I understand Deputy Jan O'Sullivan is about to make her contribution.
Adoption Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
While I had already contributed for five minutes before the debate adjourned, I wish to pursue the area on which I had just begun to speak, namely, the issue of transitional arrangements in the context of the new legislation. This is a very important element of the legislation about which there is much confusion. Consequently, I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify many of the issues that have been raised with me and other Members on this element of the Bill. Before the debate adjourned, I quoted from section 63 of the Bill and the guidelines for the Hague Convention as there appears to be a disparity between the two. I also wish to refer to the Minister of State's remarks this morning on this subject when he stated:
A transitional provision allows for adoption proceedings commenced under the Adoption Act 1991 to proceed as if commenced under this Act. Accordingly, it will not be necessary for applicants to re-apply under the new Act but rather they can continue their applications in compliance with the provisions of the new Act.
I wish to clarify what that means. I believe that a large number, that is, approximately 800 families or individuals, in Ireland are within the adoption process at present. Moreover, I understand approximately 1,200 other applicants are waiting to start the assessment process. As Members are aware, the assessment process can take approximately five years in some cases and it varies from area to area. A point I wish to make strongly is that a timely assessment process is required which is absolutely thorough at the same time. While I acknowledge one cannot sacrifice thoroughness for speediness, a disparity exists between different parts of the country whereby it is quicker in some places than others for a variety of reasons. In addition, other countries that have ratified the Hague Convention have a speedier assessment process even though they carry out such assessments entirely in accordance with the convention and all its rigours. Nevertheless, they are able to do so more rapidly. One reason the process is slow in Ireland is due to a shortage of resources in many areas. Can the Minister of State reassure Members the necessary resources will be provided to enable the bodies concerned such as the Adoption Board and others to be able to implement the legislation when it is signed into law? This will be crucial in respect of its effectiveness for the children and families concerned.
I wish to return to the issue of what exactly section 63 means. My understanding is based on what organisations and individuals have been told by the Minister. Ireland will recognise foreign adoptions only from countries that have signed the Hague Convention or from countries with which it has a bilateral agreement. The Minister of State may be aware that Adam Pertman said here recently that this is not necessary under the Hague Convention. Many other European countries that have ratified the convention allow adoptions from non-Hague countries provided that they adhere to the Hague concepts and requirements regarding child protection. I understand that applies in the UK and France. Is it possible to provide for families that have begun relationships with for example, Ethiopia, which is not in a position to ratify the Hague Convention although it has quite rigorous procedures? Can Ireland have an arrangement with such countries despite their not having ratified the Hague Convention? I have figures for other countries that have ratified the convention but have adopted from Ethiopia, which has not.
This applies also to Vietnam. We need to know the Government's intention because many families chose to adopt from Vietnam because it was recommended but the bilateral agreement ended in May and another one has not been put in place. While the Minister of State waits for the International Social Services report, families do not know where they stand. They entered the process in good faith and now know that there is an issue but they do not know how it will be resolved.
The Minister of State has said that he must wait for the report before indicating the way forward but he needs to give people some idea of the Government's intention for adoptions from Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia. Will people who applied before the commencement of the Act stay in the process but have to apply to a different country or can they continue their relationship with the country for which they applied several years ago? They have gone through a process in which they believed, to apply to a country which at the time was considered to be legitimate. Many people here have adopted children from these countries. There is a real lack of clarity on this.
The Minister of State suggested that Ireland could begin to form a relationship with Brazil, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand following ratification of the Hague Convention. Is he telling families that they must move from the country with which they have formed a relationship and where they have gone through the process to another country after ratification of the convention? That is extremely difficult for those families and it raises a question about families that have already adopted from those countries. Is there a suggestion that the process by which they adopted is questionable? We have had a legitimate process, in accordance with our laws but now we are in a transitional phase. In all humanity we must provide the children and the families concerned with a process whereby they can complete the relationship that they have formed. I can fully respect and understand the need for the process to be in accordance with international law and with the convention but there must be some way in which people can move from the past to the future. This must be compassionate and understand the process in which they are involved and how far they have proceeded. That is the content of many of the representations that we have all received. It relates mainly to Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia but there are others. We need a humane and understanding transitional arrangement that will recognise those families and children and ensure a way forward for them.
Many families might have completed the process before this legislation is enacted were it not for the delays that are not caused by rigour but by lack of resources. One couple who contacted me wrote that their journey began on 15 March 2005 and has taken almost five years. They were considered to be a straightforward assessment case and were aged 35 and 37 when they applied. They are now 40 and 42. This will be their first child. They list the stages of the process. The shortest period was the assessment process. They have waited a total of four years and six months in the Irish administrative system whereas the waiting time in most other Hague Convention countries is up to one year. When they have their declaration they can apply to Ethiopia to adopt and the next stage will begin.
They make the point that in that time they have seen a new American President, a new Pope, a Luas line, new motorways and even the arrival of IKEA in Ireland but they have not been able to offer a child a loving and caring home. It has taken four years and six months to go through the process, primarily because of the waiting times for each stage of the process. We must take that into consideration when entering this transition phase.
Is it possible to include a grandfather clause in the Bill to cover a family which has already adopted a child from a particular country and wishes to adopt another child from a similar culture? That becomes an issue in countries that have not ratified the Hague Convention. Timing is also an issue. I received an e-mail stating that in the Wicklow-Dublin region applicants for second assessments must attend a one day course. This, however, is not required in the Cork area, therefore a second assessment there takes far less time than it does in Wicklow or Dublin. If the interim measures are based on the declaration it is likely that people based in Cork and holding a declaration could proceed with their adoption while people in Wicklow, who might have applied earlier, could not as they would not have reached the declaration stage. There is a human logic in a family which has adopted a child from one country wanting to adopt a second child from that culture. It is certainly understandable and should be considered.
The Bill does not appear to include countries that have independent adoption. It covers country-to-country or state-to-state adoption. What are the Minister of State's views on that issue? Mexico has been mentioned in that context because it offers direct, independent adoptions rather than state-to-state adoptions. The other issue that arises with a country like Mexico is whether support groups in this context should be accredited bodies. According to the legislation, an accredited body includes anyone who gives information on adoption. Will the Minister of State clarify whether under the legislation support groups that give information need to be accredited bodies?
Many of the issues I have raised have been brought to my and other Members' attention. These are all real-life situations which directly involve families in Ireland and children in the countries concerned. I realise these issues will have passed when we have gone through the transition phase but for the individual families concerned they remain large. They have invested a huge amount of their lives, hopes and intentions to provide a caring and loving family for a child into this process, in many cases for years. The other more important consideration is that there is a child somewhere in all of this who has the potential to have a caring family to provide him or her with a permanent home.
We need to ensure the process protects the child, is in the child's best interests and the practices are correct. In all the cases I raised, it has been possible to adopt children with such protection under the existing legislation. This must be borne in mind in any consideration of the transitional arrangements.
Issues also arise around the rights of the adopted and the birth parents such as information on their origins, access to birth certificates, information services on tracing and the adoption preference contact register established on a voluntary basis. Over the years problems have emerged with access to information about the child or parent. Much progress has been made in this area in recent years by voluntary organisations which have established registers and information databases. It is important to acknowledge many of them have not received any kind of State funding in this regard. I accept there are measures in the legislation to address these issues but it is important that they are as comprehensive as possible and take into account the representations made by the organisations that have contacted Members.
As vice-chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I welcome the hearings it intends to give many of these groups about their concerns about the legislation before Committee Stage. I will put forward several amendments on behalf of the Labour Party to address various issues, particularly in the area of transitional arrangements, the introduction of a grandfather clause and whether bilateral arrangements can be concluded with countries that have not yet ratified the Hague Convention. The principles behind the convention must be in place in any country with which inter-country adoption arrangements are made.
I know the Minister's intention is to give the maximum protection to children with this legislation. While I share this intention, we must also be aware of the difficulties families face in the adoption process. Other countries also have difficulties in this regard such as Ethiopia, which I understand is simply not rich enough to ratify the Hague Convention.
The Minister may inform me in his reply that I do not have all the information and I accept he will have more information than Opposition Members. These matters, however, are raised in good faith and on behalf of people who have contacted us. Many people have explained the process and their experience in the particular countries they have gone to for adoption. They tell me of encountering children in orphanages who do not have the care of a loving family. It is important to have an open mind in making arrangements with those countries. I accept, however, that we cannot stand over any process if any question arises of a child being handed over for adoption through coercion or payment of moneys.
It is important that the convention is ratified as Ireland signed up to it some time ago. The core of the legislation is the interest of protecting children. I acknowledge the Minister is aware of some of the issues I raised. He visited Vietnam to speak to the authorities there and has spoken with those in other countries about the transitional arrangements concerning inter-country adoptions. The Government must ensure we do not stand over any practices that are not acceptable. There are issues that are of genuine concern in the transitional phase before we move to the full implementation of the convention.
The appropriate resources and personnel complement must be made available to the Adoption Authority to allow it to fully implement the legislation. The Minister of State suggested the Bill will be signed into law in early 2010. Difficulties for everyone involved in the inter-country adoption process will emerge if the demands of assessment and other measures are not met because resources were not in place.
