaws of the Bill which is the notion that children whose parents are married cannot be adopted. Any child who has been abandoned for whatever reason deserves the greatest protection possible. If his or her parents will not look after him or her, if the child has been left to the care of the State, he or she should not be excluded from adoption if it is in the child's interests. One good aspect of this Bill is that it absolutely and totally states that the care of the child is the central and most important thing. That is as it should be. We all know a child is better off in a loving home than in an institution. There should be no barrier. I ask the Minister of State to consider this question. I am interested to hear his opinion. Should children who have been abandoned be ineligible for adoption simply because their parents are married?

Senator Corrigan also spoke about the procedures that should be in place when those who claim to be the parents of unaccompanied minors come to collect them. She made the good point that if the stories of those involved tally, that is reason enough to release a child into the hands of whoever has come to collect him or her. It is easy to determine whether somebody is genuinely a child's parent. DNA testing can be carried out, for example. Children deserve that care. If a child is in the care of the State, he or she should be given the best available care. We know that all children do not necessarily get such care. We have the strongest obligation to such people. We need to ensure children left in the care of the State grow up in the most loving environment possible. It is better to facilitate adoption in such circumstances, naturally, because it is better to bring children into a loving home.

Senator Walsh will not be surprised to hear that I wish to respond to some of the comments he made earlier. The Minister of State made it clear that any decision that is made must be in the best interests of the child. That is as it should be. I argue that there is no room for making judgments about certain arrangements in a home. We all need to reflect on this point. In an ideal world, life would be as uncomplicated as it was when everyone was born into a family with a mother and a father. As we all know, life is a little more complicated now than it was when the family norm tended to be a heterosexual couple. I am not addressing the question of whether homosexual couples should be allowed to marry. One's sexual orientation does not reduce one's capacity to rear a child in a loving environment. I do not think it should be a factor. I understand that such matters might not be to everyone's taste. I do not think the State should take it upon itself to have the right to interfere in people's homes in this manner.

Naturally, everyone should be equally subject to the normal forms of rigorous testing or screening — the correct term escapes me — that apply to any couple or person who wishes to adopt a child. Being heterosexual does not make one a better parent. The case in Roscommon that came to light last month proves that point. No parent, even a biological parent, has a prerogative in terms of good care and the ability to cherish a child. There are failures everywhere and we need to be cognisant of that and accept that family life is different now than it was in the past. We should not necessarily take religions into account. There are cultural interests but we are already dealing with inter-country adoptions where children from African or Asian cultures have come to live here and have adapted well. What a child needs most is love and it does not matter where it gets it. If it can be placed in a loving home, regardless of the parental arrangements, that is as it should be.

I commend the Bill. As we go through Committee Stage we might consider extending and improving it; I am sure the Minister of State will be interested in that. I thank him for bringing it to the House and I look forward to its passage.

6:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit and I thank him for bringing the Bill, on behalf of thousands of parents, before the House.

The Minister of State is aware this is an emotional issue for many people. The trauma of the adoption process is extraordinary. I say that as someone who has two personal friends who have gone through the process, which, thankfully, ended in great joy. Senator O'Malley referred to children needing love. My two friends' families are now complete with love and the children are at the centre of the family. The fundamental point is that this debate is about children.

I welcome the Bill but I want to address some issues about which concern has been expressed by some of the groups I have met and some parents with whom I have spoken. The process is extraordinary. I have seen the effect on people of the paperwork and missing the opening times at the embassy. I recall on two occasions pacing up and down outside the Russian embassy waiting for officials to arrive and making sure that cheques were paid, the t's were crossed and the i's dotted. The image of my friend, Derek, pacing up and down outside the Russian embassy and being fraught with tension and worry remains with me. This is a man who wanted to adopt and bring a child back to a loving, warm home in Ireland. That waiting is replaced by the excitement of getting the approval to travel to Russia to adopt and then the joy of returning home with the child. Having witnessed the love brought to those two families and the integration, it illustrates for me the importance of this Bill and the joy of families being able to adopt. We must always keep that in mind.

It is important we have a set of standards in place and that children are at the core of this Bill because, as many speakers said, the adoption process has changed and the method of dealing with children has altered, thankfully, for the better, but some issues remain unresolved. Many Members received e-mails this morning from the International Adoption Association, IAA, and I was somewhat alarmed at the tone of the introduction in the e-mail which stated that the IAA is still preparing a summary, that this is quite a long and complex Bill and that it underestimated the effort required to digest it. Are we rushing ahead with the Bill? I ask the question based on the e-mail; it is not a criticism.

I listened with interest to the previous contributions here and on the monitor, and I found common ground with many of them. I even found commonality with Senator O'Malley's contribution, with whom I would spar a great deal. I liked Senator Walsh's story and I could associate with it, but I have a fundamental difference regarding some of his comments, which I will leave to another day in a different forum. Those of us who spoke in the debate so far have put the issue of children to the forefront. It is important that we recognise the value of children, enhance the role of family and ensure that all children who are adopted have a loving, caring home.

