Seanad debates

Friday, 20 December 2013

Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2013: Second Stage

 

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

10:00 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the House.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I wish Senators a good morning. This Bill addresses the issue of inter-country adoptions, specifically the concerns of some people who have been unable to continue with the process of adopting a child from Russia because of an unexpected amendment to Russian adoption legislation that took effect earlier this year.

The Adoption Act 2010 provides, inter alia, for inter-country adoptions between states that have ratified the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Ireland ratified the Hague Convention on 1 November 2010. While Russia has been a signatory to the convention since 1992, it has not ratified it. During the drafting of the 2010 Act, a considered and detailed transitional measure was put in place to deal with the change from previous adoption legislation. This measure, provided for in section 63 of the Act, allowed those persons who held a valid declaration of eligibility and suitability before the Act's commencement to continue the process of adoption from a non-Hague state for a maximum of three years. It is worth remembering that the majority of Irish people who have adopted during the past ten years have done so from non-Hague countries. Approximately 910 children from Russia were adopted between 2004 and 2010, but signing the Hague Convention immediately led to difficulties with adoptions from non-signatories. Many European countries continue to allow adoptions from non-Hague countries that apply Hague standards. Uniquely, we have introduced strict legislation requiring a bilateral agreement. This led to the dramatic decrease in the number of adoptions despite a high level of demand.

Under the 2010 Act, applicants who held a valid declaration of eligibility and suitability before its commencement were afforded an additional three-year period to complete their adoptions from non-Hague countries. They were required to have completed the process by 31 October 2013. By their very nature, transitional provisions are time limited and three years was considered a reasonable amount of time.

A particular difficulty has arisen with the expiry of the transitional provision provided for in section 63 in so far as a small number of people could not finalise adoptions in Russia before their existing declarations of eligibility and suitability expired. Without a valid declaration, the adoption of a child cannot proceed. This situation arose primarily because of a change in Russian adoption legislation, which itself is undergoing a great deal of change. The Russians are moving towards a position of encouraging internal adoptions. There is a new sensitivity to the situations experienced by children in their institutions. Russia is moving towards promoting foster families in a way that it did not previously. We have held good discussions with the Russians regarding these changes.

Russia amended its legislation, changing the period that a child needed to be on the national adoption database before becoming eligible for inter-country adoption from six months to one year. This is in line with the principle of subsidiarity in adoption legislation, that is, every effort must be made to have the child adopted in his or her own country before being placed on an inter-country database.

Since the amendment to the Russian legislation and the consequences for the number of Irish people involved in adoption processes, approximately 23 families, were brought to my attention, I have pursued extensive diplomatic efforts. I thank the Tánaiste, who has been engaged intensively on the diplomatic front in Russia, and our ambassador in Moscow, who has had meetings with Russia's Department of education and relevant people. I have held meetings with staff from the Russian Embassy in Ireland to resolve the issue diplomatically.

Applicants from other countries have also been affected. It was hoped that some administrative or legislative solution could be found in Russia to deal with the families caught up in this process. Many had already met the children in question and were close to finalising their adoptions. Despite everyone's best efforts, however, it has not been possible to resolve this issue diplomatically or to achieve an administrative solution within Russia. The matter has become urgent for those people whose declarations of eligibility and suitability expired on 31 October and who wish to finalise adoptions in Russia. The adoption of a child in Russia cannot proceed without a valid declaration.

In order to resolve this situation, I propose that an amendment to the 2010 Act be made to extend the period of validity of a declaration of eligibility and suitability to allow those affected by the change in Russian legislation additional time to complete their adoptions. I am confining the amendment to persons who, on 31 October 2013, held declarations of eligibility and suitability that were specific to the Russian Federation.

Many Irish families that have adopted from non-Hague countries, for example, Ethiopia, would like it to be possible to continue such adoptions. Due to our legislation and a lack of bilateral agreements with those countries, however, this is not possible.

We have had a great deal of contact with the Adoption Authority of Ireland and a considerable amount of background work has been done. The amendment may look simple, but one must consider the consequences for other groups and our international obligations under Hague. The Adoption Authority has informed my Department that, on 31 October 2013, 23 prospective adoptive parents held declarations of eligibility and suitability for adoption from the Russian Federation. I propose that the period of validity of those declarations be extended to 31 October 2014. The proposed amendment to the Act is limited to declarations in respect of the Russian Federation. In all circumstances, this is a necessary and appropriate amendment and helps the families involved. No one has a right to adoption, but this amendment is primarily targeted at serving the best interests of the children in question, those being, the chance to family life and a second chance.