It must be remembered that this legislation, as well as implementing the convention of inter-country adoptions, also sees updating of the general law on adoption in Ireland. Deputy Shatter raised the issue of birth fathers and new relationships and several other areas in this regard need to be addressed. It is important the legislation is as comprehensive as possible and incorporates these issues. We must also be cognisant of the sad experiences of many of those who were sent off to America for adoption in a shameful way. That is a background of which we all have to be aware and we must ensure the rights of the child are paramount in this legislation.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this legislation, which I welcome. I noted as I entered the Chamber that there are present three female Members one or other of whom have either contributed to the debate or are awaiting an opportunity to do so. I note the officials accompanying the Minister of State are also female. The reason for this is, I suppose, that this is an issue which strikes women deeply.
Like Deputy O'Sullivan I, too, have a file full of e-mails and letters on this issue sent during recent months. The Minister of State and his officials have been straightforward in their dealings with me in terms of giving me the up to date position and setting out what they hope to do. This Bill fulfils many functions as do most Bills because legislators seek to introduce worthy legislation. The Bill seeks to incorporate the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption into Irish statute law, which is good. It also provides for making and recognising intercountry adoptions in accordance with bilateral agreements, establishes the adoption authority of Ireland and provides for the repeal of various Adoption Acts.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the original Adoption Board established in 1952 and to all chairpersons and members of that board who undertook Trojan work at a time when the issue of adoption was alien to people and fraught with difficulty. As an adoptive parent I was treated with great kindness by the board when I first went to meet with it and in terms of the after care I received following the adoption. Often when a new agency or body is established — I am sure the Minister of State is not guilty of this — one tends to forget that which went before and the great work done at that time. I recall the trepidation which my husband and I felt when going to meet the board. We worried about what questions we would be asked and whether we would measure up. They are the types of thoughts that come to one's mind. It should not be forgotten that adoption is an awesome task whether one is adopting a child at home or abroad. It awakens in people primitive feelings, including in the woman who gives up the child regardless of in what country she lives. The date of 4 September never passes without my recalling the woman who gave birth to our son. The process deeply affects everyone. The woman involved in our case endured the trauma of giving birth to her child and we endured the trauma — trauma it is — of adopting the child, although the end story was happy all round. Adoption is a life changing experience. If it can be a life changing experience in an Irish context, in terms of our all looking vaguely similar and speaking the same language, one can only imagine what must be the experience in respect of an inter-country adoption. There are huge difficulties involved.
I opened a file on this issue at an early stage because I knew it would be a big issue not alone for my constituents but for people all over Ireland, which became evident as my file got bigger. All of the correspondence I received was infused with desperation as the people involved were caught in a situation not of their making. I will come soon to speaking about the Bill before us. I wanted first to speak about the hopes and fears experienced by people and their concern that they will not in the end see their dreams realised. Often these letters and e-mails include statements — this may seem simplistic as I say it — such as "There is a child waiting for us in Russia; I know there is", "There is a child waiting for us in Ethiopia, I know there is", "There is a child waiting for us in Vietnam; I know there is", which brings to mind the difficulties being experienced by the men and women involved.
Only this morning, having assumed I had received all correspondence on this issue, I received an interesting letter from a woman and her partner in regard to what they believe would be a sufficient transitional arrangement. Deputy O'Sullivan spoke earlier about transitional arrangements. This couple ask should it not be when a declaration is issued to them that they are deemed eligible and suitable to be adoptive parents. I will forward the submission, which is well put together, to the Minister of State. It deals with issues such as the difference in length of time for issuing declarations in various countries, which can take months in some countries and years in others. They suggest that a person issued with a declaration should be allowed to move to transitional arrangements, which appears to me to be a good case in point.
I recognise and admire the care taken by the Minister of State in this area, in particular given the would-be adoptions in Vietnam, which was an emotional and difficult issue to cope with on a daily basis. I am aware of the difficult situation faced by the Minister of State at a particular conference he attended. Fundamental to this Bill is that the child's interests must be paramount. This should, and is, the bases of all child care legislation. I speak as a Member of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children which is in the closing stages of its work. It is important that the child is central to this process whether domestic — there are fewer numbers of such adoptions nowadays — or inter-country. While the primitive longing experienced by people is almost over-powering this should not and does not take from what is in the best interests of the child, as provided for in this legislation and in terms of future work in this area.
We signed the Hague Adoption Convention in 1996. A fundamental principle of that convention is that inter-country adoptions should be child-centred. This should be the case in respect of all adoptions. The Minister of State outlined the functions of the various sections. Part 12 provides for the establishment of the adoption authority and its proposed functions. This brought to mind the role of the various Adoption Boards and the fine and sterling work they did in what was then, but not now, thankfully, an alien environment in terms of adoption. There are, as far as I can ascertain from the e-mails and letters I have received, three countries on which prospective adoptive parents are now focusing, Ethiopia, Russia and Vietnam. I am glad to note from the Minister of State's contribution that matters with regard to Vietnam have advanced. I am sure the Minister of State in his reply will tell us what advancement has been made in this regard. They have come a long way from where they were when talk of an Adoption Bill started to surface, gaining the interest of people who had gone through considerable reflection before deciding to adopt. They did not just jump out of bed one morning and say "Yes, we will adopt". That is not how it happens. Even before they applied to the HSE and so on, they gave it keen thought and reflection.
I do not know what is the cause of the delay but it appears from the letters and e-mails I receive that there is a very long delay in some cases for approval — the stringent test under which one is accepted as a suitable adoptive parent, which is the beginning of the whole process. I have heard stories indicating that the time taken is excessive and others indicating that is not so, but it does appear to take a long time. In addition, the period involved appears to vary. One person will tell one that her caseworker went on maternity leave, as she is fully entitled to, which meant she was unavailable for nine months. Such cases often lapse as they are not picked up by other caseworkers in the system. There are also many heart-warming cases of good relationships being founded on the interaction between the would-be parent and the caseworker. However, I hope there will be standardisation of the time required for approval of would-be parents.
Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the matter of a grandfather clause. I do not know about that. I spoke informally about it to the Minister of State one day after a committee meeting. The idea sounds good in theory but I do not know what is the impetus behind it. Let us say one adopts a child from the Russian Federation; one would then have the right to adopt another child from the same geographical location. This is what the term "grandfather clause" means in this case, although it appears in all sorts of things such as land dealings. However, I never finished the conversation with the Minister about this and I do not know how he feels about the issue. I do not know whether he intends to introduce an amendment in this regard, but he does intend to introduce amendments dealing with transitional arrangements.
This afternoon I read through the 22 letters and e-mails I received on this subject to get a feeling for the whole matter, and it struck me that the biggest issue was that of transitional arrangements. I hope we can in some way master the issue through amendments — I am sure they will be many — while encompassing the things I mentioned, taking into account the length of time, strength of emotion and cost involved. The cost, in particular, has sapped people as they went through all these steps and wished to see their babies materialise. It does not always happen like that, as I know so well. If decent transitional arrangements can be established, it would allow those putative parents, some of whom already have one or two adopted children and others who are just embarking on the journey, to hold onto their dreams of receiving their children. There was a fear in the beginning that when this adoption Bill was signed by the President a lock would suddenly come down: many countries that were open to the possibility of adoption would no longer be, and that would be the end of the dream.
When the Minister of State is introducing amendments to this legislation they will need to be comprehensive. They should be fully rounded and take into account the various stages people have gone through, often with heartbreaking results. I received an e-mail about the declaration, which I will forward to the Minister when I return to the office as it will strike a chord with him and his officials.
Adoption in general is a fraught and emotional process and requires great strength of character as it draws strongly on a person. No matter whether one is adopting from Ethiopia, Vietnam or the Russian Federation — or, in different times, from one's home country — one still thinks of the woman who bore the child. I always remember that woman when a particular date in September comes around. I remember her with happiness and I hope her life turned out to be happy and fulfilled. I welcome the fact that many people can obtain information about their birth parents through birth registers, while birth parents can access that information and, it is to be hoped, live happily with the consequences of what they find.
I wish the Minister good luck with the Bill, which is a fine one. I hope he will pass to the old Adoption Board, or certainly its chairpersons who are still around, my thanks to them for their painstaking work over the years and the way they gave of their intelligence, time and commitment to what was not, then, a very acceptable cause but is now and will remain so. I wish the Bill a speedy passage and look forward to dealing with the amendments.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Joe McHugh and James Reilly.
Like previous speakers, I wish to mention the representations I have received from various people on this issue over the last few months. I am trying to separate the Vietnam issue, as we may call it, from the general principle of adoption. This Bill repeals the Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998 and makes amendments to other Acts. It dissolves the Adoption Board and establishes a new Adoption Authority of Ireland, and provides clearly for matters relating to the adoption of children. Primarily, the Bill gives force of law to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Inter-country Adoption, which was signed in 1993. Sixteen years later, we are ratifying it in the House.
It is important to look back and see how far we have come and how adoption has changed in this country. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of Irish-born infants available for domestic adoption. However, there has been a very positive history of families adopting children and taking them into their homes. It has been a two-way process for children who otherwise would not have had a home where they were loved and had security. The Adoption Board and the facilities of the State allowed that to happen. Deputy O'Rourke outlined how it affected her, her husband and their family. According to stories I have heard, the story of adoption has been very positive.