I agree with Senator O'Malley. We should not put in place barriers to adoption. We hear frequently about the nucleus of the family and the composition of family having changed. People said that when divorce was introduced Irish society would fall apart, but that has not happened. As Senator Walsh stated, I am aware that many single parents are raising children in warm, loving relationships. I have seen gay couples in America who are raising children in loving relationships. We have seen families torn apart by strife and children's lives being decimated as a consequence. I saw that when I was in school. In many of our communities today there are children who are victims of families that are falling apart, but that is an issue for a different debate. The fundamental point is that love, care and respect are vital and the Bill goes a long way in that regard.

I want to raise a number of issues that were raised with me by parents and groups. The first is in regard to the lack of provision in the Bill for post-placement supports and the issues of speech therapy, early intervention support and child psychological support. As we are all aware, children who have been adopted have often experienced difficult circumstances early in their lives. I will not detail the litany of those now but some of them have suffered traumatic developmental delays and that can lead to institutionalisation and so on. Early diagnosis and subsequent intervention is of absolute importance to the future well-being of the child and as educationalists we must ensure that is provided for in the Bill. I ask the Minister of State to address that in his concluding remarks.

Many speakers mentioned the age differential. No age limit or differential is specified in the Bill. I will not go into that issue other than to say I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's remarks on that because there are issues that must be addressed.

The issue of the grandfather clause has been raised by me and other speakers in the House. If the child is to be at the centre of this Bill, the issue of reuniting siblings and allowing families to adopt siblings must remain part of our focus. My cousins in America who adopted children from Russia were able to go back and reunite young children with their brothers and sisters. I would encourage the use of the grandfather clause and ask the Minister of State to have an open mind on that.

The issue of children of marriage will be a controversial one but it must be tackled in so far as children born in a marriage cannot be adopted, regardless of the current circumstances of the child. If somebody has an extramarital affair and they have a child, under the current system that child cannot be adopted. That aspect must be examined.

The question of post-adoption services must be examined also. From what I have read — the Minister can correct me if I am wrong — there is nothing in the Bill on the tracing of and reuniting with birth parents in the future, if that is desirable.

On the issue of the five standards to be measured regarding suitability, I spoke to some of the support group and parents, and there is concern that these must be upgraded. It has been widely discussed for a number of years. Why are we putting this into the Bill now? The process has not been brought to finality yet. That issue might be revisited at another stage.

In speaking about the Hague Convention we accept that it contains a minimum standard and that we are marrying Irish ways to the Hague Convention. In his summation, the Minister of State might comment on restrictions that would apply to Irish parents going abroad.

I have worries about post-adoption services, as mentioned in the Bill, or the lack thereof. There is much to be applauded in the Bill and I commend the Minister of State on the work he has done in bringing it this far. However, we must look at post-adoption services and the qualifications of those who are suitable to adopt. That latter point was mentioned today by the International Adoption Agency, IAA, and we must ask what the grounds are for qualification. We are at the early stage of the Bill but there is much food here for later discussion and analysis. It is important the Minister of State continues his consultation and that he looks at and talks to different interest groups and prepares amendments as the Bill proceeds.

At the outset, I welcome the broad thrust of the Bill and commend the Minister of State on the work he has done. Families who have adopted and brought children into Ireland open the eyes of many with the joy, love, respect and care they offer those children. It is wonderful that we can make a difference through legislation in terms of having a common set of standards. We have had a very good debate today. The bipartisanship shown augurs well for the rest of the debate. Some questions remain outstanding, however.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and I am glad that the Seanad is the vehicle being used to debate this very important legislation. My expertise in this regard is far from perfect and I am disappointed that we did not have an opportunity to prepare in more detail. However, I offer my support for the concept of the Bill and put on record my admiration for all those involved in the adoption process, parents, children and the various societies. I recognise the tremendous social good being done. In whatever legislation we put in place we must try to ensure that maximum possibilities for adoption are afforded and that in every possible way we remove the difficulties that were in place heretofore and try to simplify the procedure.

The queries on adoption, in particular, foreign adoptions, that I have received in recent years stem from administrative difficulties. I appreciate this is not only a sensitive but a difficult legal area. I regret to say that the most frequent complaints I receive from prospective adoptive parents relate to the way in which they are dealt with by certain staff at Health Service Executive level. Many barriers are put before them and much cold emotional argument is presented. The way in which we deal with adoptive parents may not be as warm and welcoming as it should be.