Throughout the process of preparing the legislation, my Department and I have been mindful of our international obligations under the Hague Convention and our commitment to adhering to its standards. The Adoption Authority constantly puts adoptions from non-Hague countries through under the transitional arrangements, but it applies the Hague standards, those being, informed consent and subsidiarity. As pointed out in the Dáil yesterday, we must also be conscious that, when considering adoptions in the broader context, we must be sensitive to some of the risks involved. A number of situations arose that were unsatisfactory, where the best interests of the children were not considered primarily and where unscrupulous people became involved. One must be constantly vigilant about standards in adoptions and countries' adherence to same.

The implementation of the 2010 Act is evidence of the State's dedication to those standards. While I reiterate our commitment to the Hague Convention, many children who are in institutions around the world need a second opportunity. Sometimes, their countries do not have central authorities or the types of procedures that allow Ireland to have bilateral agreements with them, yet those children still need families and placements. From a legal perspective, we must determine how to achieve flexibility so that the standards can be maintained while the children still get second chances.

Many of the countries that cannot sign the Hague Convention are those in which children are most in need, including Haiti and Ethiopia. This is an ongoing challenge to the Hague Convention and from a legal perspective. As stated, some countries have taken a more flexible approach to this than Ireland. The implementation of the 2010 Act has meant that Ireland is now significantly better equipped than it was prior to 2010 to deal with the many complex issues that arise in intercountry adoption. As a signatory to the Hague Convention, which is a mechanism for improving standards, we are determined to ensure that child centred adoption is at the core of all the elements of the adoption process.

I will now address the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides that a declaration of eligibility and suitability in respect of the Russian Federation that had been issued to a prospective adoptive parent, and which was valid on 31 October 2013, shall be extended from that date for a period of one year and shall expire on 31 October 2014. It further provides that any such declaration extended under this proposed legislation shall not be amended to specify any State other than the Russian Federation as the State to which the declaration applies. Section 2 provides for the Short Title and citation.

I have brought this amending Bill forward as a matter of urgency. I thank Senators for agreeing to take all Stages of the Bill today. I commend it to the House and look forward to hearing the views of the Senators on this proposed legislation.

10:10 am

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Yesterday morning on the Order of Business I congratulated the Minister on her magnificent efforts in achieving what is proposed in this Bill. Our purpose as politicians is to bring about change in society. Many times in the past I have had difficulty with Fianna Fáil listening to the civil servants surrounding them rather than make its own political decisions. I am not casting any aspirations on the civil servants currently in the Seanad. I have been elected three times to the Seanad, twice when Fianna Fáil was in government, during which time I was aware of the delays in certain things being done.

I have known the Minister for many years. As far as I am concerned, as a politician her name is carved in stone. The Minister has had the courage and passion to address this issue, often having to overcome many hurdles in doing so. I do not have adequate words to describe the pain, anguish and yearning of the families waiting to adopt these children. I am so impressed with what the Minister has done. She was a brilliant leader of the Opposition in the Seanad. I am not surprised she was appointed a Minister in this Government. She was an outstanding leader for the Opposition in the Seanad and has now delivered the goods in terms of the changes in this area. We need more of that.

I was asked by two members of the families concerned, Lisa Fennessy and Pamela O'Reilly, to express their gratitude and appreciation to the Minister and the many others involved in this issue. Lisa told me yesterday that when she asked her son, Lee, if he would like to have a little brother called Alex the joy and excitement in his little eyes immediately melted away all the stress and hardship endured by her family over the past six months. She asked me to thank the Minister for her courage, bravery and compassion in bringing forward this legislation. She and Pamela also asked that I thank Senator Feargal Quinn, whom I note is in the House, Senator Maurice Cummins, Leader of the House and Senators John Gilroy, Cáit Keane and Paul Bradford for their work on this issue.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge on the record the help provided in this regard by, among others, Deputies Gerry Adams, Helen McEntee, Paudie Coffey, David Stanton, John Deasy, Robert Troy, Anthony Lawlor, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Mattie McGrath, Michael Lowry, Ciara Conway, Gerald Nash. Pamela O'Reilly from Stepaside asked that I thank most sincerely all concerned for their support and understanding throughout the long and difficult journey in this extension being obtained so that she could complete the adoption of her little girl.