In recent years society has changed and there are many lone parents who, in most cases, are females. The State acknowledges that and supports that person and, in many cases, the couple, with the upbringing of the child. That in itself has been positive. When the Ryan report was released I was struck that there had been so many children for whom the State was responsible. In many cases the religious institutions provided a roof over their heads. There has been so much controversy and so many disturbing stories of the circumstances in which the children found themselves. Today, by contrast, society supports children, their mothers and their extended families. It is a positive step to shine a light on the contribution society makes in giving support to those family situations.
Most Irish-born children placed for adoption in Ireland are adopted by their relatives. As a consequence, opportunities to adopt Irish-born children have reduced for couples in this country and therefore they have turned to look abroad. The issue of inter-country adoption looms large on the agenda. I have met and know of many groups in my own constituency where most of the children concerned are Vietnamese and Chinese. All those involved have been very positive in recognising the child has its own identity, whatever its country of origin, and this needs to be supported. Parents and support groups regularly get together and have children from the same country of origin mixing and meeting one another. They celebrate the Chinese New Year and the traditional feast days and festivities of China or Vietnam with the children and that is very important. One can see the value that has for the child with regard to its identity. It will pay dividends when the child is older, becomes an adult and looks back, trying to come to terms with his or her identity. Those opportunities will pay dividends.
A matter has come up in this debate, in the contributions of the two previous speakers, for example, namely, the grandfather clause. The Minister of State has been asked to consider this. I did not hear his contribution but I read a report in which he rejected calls for this clause. He will probably reply on this point, as raised, at the end of the debate. The Minister of State is of the view that allowing individuals to adopt from a country simply because they have adopted from it previously would create a double standard and a dilution of the standards that must apply at all times.
In part I can see the Minister of State's point but I believe he should speak to people and groupings, such as those I mentioned, who clearly recognise that for the child who is not born in this country, identity is a very important issue. As that child becomes an adult it will become even more important as he or she seeks to come to terms with his or her identity. Perhaps the issue is not as black and white as the Minister of State described it. I ask him to look again at this matter and show some leeway. This will be very important for these children when they are adults and also will help the parents in their task of supporting the children and ensuring they integrate fully in this country. They are intent on doing so and the structures are there. That is my experience from talking with groupings who have come together. There is support, and a recognition it is important to work with children so that they can hang on to and reinforce their original identity. That is very important.
Regarding adoption in general, the background is that society has changed and couples or individuals are now committing to having children later in life. In many cases, particularly for those persons who have contacted Members, people find the biological clock is ticking. In some cases they realise too late they are reproductively incompatible and cannot have children. They go down the IVF route in many cases which can work very successfully for some but for others it does not. In many cases those concerned are couples but this situation can arise also for single people. They then decide they will adopt a child.
Am I under pressure of time?
The Deputy has 12 minutes left of 20.
I am sharing time with Deputy McHugh.
There are just the two of you.
Yes. People come to the decision they will adopt a child. Many then find difficulties in getting to that point. I do not wish to undermine in any way the adoption authority and the rules and regulations regarding the necessity to ensure the couple will provide a loving and caring home, are stable and medically fit, have financial support and can provide a Garda clearance certificate. Nobody doubts all these different stages must be gone through but it should not take four to six years to complete the process. It is a very long time. Some people might be in their early 40s by the time they eventually get clearance. Anybody who has had young children will know one needs to be in the flush of one's youth to be able to deal with their energies.
I appeal to the Minister of State. Such stories can be dreadful and heart-rending. It can take so long to have an assessment across the various HSE areas. The time span can change. I met a couple who had the unfortunate experience of having the social worker who had been dealing with them take maternity leave, leaving their file stalled. When the clock is ticking that is heartbreaking. People feel the services of the State are not there for them in a speedy and efficient manner when they need them. I ask the Minister of State to look at that situation and when this Bill is passed to have this urgency taken into account. Efficiency and professionalism need to be protected but there is real urgency for these people.
Adoption from Vietnam has hit the headlines. Every Member has received correspondence from people who are caught because the bilateral agreement with Vietnam has fallen. That it was to fall in May this year had loomed for some time. People find it frustrating that nothing was done to ensure a new agreement was initiated. Originally the Minister of State indicated it was his intention to support a new bilateral agreement. I do not know where he stands on that now. Will he wait for Vietnam to adopt the Hague Convention? That might be another two years.
Before I pass over to my colleague, I wish to reiterate the fact that the time trap in which people are finding themselves is important, but I do not want to set aside any standard, as standards are important. Everything should be child-centred and placing him or her in a warm, safe, secure and loving environment in which his or her personal, education and financial needs are met is important. On the other side of the equation is a couple or individual who is anxious to provide that environment but for whom the clock is ticking. This urgency must be in the balance.
The House is almost 12 months into the debate on adoption, although it has been ongoing for many of the families involved. Almost a year has passed since e-mails started to come into our offices, yet many families are still in limbo and in the dark in terms of marking out a way forward.
The tone of many of the e-mails sent in the past year was angry, but politicians could sense in the electronic correspondence the degree of expectation and hope felt by those families. Many people had planned on having their children before Christmas. However, hopes have been dashed and expectations have not been realised. It is important that we work on this legislation with a mixture of empathy and forthrightness. We can try to do something about this situation.
Post-adoption sensitivities must be factored into the matter. I am also aware of the sensitivities surrounding child welfare and safety, as my colleague, Deputy Clune, pointed out. The central thrust of the Hague convention is to put the best interests of the child to the forefront. No parent in Ireland does not accept this philosophy, but many of the people in this position are bothered by the facts that they cannot see whether the office has any vision and that they do not know to which countries they can go.
The Bill must make allowances for couples currently involved in the adoption process. Many couples have been waiting for four, five or six years. They do not know how the adoption legislation will impact on them. Will they be allowed to go to non-Hague convention countries? For example, many of the countries that have signed up to it allow people to adopt from countries outside it. Putting this fact on the record is important. On enactment, where will the families currently in the adoption process that have received referrals stand? This question has been asked by many families involved in the process.
We need to quantify how many parents are involved in the adoption process or are seeking to enter it. In terms of the bilateral agreement with Vietnam, we were given figures of approximately 250 or 280 families, bordering around the 300 figure. The total figure is a conundrum. We need to engage with them. Granted, they do not necessarily believe that they have been paid lip-service. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, he has taken on board many concerns. However, there has been lip-service in terms of mapping a way forward. Leaving aside all of the emotive words that politicians can sometimes engage in, the people in question are looking for the way forward to be mapped.
When the Adoption Bill goes through, will families be allowed to work with non-Hague convention countries? Will they be able to engage with the UK, the USA, Spain and France? These are the types of question that they need answered and, as Deputy Clune pointed out, need to be answered quickly. Many people are reaching the maximum age threshold and, in one, two or three years' time, will be restricted from adopting. This is a sensitive issue.
I am conscious of Deputy Reilly's entrance. How is the Acting Chairman doing the mathematics?
There are three minutes and ten seconds left.
Is that in total?
In this slot. Does Deputy Reilly wish to leave his contribution for another slot? Obviously, he would not be able to do so immediately after this slot.
That is fine.
The Bill's transitional measures must allow sole applicants and couples to continue in the process. What will happen to couples who are four, five or six years into the process and do not receive referrals before the Bill's enactment? This is another question that has been highlighted by many prospective parents. I have been in contact with a considerable number of them in my constituency and county. Could they be allowed a better mechanism of engagement? They do not feel involved in the discourse. Rather, they feel as if they are out on a limb. They have good suggestions, since many of them have gone through the post-adoptive previously. They also have considerable experience that people in the Department of the Ministers of State, Deputies Haughey and Barry Andrews, could use to their benefit. This matter must be considered.
I have suggested that the other Hague convention signatories be considered, including the UK, the USA, Spain and France. The convention states that international adoption should be in the best interests of the child and does not prohibit member states from dealing with non-member states. When passing the legislation, we should take this idea on board and not restrict ourselves to negotiating with non-convention countries only.
Having raised this issue a number of times, we on this side of the House have been cognisant of the surrounding sensitivities and have not turned it into a political football. Approximately one month ago on my local radio station, I was told by a mother of a woman going through the adoption process that she did not want to have it turned into a political football. It has not been, but we need to show a resolve in terms of mapping a way forward for prospective parents. We also need to appreciate that someone going through an adoption process is equal to someone who is going through the biological process of bringing a child into the world. This is the key issue. I know of someone who went through the adoption process and had all of the preliminary work carried out but, at the 11th hour, the Russian child was taken from her grasp. She mourned the child in the same way as if she had had him or her herself. We must be sensitive and comprehensive in terms of how we allow the Adoption Bill to fit into the Hague agreement.
I am sharing time with Deputy O'Connor from the capital of Tallaght.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Adoption Bill. It is not often that I get to speak after my colleague from County Donegal, Deputy McHugh, but I have regard for the way in which he and some of his colleagues have treated the Bill. It is an emotive issue and should not be used as a political football. I welcome the debate.
While I believe that the adoption of this Bill, if the House will excuse the pun, will be a job well done, I also recognise that the reality for many couples in Ireland is that this year will remain in their memory for many years to come for the wrong reasons. While the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, absorbed much emotional discontent, it must be put on the record that he has been put in a very undesirable position since the inter-country adoption bilateral agreement with Vietnam ran out earlier this year. Despite his best efforts to put new arrangements in place, they have not come to fore.