There is a nice little phrase in the presentation pack we received, namely, that the purpose of adoption is to provide a family for a child, not a child for a family. For that equation to add up we must support and encourage the family. People who decide to become adoptive parents are extraordinary in every respect. They are positive, good and well-meaning and we must try to facilitate them. By definition, the adoption procedure must be very thorough and lengthy and all the necessary questions must be asked. My hope is that we will approach the asking of those questions and the putting of people through all the questionnaires, investigations and social work reports from a positive and welcoming perspective rather than by putting up barriers. The people who have come to me over the years talk about barriers being high and difficult to overcome, and that is disappointing. I hope this legislation will help in that regard.

I did not hear much of the debate today because I was at other meetings. I am sure a broad range of arguments was put forward. We must recognise that in our very complex world, not only in Ireland, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. It is difficult to strike the right balance but we must try to make adoption more accessible and to increase the number of children lucky enough to end up with adoptive parents. There is the tragedy, not only domestically but internationally, of the millions of unborn children who are aborted. That is a debate for another day and another place. We must try to present the option of adoption in a positive way and make it easier for adoptive parents and birth mothers.

In the Minister of State's speech one or two issues struck me as being worthy of much more serious debate on Committee Stage. Part 7 was one such example and, at the end of her contribution, Senator Corrigan referred to that Part also, namely, how the High Court may authorise the authority to grant an adoption order in favour of applicants if it is satisfied that the child's parents have failed in their duty towards the child. That section must be examined in great detail because it appears to be a major departure. As I stated, I am in no way an expert in this field and I cannot say whether this section is a help or a hindrance, but it appears to be a very strong and new approach. Senator Corrigan mentioned that it was discussed at the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children. I look forward to a debate on this matter on Committee Stage because it is very important. I draw attention also to Part 4 and the arrangements contained therein. We will talk about this at more length on Committee Stage.

Senator Buttimer referred to the issue of age, the so-called grandfather clause. Again, in occasional constituency queries, people have expressed concern and disappointment that, because of their age, they were not eligible to apply to be adoptive parents. How will the Bill respond to those concerns? Over the past decade or so the trend has been that parents are older at the time of the birth of their first child than was the case 15 or 20 years ago. Perhaps the age limits for adoptive parents should reflect that broader change in society. We should try to respond to this. I am told by people who are much more expert in the field than I am that we must aspire to the Hague Convention. It is welcome that we will be in a position to sign up to it, bringing greater legal clarity and certainty. I am also told about the short-term difficulty concerning the adoption of children from the former Soviet Union, mainly from Russia. The Minister responded to some parliamentary questions on it in October and November but each Member here is aware of families in their areas who have adopted Russian children in recent times or who wish to do so. I hope the necessary passing of this legislation will not make it more difficult for those people. I am sure this question has already been asked and the Minister will respond, but I look forward to a broader debate in that area.

My brief and inadequate summary is that I welcome the legislation. It is the right thing to do. As a society which still values families and proclaims that the family unit is the best way for society to grow and for children to be reared, it is very important, notwithstanding all the safeguards necessary for the parents, birth parents and children, that we encourage the adoption process and make it as understandable and achievable as possible. The legislation will be a step in that direction.

I look forward to the wider debate on Committee Stage, when, hopefully, my colleagues and I will be in a stronger position to deal with the sections in more detail and ask the pertinent questions. We all stand on one side of this question in that we strongly support the concept of adoption. We want to encourage it. We see it as very beneficial to society and if the Bill makes it more straightforward from a regulatory point of view, that is very positive. I thank the Minister for bringing it before us and we look forward to his concluding words here on Second Stage and, more importantly, his engagement with us on Committee Stage.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the speakers for their contributions this afternoon, which were very well informed and demonstrate everybody's great interest in the protection of children. This Bill, when enacted, will provide much greater protection for children in the context of domestic and inter-country adoptions. It will provide a very clear framework for practitioners and parents so our position in this area will be very clear. There were many common themes in the contributions, reflecting many of the issues that have been raised in the past few months. There will be a prolonged debate on this issue. It is complex legislation and I thank the people in my office who put a huge amount of work into it — I will not name anybody in particular.

While there was an issue about delay, we benefited from the fact that we are only bringing in the Bill now because we have been able to learn from the operation of the Hague Convention in other countries. The decision was taken after signing the Hague Convention and after widescale public consultation that we would repeal existing legislation and consolidate it into one piece of legislation. That further prolonged the period in which this legislation was prepared. It was not intended to be delayed to this extent, but now that we have it, it will benefit the country very considerably.

The issue of waiting times for assessment for eligibility and suitability for prospective adoptive parents was raised several times. It is a long process, but many Senators acknowledge that there is no reason it should not be so. Most parents with an interest in adoption, or who are already involved in the process, to whom I spoke concede that it should be rigorous and should examine all aspects of parenting skills because it is a major decision for them to embark on and for the State to endorse. Nevertheless, there are obvious and unnecessary delays. I have met the HSE on this matter on a number of occasions and it has engaged with my office in the past few years. In 2007 a review of the process was commenced and a senior HSE manager is in the process of trying to fine-tune the process of adoption assessment with a view to shortening that time. There is the issue that we are still dealing with the same social workers who have major obligations in other areas. We are limited in our resources and there are obviously gaps in our social services. It is natural that where there are children at risk and there is a build-up of cases, assessments for adoptions will go to the end of the queue. We have to be honest about that but we can improve processes.