The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is a five star politician. She has served a long apprenticeship. Despite the ups and downs along the way she has delivered what she promised. That is what politics is about. It is our job to change and improve the quality of life of our people and not to waffle on here about irrelevant issues.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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On behalf of Fine Gael, I share Senator White's remarks about the Minister. In fairness to the Senator she was the friendly opposition when her party was in government. I recall that when I was a councillor and she criticised Fianna Fáil I admired her. It is not an organisation that is easily criticised, in particular when in government and one is a Senator representing that party. The Senator's remarks about this Bill are appropriate.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This Bill is necessary as a result of what happened in Russia which, again, was something out of our control. For the first time in the history of this State we have a senior ministry with responsibility for children. It has a huge programme of work to do. As a result of the children's referendum children are now at the centre of our Constitution, which brings with it huge responsibilities and a huge programme of work. When situations arise which are out of our control, such as that which is addressed in this legislation, they add to that programme of work but are extremely important. This matter had to be addressed to ensure certainty and a future for the 23 Irish families who were in the process of adopting children from Russia. It is hoped that following enactment of this Bill their situations will be regularised, allowing them to have a happy and peaceful Christmas in the knowledge that 2014 will bring certainty to their situations.

I listened with great interest to Senator White's remarks in respect of two of the families involved. It is our responsibility to ensure that families in this country are protected. In spite of what happens internationally, we will always do our best to ensure that our laws reflect what is best practice and the right and appropriate thing to do. It is appropriate that the Seanad would meet on this Friday morning before Christmas to ensure that this emergency legislation is brought over the line.

Any piece of legislation must be proofed and the consequences for others as a result of legislation being introduced must also be examined. I commend the Minister and her officials on ensuring we can have this legislation as quickly as we are getting it and giving certainty to those 23 families. If the legislation is proofed, it will not have a ripple effect on other scenarios, which is also important.

The agenda of children in this country is something that successive previous Governments on all sides have neglected. In this Administration we have started to put children to the fore by having a Minister in the Cabinet. I hope the foundation built with having Deputy Frances Fitzgerald as Minister will by 2016 lead to us setting international standards and best practice in the protection of the welfare of children. Many people in both Houses are really passionate about the issue and believe that Ireland can come from the dark ages, where we have been over the last number of decades, to a new scenario where every child in the country is cherished the way we all want to see them cherished. This is an example of what can be done, and I am not confident that any previous Administration would have been able to react appropriately to this issue in the time limit in which the Minister and officials have done. It is heartening to hear the all-party support for these types of initiatives. Children are not party political but the issue is still political and, as such, as professional politicians we have a responsibility to ensure that the right politics prevails to protect children in our society and ensure that they are allowed to develop as we would like them to.

I have nothing more to say on this important legislation. The sooner we get it over the line, the better. I wish the Minister and her officials a very happy Christmas. What is happening today and what happened in Dáil Éireann yesterday evening is a good day's work.

10:20 am

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I add to the welcome and say that the Minister has had an outstanding year, from the children's referendum to the establishment of the child and family agency in two weeks, as well as all that has gone on in between. The Minister and her colleagues have clearly outlined the scenario that has led us to the need for the legislation. It is evident that the Minister, her officials and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade have sought resolution through other channels and at every level but it has proven impossible. Changes to Russian family court laws have had serious implications in conjunction with existing Irish legislation for prospective adoptive parents.

That brings us to the legislation before the House today. It is tightly drafted, with added limitations, and it will address the calls received from approximately five prospective adoptive parents. However, it also opens up any unused Russian declarations as of 31 October 2013 which the Minister has clarified is a maximum of 23 prospective adoptive parents. Anyone who has talked to or met the prospective parents appreciates the heartbreak and emotional roller-coaster of the journey that they have had and so I realise that for them today is a good day. I will not oppose the Bill and I do not want to frustrate the resolution to this particular issue. However, I am duty bound to raise my general concerns and some specific questions about how we approach adoption in Ireland.

Ireland has a very chequered history when it comes to adoption. In 2010, we incorporated theHague Convention of 29 May 1993 on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. It protects children and their families against the risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. This convention reinforces the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically article 21, and seeks to ensure that intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights.

Let us not forget that whereas Ireland signed the Hague Convention in 1993 we had to be dragged kicking and screaming to incorporate it into our law. When we brought in the Adoption Act in 2010 we were the last EU country to ratify and over 55 countries ratified before us. We need to fundamentally reconsider how we approach adoption in Ireland and our system of closed adoptions is not always in the best interest of the child. A closed adoption is the process by which an infant is adopted by another family and the record of the biological parent is kept sealed. Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information and have an option of contact. In my experience, children can cope and distinguish, and it is us adults who tie ourselves in knots.

It is my sense that some people misunderstand that the rationale behind adoption is the right of couples who cannot conceive to have a child. It is not. Adoption is about, where needed, finding alternative family arrangements for a child and fundamentally it is about the best interests of the child. I am keenly aware that as we stand here today there are approximately 50,000 adopted people in Ireland who have no automatic legal right to their birth certificate, their medical information or history, or to tracing information about their identity. We will be able to partly address these issues via legislation but aspects of this matter will need to be addressed at constitutional level, as I noted last October when we were discussing the children’s referendum Bill in this House. I realise that information and tracing is complex but we have to start moving on where change is possible. There is a clear lack of a legal framework. Is the State collecting and ensuring that it has access to important and vital records relating to children’s identities? For example, have the religious orders handed over records to the State that will help when the necessary legislation is in place?