We must recognise that the Minister of State does not have the powers to force Vietnam into a new bilateral agreement but rather depends on the goodwill of such countries. While the Minister of State was led us to believe that progress would be made on his last trip to Vietnam in July, that goodwill from the Vietnamese authorities seems to have faded. All in this House are greatly concerned, as are the many people who are awaiting the process of adoption with that country to come to completion. Many people feel that they are stuck in a rut and that they have nowhere to go.
I welcome the Bill. One important element that should be included in it is some measure to fast-track the current process. Like many others, I have had couples from my constituency, such as those to which Deputy McHugh referred earlier, arriving in a distressed state after being through a lengthy process having their whole lives trawled through by somebody who they probably have never met before and may never meet again. At times they have felt great hope only to find out at the end that matters have been put on hold for nobody knows how long. It is a tough position to be in. I would ask the Minister of State on the passing of this Bill to ensure a new situation whereby the process is fast-tracked as much as possible.
The Minister of State also needs to take a good long look at non-Hague countries such as Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam and examine these countries to the extent that persons currently waiting to adopt from them need to know sooner rather than later if there will be bilateral agreements. If there will not be such agreements, we must be forthright with these individuals, we must tell them and we must give them direction. If that were to be the case, we must have sympathy and due regard for those couples. I would plead with the Minister of State to amend the Bill before it finally goes through the House to recognise those couples who have been in the process post-Hague and the time they have spent going through the process of adoption. He should provide for some mechanism in the Bill to recognise what they have gone through and to fast-track their process rather than going back to the beginning again. It is only fair that these couples would be treated in such a manner.
Moreover, while it has been some time coming, it is good that the Minister of State in his short time in the Department has made the passing of this Bill a priority. Despite what some of the adoption boards in this country feel, the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, went to great efforts, particularly in the case of the Vietnam bilateral agreement, to take the matter to conclusion. Unfortunately, he has not been able to do so. The reality is that the ability to take it to conclusion was outside of his control. I believe we all recognise that.
I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution on the Adoption Bill 2009 and I thank my colleague, Deputy Niall Blaney, for allowing me share his time.
It is important that we would note that the objects of this Bill include ratification of the Hague Convention; to provide for inter-country adoptions on a statutory basis to be in accordance with the standards set out in the convention, and to repeal the Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998 and bring forward, restate or update the provisions of those Acts as appropriate. One of the other objects is to re-establish the Adoption Board as the Adoption Authority of Ireland with additional functions and powers.
It is important that we would have this debate. I had the opportunity yesterday to meet young people from a school in my constituency — not from Tallaght but from Templeogue — and in the company of Deputies Rabbitte and Brian Hayes, was chatting to them. They were interested in what all of us did on a daily basis and I made the point that all human life passes before a politician's desk and through our clinics. I conduct nine clinics every week and I come across many matters. I get the same issues that crop up in Kildare, in other regions of Dublin, in Limerick and in Artane.
It is the same in Kildare. A good many from Deputy O'Connor's constituency come to Kildare clinics as well.
Will the Acting Chairman, Deputy Costello, protect me or will I protect myself?
Deputy O'Connor is well able to protect himself.
Proceed Deputy O'Connor. You are not under serious assault.
Deputy Durkan is a good man. I have no complaint with him.
I am trying to make a serious point, that every day there are constituents telephoning us, calling to us and coming to our offices about all sorts of issues. It is interesting to note in the midst of the current situation that while one would expect that people would come to us about issues of social welfare, housing, poverty, education and crime, I have received many calls, as other colleagues have, about the Adoption Bill with people expressing concerns about the situation. In that regard, I compliment, through the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, and thank him — I am glad other colleagues have said it across the floor — for at least keeping us informed and appearing to be trying to do something about an issue which is of concern to many. The trip to Vietnam was part of that process.
I have always taken a serious approach to the issue of adoption. I remember when I was quite small my then elderly aunt adopted a girl. I can talk about her because she is now in Australia. As a young person, I was fascinated as I grew up and understood what adoption was about and understood the needs of that cousin of mine. She was no different than any of my other cousins, she was treated properly and well.
Many people are coming to my clinic and telephoning me in my office, as they do other colleagues, making the point that they want to adopt. Deputy McHugh made the point about the issue of age. I have had people come to my clinic in recent times who wanted to admit to me that they were reaching an age which they were concerned would become an issue. They wanted this process to be completed, they wanted to deal with the matter now and they did not want it being delayed any further because of their age profile. I have received a great deal of correspondence from different groups in my constituency and elsewhere. A difficulty we all, as Members, encounter is the delivery of e-mails which we are unable to source. Sometimes people send the same material to us all. However, I always appreciate those, particularly from my constituency, who share their views with us.
Other colleagues will have received correspondence from the International Adoption Association, which is based at the Terenure Enterprise Centre near but not quite in my constituency. I want to put on record a couple of things that he has said. People still have concerns despite the appearance of this legislation. Progress is clearly being made, but there are still gaps, so it is fair enough to mention a couple of them. The International Adoption Association represents more than 1,300 families engaged in inter-country adoptions. It claims to provide valuable information, education and networking support to applicants and adoptive families who welcome children in need to loving and secure homes. The association states:
. . . intercountry adoption into Ireland is in need of repair. Currently, we have welcomed as a country in excess of 5,000 children into loving and secure Irish families. These children are doing very well, as proven by research conducted by the Children's Research Centre at Trinity College. This is in line with international research and clearly indicates that intercountry adopted children recover and indeed thrive in permanent and loving family environments.
The association also makes the point — many of us would agree with this — that, as we know from our own history, institutions are no places to raise children. The overwhelming majority of children adopted into Ireland are adopted out of institutions and orphanages. The association believes that we should continue to provide homes to many more children in need. We must treat this as an important issue. It may be a strange thing to say less than three weeks from the budget, but this issue is just as important as any legislative issue that will come before us in the next three weeks. We should give it our attention and understand that people are particularly concerned about this matter and they want to see progress. It is not just the families concerned, but also the surrounding network and support services which are asking us to help them. I am sure the Opposition will seek to dot the i's and to cross the t's, but I hope this Bill will be expedited and enforced as quickly as possible. The Minister must use his influence and resources to ensure all the regulations are adopted.
The current basis for inter-country adoption is to be found in the Adoption Acts of 1952 to 1998, which I mentioned earlier. The Adoption Act 1952 provided for the establishment of the Adoption Board and put in place formal adoption procedures for the first time in Ireland. The 1952 legislation has been amended six times by the passing of Adoption Acts in 1964, 1974, 1976, 1988, 1991 and 1998. I am sure Deputy Durkan will remember what Governments were in power in those years. Various Governments can take the credit for that legislation.
Can the Deputy remember that far back?
Yes, I remember quite a lot.
The memory is not gone yet.
My age is on the website.
So is mine.
In the last quarter of the 20th century there was a large decline in the number of children available for domestic adoption, which was seen as progressive. In Ireland, the number of domestic adoptions fell by 50% between 1967 and 1987. Today only a small number of Irish babies are adopted each year. The majority of adoptions are family or step-parent adoptions. That is something we would all welcome.
Following the decline in domestic adoptions, prospective adoptive parents began to look abroad to adopt. There has been a considerable growth in inter-country adoptions since the early 1990s. Inter-country adoption involves the movement of children across national borders for the purpose of adoption. This trend was initiated by the Romanian orphanage crisis and the attendant publicity. In total, some 3,569 overseas adoptions were registered by the Adoption Board between 1991 and 2007.
Ireland has changed from being a country which sent its children abroad for adoption to one that receives children from other parts of the world for adoption. Adoption in Ireland is now predominantly categorised by the adoption of children from abroad, presenting significant new challenges for the Adoption Board. As I said earlier, the board was established under the provisions of the Adoption Act 1952, which is now being repealed by virtue of the Bill before us. Ireland signed the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption in 1996. In recent years, within its current framework, the Adoption Board has striven to take on board the standards required by the Hague Convention.
The 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption provides for the establishment of safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised under international law. It also provides for the establishment of a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure these safeguards are respected and therefore prevent the abduction, sale or trafficking of children. It also secures the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention.
I look forward to contributing later to the Private Members' motion on human trafficking, which was introduced by Deputy Denis Naughten. Even in these difficult times, the Dáil should spend time dealing with issues concerning children and young people generally. We must continue to do so. In the midst of what seems to be doom and gloom, normal business should continue to be transacted here because the lights have not been switched off. Thank God for that. I suspect that all my colleagues would admit that these issues are of as much concern as any others. There are people who do not want to talk about the economy, social welfare and related issues, which are important nonetheless. People are hurting because of issues that the Adoption Bill seeks to address. They should be represented in that regard and their representative organisations are entitled to their views. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has acted progressively in this aspect of his departmental remit. I hope he will continue to engage in listening to groups and individuals who want to make submissions concerning the Bill. I am sure he will be open in that regard.
Many of us have been lucky to be parents over the years, although it is not every day one would admit that. It is much more comfortable being a grandfather because I can send my granddaughter home at night. It is important to respect the rights of families who do not have their own children, but who wish to adopt. Over the decades, the adoption process has enabled caring families to provide a loving home environment to less fortunate children. Times have changed and it is not only because of the influence of Madonna. We know from international press coverage that issues concerning adoption remain to be resolved.