Some Senators raised the issue of age. While there is no upper age limit in the Bill, there is a requirement that applicants be in good health and capable of providing for the child's welfare throughout the child's childhood. That creates an upper age limit, albeit a notional one. While there is no specific age limit, age will be a factor in the assessment of prospective adoptive parents. The issue of post-adoption services was raised. In the assessment process parents are provided with much information and support. That provides many of the skills necessary for the challenges involved in adopting a child. In the normal course of events adopted children are treated the same as any other child and are able to avail of the same protections envisaged in the Child Care Act 1991. Adopted children will be afforded the same protections as any other child by the HSE for problems they may encounter.

Senator Bacik raised the issue of religion. She may have misread it, but the reference to religion does not require the same religion but that if all involved are not of the same religion, those consenting to the adoption are aware of the religion of the prospective adopters. This has changed a lot from the original provisions of the 1952 Act.

Senator Corrigan raised the issue of foster children. Foster parents have accrued extra rights in the past few years regarding medical consents, the right to get passports and gift tax, which have improved their positions. As the Senator mentioned, the Oireachtas joint committee examining the constitutional position of children will report on this very soon and, depending on the outcome, I hope to consider those findings with a view to how we deal with the legislation in the future.

The issue of unaccompanied minors is very serious, although not for this Bill in particular. However, I am very conscious of it and we are working with the Health Service Executive. We should treat unaccompanied minors the same as we treat children born in this country and ensure that, as Sister Stanislaus Kennedy said in a very interesting newspaper article, a lost child is not like a lost set of keys. There is an administrative system in place for information and tracing, and it is supervised by the Adoption Board. It has improved considerably in the past few years and some of the stories about the sensitive issue of reunification told today, particularly by Senator Quinn, are very emotive. They underline the great importance of providing a rigorous registration system and a proper tracing system that is sensitive to the needs of the natural parents and the adopted children. I have had occasion to meet the Adopted People's Association and address some of their concerns.

The International Adoption Association has raised the grandfather clause with me directly. I am not inclined to include this in the Bill for the reason it would be a dilution of the legislation. The Bill requires us to comply with Hague Convention standards and if a country is not in compliance with those standards, I believe it is sufficient reason not to allow or encourage adoption from that country. It would be unfair to allow individuals to adopt from a country simply because they have adopted from there previously, especially in respect of new prospective adopters who would not be afforded the same opportunity.

Some speakers spoke about open adoption. This is the concept that the natural parents still enjoy some rights in the country of origin. Open adoption raises issues about the status of adoptive families vis-À-vis all families. There are constitutional issues here which do not arise in other jurisdictions about the family, given the provisions in our Constitution in that regard.

Many speakers were concerned about bilateral agreements. To update the House, we are continuing to work on bilateral agreements with both Russia and Ethiopia, and we hope to conclude them before this Bill is enacted. However, when dealing with another country one is dealing with another set of laws in another jurisdiction so we cannot force an agreement on the country. That creates delay. Nevertheless, we are definitely making progress in those two countries. We will also shortly present a draft agreement to the Vietnamese Government. As I indicated before Christmas, the Government is inclined to try to have a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam as soon as possible. If we can have it in place before the end of April, when the existing agreement lapses, it will be a great result. My office is in consultation with the Department of Foreign Affairs to try to achieve that.

The right of same-sex couples to adopt is a sensitive issue. Adoption is a right that is afforded to children, and the right of a child to a family is at the core of adoption legislation. There is also a right in my view which must be considered, that of same-sex couples. Their rights need to be explored. The Civil Partnership Bill is the forum at present for the extension of those rights. I am an extremely strong supporter of those rights but this Bill is not the appropriate forum for that. I believe their rights will be visited on another occasion but at present we are in a legislative process with the Civil Partnership Bill. This will afford greater rights to same-sex couples, and rightly so.

The Adoption Bill is clear. It states that if more than one person is to adopt, they must be married to each other. Unmarried, heterosexual couples and homosexual couples are treated in the same way in that they are not allowed to adopt in this country. Single people may adopt in circumstances where they satisfy the Adoption Board about eligibility and suitability. I accept this is a sensitive area and core issue. It is a demonstration of the type of society we wish to live in, and I believe it is something we will continue to debate in the future.

I commend the Bill to the House and thank the speakers for their interesting contributions. I look forward to Committee Stage, when we will explore the nuances of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 18 February 2009.