Moving to the Bill before us, I say well done to the drafters who have worked hard to produce a clear, tightly constructed Bill. As I stand here I am thinking that in less than 18 years these children will be adults. Will they have access to information on their identity? We saw the fall of communism 14 years ago and the rush for adoptions so will Ireland over the coming years have issues to deal with? I think of Ireland’s history with adoptions and how many "went to America" or in reality were sold to so called "good Catholic families" for a better life. Nobody who saw the movie "Philomena" was not touched and conflicted by her story. We do not want to create scenarios today that will be the films of tomorrow.

Are we setting a precedent today? The adage "hard cases make bad law" springs to mind. Will we change the law for other groups of people who are not in line with our law and the Hague Convention? Does this not open the gates for other "one-off" fixes? We have all heard the understandably emotional calls from the four or five prospective adoptive parents but let us remember the law today will extend the period for up to 23 prospective adoptive parents. When a country ratifies the Hague Convention we have seen again and again how the number of children eligible for adoption dramatically falls. This happens because the children were never legitimately available for adoption and often have fallen foul to criminal activity, including corruption and the sale or trafficking of children. Can we be assured that in any one or more of these cases significant money has not and will not change hands? I ask these questions now because one or more of these children, upon turning 18, may have the same difficult questions for their parents. Will we be able to give answers?

It is critical that a rigorous verification process be put in place for all adoptions. In ending, may I wish each of the children who are to be adopted and to their prospective parents a really happy and fulfilling life. Nevertheless lets us not forget that adoption is the right of a child, not of adults, and we must ensure that this is not lost sight of. If anything is to be learned from the Ryan and Murphy reports, it is how crucial it is to have adequate systems in place to protect vulnerable children. We need to re-examine our approach to adoption so let us lead and show that we really have learned from our chequered past.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the House, and commend her on introducing this Bill. As the Minister and others have said, it is a narrowly focused Bill with a specific purpose, which is amending a provision of the Adoption Act 2010.

However, as Senator van Turnhout and others have said, it raises much bigger issues surrounding adoption. This is a very difficult issue and one on which we have had a very difficult past. When the Adoption Bill was being debated in this Chamber, both the Minister and I were very involved in that debate as Opposition Senators. At that point we discussed some of these bigger issues that are quite correctly being raised now. Even then, there were concerns about what would happen to families who were in the process of adopting from non-Hague Convention countries, and section 63 was the interim or transitional provision. It is welcome that we can facilitate the very small number of families who are at a very advanced stage of the process through this legislation.

It is tightly drawn legislation. The two specific restrictions in it are welcome. I agree with the Minister's approach to confine the measure. It only applies to those families where a declaration of eligibility and suitability was already in force on 31 October this year, and it is further restricted in that it will only extend those declarations for one further year. That is very welcome for the 23 families involved.

The Tánaiste has been intensely involved in this, as has the Irish diplomatic service and the ambassador in Moscow. As the Minister said, this is due to changes in Russian adoption legislation. Those changes reflect overall changes in adoption patterns worldwide. As Russia and other countries become more wealthy and put more supports in place, there is a greater move towards adoptions within those countries and smaller numbers of adoptions as women have more choice and can keep their babies. As we know from our sad history, it is in the best interests of the child when there are supports available to families so they can keep the baby. In a relatively short period Ireland has moved from being a country where there were no supports and where children were in institutional care, with terribly sad cases such as that featured in the "Philomena" film regularly occurring, to being a country whose people are now adopting from abroad, from countries where vulnerable families are open to exploitation. The Minister and other Senators mentioned Ethiopia, Haiti and other countries where there would be concerns about families being put under pressure to put children up for adoption. The best interests of the child and child protection must of course be our foremost concern. All of us recall the high profile case of the Irish family which engaged in an inter-country adoption which did not go well. There was a very unfortunate outcome for the child. We must be conscious of that.

I am proud that we have signed and ratified the Hague Convention and that we adhere to its standards, which are clearly developed in the best interests of the child. Senator van Turnhout is correct that we must consider the rights of adopted children into the future and the right to information and tracing. The Minister and the Department are doing a great deal of work on that. Work has begun on bringing the records together to ensure that when the children are adults they will be entitled to the information. Indeed, it is important to point out that those families that have adopted children from Russia and elsewhere are far more conscious now of cultural sensitivities and the need for the child to be aware of their background. There is a Russian adoption society and the families regularly bring children to Russia. Generally, there is essentially a much greater move towards what Senator van Turnhout speaks of as open adoption.