Given the growth of conflicts in various countries, unfortunately there will always be children for adoption in such areas. While it is not an ideal situation, I hope families here who want to provide loving, caring environments for such children can be facilitated in that regard.
Is the Acting Chairman waving at me to finish?
The Deputy's time is up.
I am sorry about that.
Come in number one, your time is up.
I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate and to seeing the Bill enacted in due course. It is important that we should support the legislation.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this particularly important and sensitive Bill. Like every piece of legislation that comes through this House, there is a down side and an up side. In this case, the up side is that the Bill is now before us. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on his involvement and dedication to the task in recent months. I am not certain the Bill will meet the requirements of many prospective adoptive parents nationally and that is a disadvantage. Some of the negotiations that have taken place on the part of prospective adoptive parents in the context of inter-country adoptions have advanced to a stage where they may be impeded somewhat by this legislation. That is sad.
We need to concentrate on the fact that there are thousands in Ireland who wish to adopt and who wish to love and care for an adopted child in the same way as a biological parent would love a child. They have devoted much time and energy to this goal over recent years because they regard adopting as fulfilling their life's ambition. We have all met such prospective adoptive parents and our doing so has brought home to us the seriousness of the matter from their point of view and the urgency with which they go about their task. We are aware of the sensitivity with which the matter needs to be treated given that we are dealing with people's emotions. We are dealing with the aspirations, hopes, fears and worries of adoptive parents. Their worries are many, particularly in the context of this Bill. The legislation will resolve most or many of the difficulties that arise.
We must ensure we protect adoptees. Other Members have spoken at length on the need to protect children. Although one may want to do the right thing by seeking out a trophy adoption, this is not what the legislation is about, nor should it be. It is essential that the process involve the protection of children and that there be no abuses or moneys handed over to organised gangs in the relevant countries to facilitate adoptions. We must ensure, in so far as we can and as a priority, that the principles of the Hague Convention are observed.
There is no question in the minds of prospective adoptive parents about the fact that they want to make a difference in the lives of the children they hope to adopt. That is the general objective and it is quite understandable. This must be balanced with a consideration of the tragic circumstances from which the adoptees come.
In Ireland 50 years ago, it was quite easy to find children to adopt, and it was still relatively easy 25 years ago. There were tragic circumstances behind this, as we now all know. If we carefully consider the adoption procedure that obtained, we will note it would not have complied fully with the requirements of the Hague Convention.
We have learned of the considerable sorrow and tragic circumstances of parents who had to give up children for adoption in Ireland over the years. This should be a salutary lesson for us. We are better placed than most other countries to make a sound assessment of the circumstances that present themselves to us. Some years ago, the emphasis was on countries that subsequently became members of the European Union. This illustrates how quickly circumstances change. Now the focus is on countries outside the European Union.
A number of prospective adoptive parents have spent much time carrying out research on and establishing contacts in countries such as Vietnam and Ethiopia. They have done so at great personal expense. They have done what should be done, that is, obtain as much information as possible in the countries from which they are interested in adopting a child and become as familiar as possible with the way and quality of life in those countries. They have complied with the process in place and have, in many cases, been approved by the HSE, yet it now appears this legislation will be likely in some cases to restrict or impede the process, or force it to start one again. This is tragic.
While the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has tried hard, I am not so certain he has tried hard enough. He is a nice guy and I am very fond of him as a Minister, as I am fond of all Ministers, as my constituency colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Health and Children, Deputy Áine Brady, will know. However, this does not necessarily mean we should accept anything less than the best in any set of circumstances.
To test the procedures in place, I tabled a number of general parliamentary questions on adoption. I asked the Minister whether her attention had been drawn to the progress to date of an application for inter-country adoption in the case of persons in a certain county. I asked whether it is expected that this adoption will proceed unimpeded in the aftermath of the passage of the Adoption Bill 2009 and whether the progress in the case to date will have to be repeated. The latter is an interesting question. I asked whether "the preparations made within the country in question will proceed regardless of the ratification or otherwise of the Hague Convention; the definition of process in progress in such circumstances; if she will ensure that all work to date in the process will be regarded as concluded in the context of the overall process". The purpose of this exercise was to select an individual case to find out exactly what it means. I hope that when anybody asks the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, a question, she will read it carefully and answer it regardless of the consequences. This offers protection to a Minister or Minister of State.
The reply I received to my question was: "My Office has received representations on behalf of the persons in question." I did not ask about this. Although the Minister of State is a nice guy and wants to help, it should be noted I asked a very specific question relating to a number of individual cases. It would have been a good idea to give the answer because we all know it. The Green Party knows it, as do I, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil; that is why I did not get the answer. However, it would have been good to outline the answer in a reply to the House as this would have shown respect for the House. The answer is known to prospective adoptive parents in any event but, in the context of what we are doing now, it is very important to be able to give an answer to the type of question I asked. It is a template; it is as simple as that.
I am disappointed I did not get an answer to my questions. In respect of one question, the reply was that the Department had not received representations. That was not what I asked about. My question was specific, namely, to indicate whether a procedure would follow and how it would follow in the given sets of circumstances. As the Acting Chairman and I well know in terms of Dáil reform, we just need to revert to the old system in which we used to get answers to questions. It was simple and straightforward and was very beneficial from the point of view of Ministers. I advise all Ministers to give an answer whenever a question of any nature arises. Ultimately, a refusal to answer will become contentious. Irrespective of whatever else happens, questions should be answered.
In cases where the process has been already undertaken to a large extent, for example, where the Health Service Executive has approved a couple for an adoption in a particular country I hope it is possible that the adoption could still continue. It would be very sad if that were not the case. I urge the Minister to get the Department to re-examine, with a positive attitude, the possibility of trying to accommodate the heart-rending and deserving situations that present in cases where the enactment of the Bill might have a huge impact on the lives of thousands of potential adoptive parents in this country. The Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, who is sitting opposite, knows the situations I am talking about as she is familiar with them also, as is every other Member of the House. It is to the eternal credit of adoptive parents that they have sought to give information to the elected Members of the national Parliament in the way they have done. They have presented their case very well. They have presented the human element that is hugely important in considering legislation of this nature.
I wish to make reference to organised crime, corruption and trafficking that occurs in some countries. I accept that it is a potential threat. However, where the potential adoptive parents have involved themselves directly in research in the countries concerned, in some cases for several years beforehand, they are in as good a position as anyone else to be able to say whether they are satisfied that nothing unsavoury is associated with the potential adoption. I would be happy enough to go along with that. I accept we must have safeguards and checks but it is the arbitrary exclusion of any one or all of those cases that worries me somewhat. There is no need for that.
People sometimes cynically refer to potential adoptive parents as being engaged in window shopping, but it has nothing to do with that. Some potential adoptive parents go out of their way to find out how they can help the child or the birth family of the child being offered for adoption. That is a great and charitable thing to do. It is hugely indicative of the quality of the person who wishes to adopt. In this country we should be particularly appreciative of that. Let us imagine how important it would be from the point of view of somebody from another country adopting a child in this country if an assurance could be given at the outset that the child was going to a good home and would have an improved quality of life and that the child's rights, under all legislation nationally and internationally, would be guaranteed. Would that not have been a great reassurance for the unfortunate parent who had to allow his or her child to go for adoption?
Similarly, there are situations, as we now well know, where potential adoptive parents have already established contacts. They know the situation much better than I do because they have seen it at first hand. They are willing to take upon themselves the responsibility of adoption and all that goes with it, notwithstanding the nationality, background and culture. They are willing to deal with all of that and take it on board. That is a great thing to see. It is humane and shows concern. It is responsible. People have adopted children with special needs and taken on all the responsibilities that go with that. It would be very easy to accept no responsibility in those areas but those people have not done that. It is of huge importance to that group of people who have already committed themselves that we try to meet their requirements. The Minister can do that. It is possible to do that either in the context of the Hague Convention or otherwise. Nothing is impossible in this world if we apply ourselves to it. It is possible to meet international statutory requirements as well. Taking everything into account it is hugely beneficial that the legislation would proceed, and that those cases where contacts have already been established would proceed.
I do not wish to delay the House. I am aware that my time has nearly expired. I had hoped to have an opportunity to go through the Minister of State's speech as that would have been useful. I compliment him for his understanding of the situation and his willingness to meet the needs of the people to whom I referred. I appeal again to him to consider carefully the cases that have been brought to his attention whereby the process has evolved to the extent that if the potential adoptive parents were forced to start all over again it would be soul destroying. They have already committed themselves and to a considerable extent the process has become inevitable; it has gone past the point of no return without major reorganisation and disappointment for some of those concerned, including those in the countries from where it is proposed adopt the children.
We hope that the aspirations of those people can be met in full. We agree entirely with the need to protect children and all procedures need to be put in place to ensure that is the case. We fully recognise the need to comply with the Hague Convention. We hope that as a result of the legislation, the procedures will be expedited with a view to meeting the aspirations of the adoptive parents who have already indicated their willingness to adopt in this country.
This debate has been long awaited in this House. It was debated in the Seanad over a considerable period. By that I mean it has been held up for several months. It was dealt with in the early spring and summer. I relish the opportunity to contribute to the debate because like every Member of the House I have been contacted by parents who seek to adopt children from overseas who are being not so much thwarted by the State but by circumstance, which is causing much personal angst.