It is also important to refer to other changes in families in terms of family structure and family formation and the way people now deal with difficulties with reproduction, for example, through surrogacy. There is a growing need to regulate surrogacy and I am glad the Government is going to move on that and to regulate assisted human reproduction generally. That is now what many families will look to, whereas in the past they might have adopted when it was easier to adopt and when, perhaps, the rights of the child were not as clearly protected in international law.

All of these developments are generally positive. We are much more sensitive to the best interests of the child and more conscious that the rights of the child are to the forefront. As Senator White and others have said, this is not about the right of parents to adopt. It must never be seen in that light. This is about the right of a child to a second chance and the need to ensure that children's rights are protected. The children who have been in institutional care in Russia - under the new change children must be in institutional care for a year before they may be eligible for inter-country adoption - deserve a second chance and many families in Ireland are very happy and keen to offer them that chance.

This is welcome legislation. It is narrowly focused and, for many of us, it raises much bigger and more fundamental questions. In the past I have represented many survivors of institutional abuse in Ireland and I am aware of the ongoing trauma into adulthood that comes from being taken from the birth family and being placed in institutional care at a time when there were no supports available from the State to facilitate birth families keeping their children. We have moved very rapidly from that system to a system where, happily, we are far more supportive of single parents. As a result, the rate of internal adoption has dropped to almost nothing. That is the bigger context in which this legislation is being introduced.

This is very welcome for the families involved. It is a nice Christmas present for them and particularly for the children who are deserving of the second chance.

10:30 am

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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The Minister is dressed today in Santa Claus colours and she looks very well, if I may say so. She is actually acting as Santa Clause to a number of families. I was not sure of how many were involved but it is 23.

The families that I got to know who were at this stage were at the point of almost giving up hope, but they never did. I recall seeing one of my daughters with her first child. My daughter was obviously enjoying the child, who was about six months old, when she asked us, "Do you think she knows how much I love her?" I had that same sense of love from these families. The family mentioned by Senator White had bonded with Alex, the child they were adopting. They had gone to Russia and went through the entire process. They had got to know him. Actually, it was not just a process of knowing him but of bonding with him-----

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Falling in love.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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Yes, one could say falling in love with him too.

The Minister has explained very well the work that had to be done on this intricate and difficult situation, so I will not attempt to get into the detail of that. I doubt that this would have been possible without the very strong commitment of the Minister and her team in the Department. I am delighted about that. The Tánaiste, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Embassy of Ireland in Moscow were also involved, along with many others, in achieving so much in this regard. When I spoke to the Minister about it some time ago and she told me she was working on it, I never doubted her. I had confidence she would find a solution, although I had no idea how involved it was or how she would find it. I congratulate her and her team on the great work that has been done here.

The Minister has certainly become Santa Clause to those families and many others as well. As Senator White and others have said, we are proud of her, the work she has done and the success she has achieved. Well done.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I, too, congratulate the Minister on bringing forward this significant legislation. It is the culmination of a great deal of good work by the Minister and her officials this year. She has had an outstanding year. She worked throughout the year to ensure a better life for the children of Ireland. The passing of the children's referendum was a significant milestone.

One could not but be moved by Senator White's quotations from the letter from Pamela O'Reilly. Senator White can hit hard at times, but she can certainly give credit where it is due.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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In addition, when she criticises she is usually right. She is magnanimous when credit is deserved.

It is appropriate that these families would get this good news just a few days before Christmas. The 23 families concerned will have a much happier Christmas. I share the concerns voiced by Senator van Turnhout. Obviously there must always be adequate systems in place to protect vulnerable children. Nobody disagrees with that and the Minister is doing everything possible to ensure that vulnerable children are protected in all instances.

I congratulate the families and wish them well. I know that their Christmas will be happier as a result of the legislation that is passed in the House today. I wish the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and her officials continued success in all of the difficult challenges that they will face in the coming year. I compliment every Member of Government and the Oireachtas that helped to encourage and steer the legislation to this stage. I congratulate everyone involved. I take the opportunity to wish all Members of the House a very happy and peaceful Christmas.

10:40 am

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I echo everything that has been said and thank the Minister and her officials. I did not know the people directly involved but obviously they deeply influenced the likes of Senators Quinn and White. Delays have been a feature and they are regrettable. Is there a possibility that if the 23 cases cannot be resolved by 31 October next that an extension might be considered? In my eyes, the people are very suitable to adopt but they are completely frustrated by the delays and are not getting any younger. I share the Minister's ambition that the matter is resolved by 31 October. In case it is not, might an extension be a possibility? Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister.