The legislation, in so far as it deals with international adoptions in particular, is welcome. I agree with the point made by many contributors that it does not address all of the concerns but it goes some way towards it. I wish to consider a number of key areas, one being the issues it does not address, such as domestic adoptions and foster care specifically. In order to work, legislation needs resources to put ancillary supports in place, for example, in the Health Service Executive. Social workers in particular are required. Reference was made to a grandfather clause in the Seanad debates. I also wish to refer to a sunset clause.
The transitional arrangements mentioned by others speakers is a major issue. Deputy Durkan took the opportunity to highlight his concern about the lack of response to some of his parliamentary questions. I appreciate Deputy Durkan tables the most questions in the House but it is good to know he keeps on top of his brief and an eye on every question tabled. I am not as prolific but I tabled a number of questions on the adoption issue and the responses did not provide clarity as to what would be contained in the Bill, something to which I will refer.
The other issue is slightly more controversial. It concerns adoptions for couples who are not married, particularly couples who are homosexual, which has not been referred to in this legislation. It may not be possible constitutionally but I will deal with that issue also.
I understand that since 1991, the latest statistics, there has been approximately 4,000 adoptions here of children from overseas and a much smaller number of adoptions within Ireland. The demand is increasing because many couples are unable to conceive children while others who already have children would like to adopt. The market for Irish-born adoptees has closed. In the past we often exported them, so to speak. My colleague, Senator Dan Boyle, in his contribution in the Seanad stated that if one is trying to find one's parentage, it is much easier to go through the archives in the United Kingdom than to try to do that under Irish law, particularly as it applied to adoptions from agencies and those run by certain religious institutions in particular in that if one was adopted and trying to trace one's birth parents one would have major difficulty doing so. That caused people a great deal of anxiety because children born in Ireland who were sent to the United States, for example, were unable or had major difficulty tracing their lineage. Even if the birth mother is unwilling to have anything to do with the child, the child has a right to find that person and attempt to talk to her. That issue is not addressed fully in this legislation.
The issue of long-term foster care is not addressed in the Bill. I assume it would be the mainstay of any Irish based adoptions if the legislative provision was in place. I am aware that some people who fostered children over a long period have been able to adopt but if it was a specific provision in this Bill, that might happen more often. There are children who need stability in life. Their foster parents have provided that stability and they would like to put that on a sound legal basis. That should be possible.
Another area that is not addressed in the legislation but which was mentioned in the Seanad debate is where a woman has a child with a man, subsequently marries a different man and the husband wants to adopt the child. In many cases the biological father or the sperm donor, as I derogatorily refer to some of them, do not pay their fair share. We see from social welfare cases that they do not pay their fair share and want nothing to do with the child. They should be forced to pay their fair share but if someone is willing to take full responsibility for a child they did not cause to come into this world, that is laudable. That issue must be addressed in more detail in some later legislation because I could not see it being dealt with in this Bill.
On the issue of resources, we know that depending on the area of the country one applies to adopt it can take up to five years for the referral and declaration process to be complete. That is because of the lack of resources within the Health Service Executive area. It is somewhat of a lottery in terms of where one wants to apply to adopt. That is unfair on the parents concerned in those under-resourced administrative areas. I have met parents in my constituency who had to wait up to five years to go through the entire process. Under this Bill, and as far as I am aware it already applies under previous legislation, one must be 21 to be eligible to adopt. There are procedures to go through but during the Celtic tiger era, and as is the case in other affluent societies — we are still affluent even though we are in a recession — people tend to defer marriage and having children until their 30s. They often do not know that they will have difficulties conceiving. They then go through costly and difficult processes, including in vitro fertilisation, and other fertility treatments. Five years could elapse before a couple in their late 20s or early 30s finds they cannot conceive a child through no fault of their own — it is a biological lottery — but they want to provide care to a child. Having spent five to seven years doing that, they are older and it might be another five years before they adopt a child. They are then in their mid to late 30s or early 40s. I am aware there is a cut-off point in terms of the age parents can adopt but the resources must be made available because otherwise it will not be the legislation that acts as a barrier to parents adopting from overseas but our own lack of investment in resources at the appropriate time.
I tabled a question to the Minister for Health and Children to ask if an analysis had been carried out regarding the length of time it took to process overseas adoption requests in different parts of the country due to the uneven spread of social worker resources. I mentioned Dublin in particular where it takes much longer than the two to three year period. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, who answered the question, said that he had previously expressed concern regarding the length of time it took to process adoption requests. He said he intended to have further discussions with the HSE in that regard with a view to establishing whether improvements can be effected. Whether it is the Second Stage, Committee Stage or Report Stage debate in this House or the Seanad debate, the resources issue will not be addressed in the Bill. It is crucial that the resources requirement goes beyond the HSE asking people to cut back, ensure that a reasonable period applies and spread the pain. Parents bringing up children do valuable work and if they are not rewarded, they must be at least enabled in that work.
I asked the Minister of State a separate question about plans to provide any financial assistance for parents seeking to adopt children internationally and the answer was a clear "No". There are no plans, even though it can cost parents up to €20,000 depending on the country they go to. There are no plans to provide any financial assistance, even in cases where delays have occurred because of the logjam regarding completion of bilateral agreements and our forthcoming ratification of the Hague Agreement.
In that context, I can understand why money would not be provided because we would want to see the bona fides of the couple or individual in question, but additional resources must be targeted if possible to ensure that the assessments can be carried out in a timely manner because it is not fair on couples who have already suffered for a period to make them wait an extra two or three years simply because no one is available to assess them. That is a crucial issue.
There are millions of children worldwide in orphanages and other institutions who are in need of a good home. There is much talk about the budget and whether our commitment to overseas aid or even the per capita arrangement will be met. It is crucial that we do our bit to ensure that children who will live a life of misery in orphanages, despite the best efforts of those working in the orphanages, benefit from being adopted by Irish parents with the financial means to assist them as long as the checks and balances in terms of the cultural heritage and links with parents, where appropriate, are kept in place. In that context we have an obligation to the children of the world and under our UN commitments to make it happen. That is why a measly little bit of targeting for social workers at HSE level can have disproportionate effects down the line.
The grandfather clause was mentioned in the Seanad. There are people who have adopted from Russia and who are getting past the age for adoption but would like to adopt a brother or sister of the child in question. The Minister of State referred to the grandfather clause, suggesting that any amendments tabled on it called for a parallel process of adoption with countries that were unable to ratify the Hague Convention for some reason or where we do not have a bilateral agreement. He is not prepared to accept a parallel system of adoption in the Bill. I take on board what the Minister of State is saying, but it is in the best interests of the child where an adoption has already taken place to be reunited with his or her brother or sister. That goes beyond the drawing of lines of demarcation. If anything can be done to facilitate that, it would be welcome.
There is also what I call a sunset clause, where parents who applied many years ago are approaching the age where they can no longer apply, usually around 40. If they apply in their mid-30s and are still waiting, a sunset clause should be put in place whereby they would be allowed to adopt. Otherwise people are being put through an inhumane and tortuous process. They are getting to know the country, they have made financial commitments and, crucially, they have made emotional commitments as well. It takes emotional courage and responsibility to adopt a child, particularly one from overseas. Someone who takes that step is brave and should be facilitated. There must be a blurring of the lines of demarcation in that instance.
I have tabled questions on a number of countries, such as South Africa which has signed up to the Hague Convention, but has not enshrined it in its children's Act. The law there, however, is similar to the Irish law and I have asked about transitional provisions. The Minister of State said he is currently examining this and other related matters.
Ethiopia is another case where there are only two institutions in the country and it is hard to get a child out of Ethiopia. Issues related to the Hague Convention notwithstanding, Ethiopian law is similar to Irish law. Although there is no bilateral agreement, parents who are nearing the declaration stage with the HSE and who have chosen Ethiopia as a country from which to adopt children, who have invested time and effort into researching the culture and history of the country, should be allowed to continue the process until its completion, even if this means Ethiopia is closed to new applicants. If someone has applied, even recently, and has put down Ethiopia as a country of choice, he or she should be allowed to continue instead of being told he or she must go for the second country. Ethiopia is similar to Irish law but there are technicalities that remain to be worked out. If the Government says "No" to Ethiopia until a proper bilateral agreement is put in place, we must draw the line now and allow no more applications to Ethiopia but those who have already made an application should be allowed to continue.
The Minister of State said he is examining transitional provisions but I have not seen in this Bill the nature of those transitional provisions. There have not been too many references to transitional provisions so I hope we will see them on Committee Stage.
For many people, the main country is Vietnam. The reports the Minister of State mentioned were comprehensive — the MOLISA report and the International Social Services report. There are problems within the Vietnamese system as a result. We know a lot of heartache is being experienced by parents seeking to adopt from Vietnam but I welcome what the Minister of State said in the Seanad, that at a human level he could not fail to sympathise with people in those situations and that he is committed to establishing bilateral arrangements with Vietnam and Russia. The Minister of State has been clear in trying to ensure that the Hague Convention's adoption provides an assurance that appropriate procedures are being followed and that the same standard we would apply to adopting a child within Ireland would apply internationally. I can only agree with that.
The Minister also said that he has been criticised regarding the handling of the situation in Vietnam and that the easy option would be to accede to the pressure being generated from all sides, but that in conscience he could not contemplate advising the Government to enter into bilateral agreements that do not provide for the minimum standards to protect children who are to be adopted by Irish families. I hope that report is issued soon and that we can deal with these issues.