Senator Susan O'Keefe:

I welcome the Minister and, like others, I say well done on finding a partial solution for what has proved a difficult dilemma for the Minister, her officials, the parents and the potential adoptive children. It is good that the families will have a Christmas gift of some certainty. Like Senator Barrett, I ask if the Minister is satisfied that a year will be sufficient time. I know that she cannot extend the deadline ad infinitum. I am interested to know what she feels will happen. What impact will the legislation have on the relationship between Ireland and Russia? As the Minister discussed, there have been many communications and contacts between the Minister, the Tánaiste and many others in her office in an effort to resolve the matter. Can she resolve the matter? What have the Russians said about the legislation?

The Minister referred briefly to how applicants from other countries have been affected by the legislation. Where do they stand today? What will happen to them in the future?

Like others, I welcome the short and tightly drafted legislation. As others have said, the protection of children is paramount. The legislation is the Minister's compassionate and firm response and an attempt to find a resolution in a timely fashion.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill quickly through the House. The Fianna Fáil Party supports the legislation and Senator White outlined her views that favoured the Minister's position in this regard. However, I feel that the Minister and her predecessor have not reacted speedily enough to these issues. If I was Minister I would have travelled to Russia, sat down with its government and outlined what we want. Under a previous Administration I travelled to Vietnam and pleaded with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs here not to just communicate by e-mail or telephone but meet the Vietnamese ministers involved. Face to face communication is important for adoption issues.

The stance taken by the Russian Government has damaged the possibility of Russian adoptions. Ireland has an excellent record in the adoption of Russian children and provided them with beautiful families. The children have been given wonderful opportunities that they would not have in parts of Russia. That is why Ireland's adoption record stands alone. Ireland is superior to any other country in the world in its treatment of adopted children and the way they are embraced by families. I have seen the contribution that adopted children have made to their adoptive families and will make in the future.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It is excellent of Ireland.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The children have a bright future in Ireland. Adoption adds an extra dimension to the relationship between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ireland and has led to good relations.

I commend the Minister on the legislation. I appeal to her to secure a long-term solution to the issue by meeting her ministerial counterpart in Russia. Ireland has a very good record in Russia. When I was a Minister of State I led one of the first trade missions to Moscow. The federation has just been established. We were well received and built a marvellous relationship with the Russian Federation. I have outlined how I personally feel. I have no hesitation in recommending any Minister to meet his or her counterpart. Ireland is an island nation so we must meet our counterparts on an equal standing and basis, not as second-class citizens. We should not rely on this short-term legislation to solve the long-term problem of adoption.

I wish the Minister, the Cathaoirleach, the Clerk, the Assistant Clerk and all the staff of the Houses, particularly the editorial staff and recording engineers, who are so diligent and work so hard to record the message of the House. We are approaching the end of an important year for the Seanad. We all should be very pleased and grateful to the Irish people for their endorsement of this Seanad and House. They rejected the Government and the vicious campaign that was launched, particularly by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton and others.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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They set out to destroy the Seanad.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator's comment is not relevant to today's business.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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We are debating Second Stage of the Adoption Bill.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Yes, we are debating Second Stage of the Adoption Bill.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Second Stage debate is quite different.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Leyden's comment was completely out of order.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Second Stage can evolve into a discussions. It is very important for us to be here.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad that I got the matter off my chest.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator was completely out of order.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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He said that earlier.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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There was nothing wrong with what I said.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator was completely out of order.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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There is nothing wrong with thanking the Cathaoirleach and the Leader of the House, Senator Maurice Cummins.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank them for the marvellous support that they have given to the Chamber. We are proud of the support that they gave. We are also pleased that as we reach the end of this year, this historical Chamber will continue in force and make a contribution, like this morning, to this important Bill. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming forward with the legislation, which is welcome. I am involved with one family that is adopting from Russia so know that the process takes time. The family was lucky because the process had been completed prior to October 2012. It is important to introduce amending legislation that will support families who have worked hard to adopt only to have their efforts frustrated. Administration of the process takes time and the legislation is welcome.

A number of Members referred to the issue of adoption records and how important it is to maintain them. Many records are being transferred and now they will have one assembly point which is important.

Records are also interesting in terms of foster care. I am aware of a case where two people were put into foster care many years ago, one woman is now 79 years old and the other woman is 71 years old. It took a daughter of the 71-year old woman two years to find her mother's records so that she could track down family. The sad part is that I knew both of the women for over 25 years but never knew they were connected. Eventually they met when one was 71 years and the other was 79 years. Both women had been put into foster care at a very young age. I was surprised that it took so long for a child of one of the women to get records in order to trace family.