The issue of same sex couples has arisen. Married couples are mentioned in this legislation and the Minister of Stage alluded in the Seanad to the fact that he could not allow for same sex couples unless there was a constitutional provision. The Civil Partnership Bill allows for couples but heterosexual couples who are not married have the same issue with adopting as homosexual couples. Personally, I feel that if a couple wants to take on the responsibility of adopting a child, the least they should do is formalise it legally through marriage. It does not have to take place in a church; it could be a State marriage. I wholeheartedly support a State marriage for homosexuals as well. It is the only way we can formally legalise adoptions.
I have been sent a book, as every other Member has, about a girl who lived with a pervert homosexual of a father who subjected her to God knows what sort of abuse over the years. We all know of the sick puppies who are heterosexual and married who have abused their children over the years in this country. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with how a person brings up children. The sooner we pass the Civil Partnership Bill, and have a reasoned debate on marriage in the eyes of the State, separate from the eyes of a god, the more mature we will be as a society. Many same sex couples would make great adoptive parents, often better than many of the parents who have spawned children without any thought about bringing them into the world.
Issues of fostering and adoption in Ireland must be addressed in this Bill. The related resources must be put in place to support it, with social workers employed at HSE level. Will we see transitional arrangements for the grandfather and sunset clauses on Committee Stage? They are crucial and causing a great deal of worry. We must also address the issue of adoption for same sex couples, unmarried couples and single parents.
I would not normally comment on the remarks of a previous speakers but we must bear in mind that we are talking about humans here, who are flawed individuals at the best of times. No matter how conception takes place or the circumstances of the birth, there is certain language that simply should not be used.
It is inappropriate to use that type of language because it sounds as if we are talking about a commodity. I realise it is not meant, as such, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a very delicate situation where we are trying to ensure that the three parties involved in the process are properly provided for, the birth mother, the child and the adoptive parents. There are three parties involved, and it worries me that no one has mentioned the birth mother in the time I have been here.
The awful angst of a family that wishes to adopt must be considered. Either they do not have children of their own or they might already have adopted and wish to add to their family. We can all understand the longing to have a child and give him or her the very best. However, we must never forget the birth mother. Regardless of circumstances, a birth mother would not offer a child for adoption unless she believed it was in his or her best interests, or there was no other option. We must ensure that there is no coercion when a mother offers a child for adoption, and that if a mother wishes to keep her child that all the supports are in place.
We have all received e-mails, phone calls and letters from prospective parents at the end of a very long process. They see this Bill as closing off their opportunity when they had every reason to believe they might have an adopted child before Christmas, or perhaps shortly afterwards. I hope the Minister of State will do his very best to ensure that some type of interim agreement can be put in place so that people who have already been vetted, sanctioned and received their declaration may be somehow facilitated. Crucially, however, we have to ensure that the child is central to all of this. For example, when the child becomes an adult, it is imperative that if he or she wishes to connect with the biological family that this can be facilitated, with the appropriate paperwork in place to ensure that it can happen. Equally, we need to ensure that the donor country, from which children are being adopted for adoption, is abiding by the Hague Convention in tandem with whatever other safeguards may be put in place in this regard.
There probably are additional safeguards we can avail of, because despite the ratification of conventions we all know there are people who will do things they should not either because of poverty, for more money or other reasons. The Minister of State should consider putting in place a joint agency, perhaps, along with countries such as Russia, Ethiopia, Vietnam or wherever, which would be located on the ground in such countries and do the job for us. We cannot vet every single child being offered for adoption or inquire of the mother or parents whether the child is being offered under duress. Nobody would expect we could, but there are agencies that can and Ireland should be willing to participate in funding to ensure that this would happen.
In all of this, however, we must always be conscious that there are two mothers involved in any such transaction. One is desperately waiting and the other is probably very sad to give up the child. We must always bear that in mind. This Bill should be about the protection of those three components to which I have referred. It should ensure that the best possible outcome can be had in regard to all three. I have been listening here to Members saying, in effect: "People are determined to give these children a better life." The consequence of the adoption is that the child has a better life, because clearly the type of poverty prevalent in such donor countries is probably a contributory factor in the child being offered for adoption. However, when most women either become pregnant or seek to adopt, the central concern is to have a child of their own, for whom they are prepared to do their very best. We should not attach any motives beyond that because it is an incredible thing to want to rear someone else's child as one's own and give it everything one has — to protect and love it as one's own. That is significant enough. The consequence of adoption is that the child will more than likely have a better life that it would have had in its country of birth which might not be as developed as Ireland, where the opportunities are greater.
It would be very wrong to discourage couples from adopting. I have met couples who are going through the process of being vetted as adoptive parents and the experience is traumatic. There are stops, starts, two steps forward, three steps back and all of that. It must be heartbreaking for a couple to be told at the final hurdle that there is a possibility they will not be able to complete the process. If the Minister of State can do anything at all in that respect, he would have the admiration and full support of this establishment.
The International Adoption Association wrote to Members of the Oireachtas expressing some concerns about the Bill. Will the Minister of State say whether he has read that submission and if he intends to do anything about it? Are any of the points suggested, as regards the definition of adoption and matters such as that being incorporated into the Bill on Committee Stage? Some of those suggestions are good. We would love to see all sorts of things in this Bill, but we know they cannot be. The notion of same sex couples being able to adopt, for example, is a different argument for a different day. Eventually when we have that argument and this is resolved, perhaps such an initiative might be included as an addition to this legislation. Equally, there are issues in terms of the age of children that can be adopted. That is an issue that might, perhaps, be discussed in committee. I understand the constitutional reasons involved, but nevertheless we might in the future take a serious look at these questions.
Central to all, however, should be provision to the three key components of adoption that I have dealt with. This is particularly so in a week where we see the Australian Prime Minister apologising to children sent to Australia and the British Prime Minister reciprocating as well as our own case as regards the children sent to America. I am always conscious that even if those children are not listening to us, perhaps their children are, and we should therefore be very careful of the language we use.
The Bill is about protecting the three entities necessary for adoption, the birth mother, the child and the adoptive parents. However, if the Minister of State could do something for those couples who are desperately hoping to adopt a child this Christmas or early in the new year, this would be welcome by everyone.
At the outset, I wish to thank Deputy Kathleen Lynch for sharing time.
I welcome this long overdue Bill, which updates adoption legislation in this State. It restates or updates the provisions of the Adoption Acts 1952 to 1998 and replaces the Acts themselves with this proposed new Act. In 1996, the Government signed the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. It is regrettable that it has taken 13 years for the Government to introduce this legislation, which finally will allow it to ratify the convention. It is important to remind oneself what the Hague Convention states. Its preamble recognises that the child "for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding". The convention recalls that each state should, as a matter of priority, take appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin but recognises that inter-country adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her state of origin. The parties to the convention state their conviction that it is necessary to take measures to ensure that inter-country adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or the traffic in, children.
The Hague Convention is based on the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations declaration on social and legal principles relating to the protection and welfare of children with special reference to foster placement and adoption nationally and internationally. The Hague Convention sets out in its first article its objects to be:
(a) to establish safeguards to ensure that intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised in international law;
(b) to establish a system of co-operation amongst Contracting States to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in, children;
(c) to secure the recognition in Contracting States of adoptions made in accordance with the Convention.
Sinn Féin fully endorses these principles and objects and welcomes the ratification of the convention.
The most basic principle of all is that the well-being and best interests of the child are paramount whether the adoption is within Ireland or an inter-country adoption. That principle must inform every section and line of this Bill. The reality today is that the vast majority of adoptions in Ireland are intercountry adoptions. This aspect of the Bill looms large and is of concern to the thousands of people who have adopted children from abroad and to the many who are in the process of so doing or who wish to do so in the future.
In Ireland at present, there clearly is more inward adoption, if one can use that term, than outward adoption. This was not the case in the past. It is part of the tragic story of the mistreatment of mothers and children in this State that many young women had their children taken from them against their wills and placed for adoption. This was a society in which women who had children outside marriage were stigmatised and ostracised. Many were put in so-called homes run by religious orders and in many cases their children were taken from them and placed with adoptive families. This was done illegally before the introduction of adoption legislation in 1952. Sadly however, as in so many other areas of social policy, after 1952 when the first option of legislation was introduced, the State abdicated its responsibility to the Catholic Church in many instances and the same unacceptable practices continued.
Much of this tragic story was chronicled in a book by Mike Milotte published in 1997 called Banished Babies: The secret history of Ireland’s baby export business. It highlighted the scandal whereby religious orders and others effectively were selling Irish babies to wealthy American couples. When the nuns discovered the huge market for babies in the United States, they set about exploiting it. This system was driven not by the needs of the children and their mothers, but by the demand for babies across the Atlantic and the profits, all too sadly, that could be made from such traffic.
Little or nothing was done to check the suitability of the homes to which children were sent. Ministers and civil servants colluded in this corrupt system and often turned a blind eye to illegalities, including forged birth certificates and dodgy passports. Presiding over the system was Archbishop McQuaid, who ordered a news blackout on the child export trade. It is a measure of his power that his diktat was obeyed by the so-called popular media of the time. Such attitudes and practices have not died out. In 1999, the High Court found that a couple running a pregnancy advice agency had illegally taken two children from their mothers purporting to place them for adoption.