Another side of the story was that one woman was involved in the Fine Gael party and the other was involved in Fianna Fáil. If both women had been involved in the same political party they might have met at an earlier date. I knew both of them because they lived in different parts of my constituency but they never knew that they were connected until the age I stated. The legislation raised the issue of the availability of records for adopted people. We should also examine the issue of records being available to people who were placed in foster care. We must not forget about them.

Many people were put into foster care 45 or 50 years ago. I am not too sure how the record-keeping process was dealt with after that. We should try to give assistance to families in that area as well. It is something we should look at. I thank the Minister again for bringing this legislation forward and for dealing with this area in an expeditious manner. It is important that we put this legislation through.

10:50 am

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ba mhaith linn míle fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo agus tacaíocht a thabhairt dó. We welcome the timely introduction of this Bill, which extends the period of declarations of eligibility and suitability which apply to the Russian Federation for one year to 31 October 2014 for those prospective adoptive parents who held such declarations on 31 October last. I hope it will provide some relief for the small number of families that are affected by the heartbreaking consequences of the changes in Russian law. As soon as those consequences became apparent, a concerted campaign was entered into by the individuals affected and the Russia-Ireland adoption group to explore all possible avenues of possible resolution. I understand that high-level discussions with the Russian authorities and the Russian departments of education and science, and foreign affairs took place in an effort to address the impasse.

The changes to Russian family code laws that came into effect in that country on 3 July last had serious implications for a number of prospective adopters in Ireland when taken in conjunction with existing Irish legislation. The changes related to the length of time a child must spend on the federal registry in Russia before being available for foreign adoption. As a result, a 31 October deadline loomed for many prospective adopters with pre-2010 declarations. A small number of prospective adopters who had intended to have their adoptions completed by this deadline were now clearly unable to complete their adoptions in the required timeframe. This was through no fault of their own but as a result of the unexpected changes in Russian family law. Some of these people, including Pamela O'Reilly and Lisa Fennessy, have been in direct contact with my colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. They are very far down the road - they have been to Russia and have met and formed a bond with the children they plan to adopt. The human and personal stories involved in this situation, some of which we have heard this morning, are emotive, honest and heartfelt.

The Bill before the House, which amends the Adoption Act 2010, will provide more time for the finalisation of adoptions that are already in progress. I welcome the Minister's approach. I ask her to keep the situation under constant review to help ensure positive outcomes for all involved. I join Senator van Turnhout in raising concerns about other aspects of this matter. I am sure the Minister is aware them. I will not go back over them. We have had a good year. I believe the Minister is doing a good job. She is working hard for the rights of children. She knows that the treatment of children in direct provision is my own bugbear. I have raised that issue with her previously and I intend to do so again after Christmas. Our concerns about those children, as well as some issues relating to adoption here in Ireland, remain to be resolved. The introduction of this legislation is a positive move. This is a happy day for the families in question. As someone who has friends who have experienced the joy of foreign adoption, after the initial heartbreak of not being able to have children themselves, I have an appreciation of what this means to families and to the children themselves. Perhaps Senator Leyden should consider that the less said about the links of Fianna Fáil politicians with Russia, the better.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I can tell the Senator that Fianna Fáil has a proud trade record as far as Russia is concerned.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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What about all the exports and the work of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It might be more appropriate for Senator Ó Clochartaigh to stick to the Bill.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We can start talking about history if the Senator likes. We were not importing arms from any part of the world - that is for sure.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Ó Clochartaigh without interruption, please.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We were not importing arms from Libya or Russia. I will not accept that slur from Senator Ó Clochartaigh or anybody else in Sinn Féin.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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They might have been imported from somewhere else if we go back far enough.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We were exporting, rather than importing bombs and semtex.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I would like to wish all of my colleagues, including Senator Leyden, a very happy Christmas. I thank all the staff of the Houses and all the officials who have helped us during this very busy year. I am sure we will come back renewed, reinvigorated and ready for action again in January. Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Táimid an-bhuíoch gur thug an tAire an t-am seo dúinn inniu. Bhí sé tábhachtach go dtiocfadh an reachtaíocht seo tríd roimh an Nollaig.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I remind the House that there was peace in the trenches on Christmas day.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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For a few hours anyway. Wait until after Christmas.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I will defend Fianna Fáil against any attack from Sinn Féin or anybody else.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I want to praise the Minister for her total commitment to trying to solve this problem. As several Senators have outlined, this is obviously an important matter for the families concerned. I commend the Minister on her efforts.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh has mentioned a number of the hoops that have had to be gone through to reach this stage. Some Members of the House expressed criticism in this regard in recent weeks. They hammered me on the Order of Business on several occasions. I informed them that the Minister was doing everything possible to bring this Bill to the House. Now that she has done that, I think everybody involved owes her a great debt of gratitude. The families involved are certainly delighted that this day has come because they will be able to adopt children whom they know and they want. The Minister has done a tremendous job from that point of view. I commend her on her continued efforts in this portfolio. She was the first person to be appointed as a senior Minister for children. She is doing an absolutely wonderful job. Earlier this year, she succeeded in bringing to fruition a referendum that many people had been looking for over the years. The successful passing of that referendum was another step on the way where adopted children are concerned. I commend the Minister on her efforts and commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senators for their responses to the legislation I have proposed today. I note the great care they have taken in their responses to the families that have been in touch with them. I pay tribute to the serious way in which Senators have approached the situations in which these families find themselves. They have approached this legislation in the same manner. I welcome the comprehensive nature of this debate. When we talk about adoption, it is important that we look at it in the round. It has been pointed out this morning that this country has some obvious historic issues with regard to adoption. We have to be sensitive to the possibility that those issues could be applying in other countries at present. When I was drafting this legislation, I had to be cognisant of our obligations under the Hague Convention. The key question of standards arises in this context. We are aware that a lack of informed consent has done some damage in the past. As a result, many Irish people are now searching for their identities, which can be quite difficult. We are bringing the records together. We are doing our very best. However, I have received very strong legal advice to the effect that we will not be able to bring in retrospective legislation with regard to the issue of identity. It seems that the mother's right to privacy is stronger than the right to identity. Nevertheless, we will do as much as we can with the legislation in question. I look forward to the debate on it.

Some issues changed dramatically as a result of the 2010 Act. It enabled us to sign up to the Hague Convention. It led to a dramatic change in the opportunities for Irish couples to adopt in other countries. Unlike other countries, we have to negotiate bilateral agreements. We are trying to negotiate such an agreement with Russia at present. I have been to Moscow and had detailed discussions. We are trying to do that. Bilateral agreements are very complex instruments. Our legislation says that if families are to adopt from non-Hague countries, we must have a bilateral agreement with that country. I would welcome informed discussion on that when we are reviewing the adoption legislation. I think there are real issues about whether the needs and best interests of children who are available for adoption are being met. I refer to children who do not have parents, or have been abandoned completely, and are facing life in institutions. I have seen abandoned children in such institutions in a number of countries in the last year.

We have to examine the international instruments that may or may not inhibit or help the adoption process. I think we should examine the insertion of bilateral agreements in the 2010 Act. I have an open mind on it. I understand that protection is necessary. Equally, I believe that if we are seriously thinking about putting the best interests of the child at the centre of this process - if we believe they should be given a second opportunity for family life - we have to look at national and international instruments, particularly those that are built into the 2010 legislation. Having said that, it is right to abide by the Hague standards. Countries can abide by those standards without the need for bilateral agreements. That is a topic for another day. I am putting it on the table for discussion at a future point. We have had detailed engagement with a number of countries. Now that we have an agreement with Vietnam, for example, adoptions from that country will start to come through very shortly for the first time.

Some 200 couples on the list have been waiting to adopt from Vietnam and there have been many disappointments along the way.

Inter-country adoption is changing and the number of such adoptions is in dramatic decline in Europe, whereas surrogacy is on the rise. Inter-country adoption is a complex and difficult process. Other countries are facing issues that we faced in the past. Circumstances are changing and the agencies which were previously in a position to support adoptive parents because of the number of adoptions being completed are no longer financially viable. A similar process is under way in this country. All of these factors are playing a role and the review of the Adoption Act will provide an opportunity to discuss many of these issues.

A number of Senators asked about the timeframe. While I acknowledge what has been said about long delays in assessments, the position is changing. The small number of children available for adoption means, however, that notwithstanding quicker assessments, the problem persists. It is very sad to meet many parents who have been in the adoptive process for long periods. Some of them are ageing out, as it were. Practice is not as it should be in terms of the ageism that applies in this area. Having taken advice, we believe one year should be sufficient to allow the families concerned to complete their adoptions.

The adoption process is changing and the purpose of this legislation is to facilitate families who have been caught up in the process and impacted by the change in Russia. The Adoption Authority of Ireland will have an implementation plan and will provide advice on its website to ensure couples are able to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with adoption. I thank Senators for their co-operation and interest in this issue. It is appropriate that we had such a wide-ranging debate because changes of this nature make a statement, rest on certain assumptions and impact on other issues. We have stated we wish to remain within the Hague Convention and the standards therein.

Question put and agreed to.