Such things must never be allowed to happen again in Ireland. Equally importantly, Members must ensure that no child who was adopted into Ireland has been separated from his or her mother in such a way. This is the reason strong human rights safeguards are essential, backed up by legislation such as this. That is the reason the Hague Convention is so important and the reason it is important that when making bilateral agreements with other states on inter-country adoptions, we must be satisfied that no such practices pertain in those states. We must ensure that there is no abduction, trafficking or sale of children.
The International Adoption Association (Ireland) has made a detailed submission on this Bill for which I thank it. Together with others, it has welcomed the Bill but also has raised some serious concerns that the Minister of State must take on board and address. The principal concerns raised about this Bill relate to the transition from the old system to the new under this legislation. A legitimate concern exists about what will happen to applicants within the system. Will they be allowed to complete their adoptions under the old system with new applicants commencing under the new dispensation? This point must be fully clarified and I ask the Minister of State to do so at the earliest opportunity. The Bill precludes adoptions from countries that have not signed up to the Hague Convention or from countries with which Ireland does not have bilateral agreements. The difficulty is that, at present, most adoptions come from states that have not signed up to the Hague Convention and with which Ireland does not have bilateral agreements.
In the case of Vietnam, Ireland is in the limbo situation of awaiting a bilateral agreement. The Minister of State with responsibility for children has acknowledged the upset to prospective adoptive parents caused by this situation. All Members are aware of this because such parents are to be found nationwide and they have gone through difficult times. I take this opportunity to urge the Minister of State with responsibility for children to work to resolve the situation as soon as possible. Can the Minister of State tell Members whether it is the case that with the passing of this Bill as it stands, all adoptions from non-Hague and non-bilateral states will close, even if the application process has commenced? If this is the case, the Bill must be amended accordingly and will the Minister of State undertake to sponsor those amendments on Committee Stage?
Another important issue raised concerns the lengthy and inordinate delays in the HSE carrying out assessments of applicants to be adoptive parents. The Hague Convention requires this to be done expeditiously but this is far from the case here. The new Bill also should entail new and better practice in this regard. Finally, I also note the Bill fails to recognise the widening reality of what constitutes a family in Ireland today. Although section 33 states that the only case in which an adoption by more than one person can be recognised is where the applicants are a married couple, the Government intends to legislate for civil partnership and this matter was raised earlier by a Government Deputy. Surely there is need to address all prospective situations that can and do present rather than hiding one's head in the sand. I look forward to the Minister of State addressing this and all the concerns and questions that I and others have raised about this Bill on Second Stage.
I wish to share time with Deputy Mary Wallace.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome this Bill and commend the Minister of State on bringing it forward. Due to the massive changes that have taken place in this country over the past 30 years, the number of Irish children placed for adoption has been drastically reduced. No one would wish for a return to a time when an unplanned pregnancy outside marriage was a source of shame and secrecy and a stigma for the woman or young girl who gave birth to that child. Today, there are emotional and financial supports in place which give people options. That is not always the case in countries less well off than Ireland. In many places around the world, adoption is the only hope of offering children a better life.
I welcome this Bill which ratifies the Hague Convention and puts standards in place for inter-country adoption. This convention sets the standard for safe, secure and ethical adoption. Many couples, however, have contacted me because they find themselves in the terrible situation of having started the adoption process in Vietnam. There are currently 240 couples registered with Helping Hands and awaiting children from Vietnam. Since our bilateral agreement with Vietnam lapsed in May last, these people have been left in turmoil. I have met several couples in Cork who are in this situation and they are devastated. Most began the inter-country adoption process several years ago and now do not know which way to turn. They simply want to provide a loving home and better life to a child who needs it.
I appreciate the Minister of State's efforts to put in place a new bilateral agreement with Vietnam with higher standards, but I appeal to him to do whatever he can to help the couples who have started this process. The people affected are in limbo and anxiously waiting to see how they can proceed. Other signatories to the Hague Convention such as France and Italy have managed to put in place bilateral agreements with Vietnam that meet international standards.
At present, inter-country adoption takes approximately five years and applicants cannot be over 40 years of age. This needs to be examined. I believe that 18 months is an appropriate length of time within which to conclude the process. Couples are waiting extraordinary lengths of time and might then be barred because of their age. We must recognise that today people marry and start families late in life. The adoption process must be flexible enough to facilitate this. If people can have children naturally at 41 or 42 years of age, they should be allowed to adopt at this age too.
Another anomaly in the current system means that prospective parents are unable to switch their applications to other countries should problems arise with their original country of choice. There seems to be no way of switching countries once the process has begun. I appreciate that prospective parents need to familiarise themselves with the culture of the country from which they wish to adopt, but surely they do not need to begin the arduous adoption process all over again.
By ratifying the Hague Convention Ireland will have administrative arrangements with over 70 other countries which have ratified the convention. I appreciate that this will significantly increase the number of countries from which prospective parents can adopt children. Other signatories to the Hague Convention include Brazil, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines. Most prospective parents when embarking on the process will ask which countries are open for inter-country adoption but unfortunately this is of no benefit to those who have begun the process of adopting a child from Vietnam. It does, however, mean that this nightmare will hopefully not happen again for people beginning the process.
I commend this Bill on putting into legislation high standards for ethical adoption but I ask the Minister of State to help to address the situation of couples who are trying to adopt a child from Vietnam. They are desperate for a resolution. As inter-country adoption is an established part of Irish life, it is vital that we speed up applications.
I was chairing this debate at 12 o'clock today and listened carefully to the Minister of State's speech and to Deputy Shatter and others. The Minister of State and the Opposition Members made some very good suggestions to improve this Bill. I appeal to the Minister of State when the Bill is on Committee Stage to give the committee the time necessary to discuss it. This is a vital Bill which affects children and Irish couples. I hope that the Minister of Sate will carefully consider any worthwhile amendments tabled by the Opposition and by Members on the Government side and include them if they will improve the legislation.
Nobody on any side of this House has a monopoly on wisdom. We should be open to all proposals and suggestions. If we are not, young couples who want to adopt will be the losers. I have known the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, for a long time and I know he will be very sympathetic to any suggestions. He will hope, as I do, that this will be a good sound Bill with which we can work for several decades, similar to the Act that has been in place since 1952 and all the amendments to that Act. This Bill will see us through the next few decades if we take on board suggestions from everybody in the House.
The rise in inter-country adoptions over recent years has inevitably caused a rethink of past views on adoption. The Adoption Bill 2009 seeks to introduce the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption into Irish law.
By using the Hague Convention standards for child adoption, the Bill will not only ensure the greatest welfare for the adopted child, but also guarantee the rights of the parents. The Bill sets out a common standard for adoption procedures and this is supported by the creation of an adoption authority, which will expand the current Adoption Board's power. The authority will take on new functions in respect of the Hague Convention and will have significant competence for governance and accountability structures.
Without doubt we have seen huge changes in adoption here since the first adoption legislation in 1952. Most children adopted in Ireland at that time were born here. Today, we have a very different situation because most adoptions throughout the 1990s and up to recent times were foreign adoptions which we now call inter-country adoptions. Adopting parents welcome this Bill because it reflects the changing nature of adoption and the growth of inter-country adoptions, and provides a legal basis for many of the issues that may arise from inter-country adoptions.
We thank the Minister of State for clarifying today that his staff has already worked on developing administrative links with Brazil, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. This is an important, progressive measure because it gives hope to the many people about whom we are concerned. These countries already comply with the Hague Convention. Brazil and South Korea offer new opportunities that can hopefully be developed soon. The key issues will be the speed with which the Minister of State's officials and the staff of the Adoption Board or the new adoption authority manage to achieve early progress on the administrative arrangements with these and other countries that comply with the Hague Convention.
The legislation before us is welcome, especially because it will ensure that all inter-country adoptions recognised in this country meet the standards of the Hague Convention. The Bill also provides for Ireland to enter discussions with states which are not part of the Hague Convention. Many of the parents who have been in touch with us are worried about countries that are not part of the convention. The fact that the Bill provides for the Minister of State to enter discussions for the purpose of making bilateral agreements with these countries is a big issue for prospective adoptive parents especially those wishing to adopt from Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia.
Parents are anxious that the standards that apply to such adoptions would be in accordance with the Hague standards. Parents are also concerned that every possible effort be made to address the issue of the need for bilateral agreements with countries where children would benefit greatly from being adopted into a loving family in Ireland. Without such agreements, these children will remain in institutions in their own countries. One parent informed me the children in need in these countries will not be given the chance of a new life with loving parents and a welcoming home.
The Bill consolidates all existing adoption legislation into one which will be of great benefit to parents, social workers and all with an interest in these important laws. It provides safeguards for children being adopted into new families, setting a common standard for adoption procedures and providing greater assurance to children and families that appropriate procedures have been followed. Applicants under this legislation, as with previous legislation, are required to be of good moral character, good health, be capable throughout the child's childhood of fulfilling parental duties and have adequate financial means to support the child. These have been welcomed by many prospective adoptive parents.
The timeframe, however, remains the real issue. Like other Members, I am aware of the long process parents must engage in to secure an inter-country adoption. Will the Minister use all the resources available to him to address this issue? Once a couple expresses interest in adopting a child from abroad, it can take 18 months or two years to reach the first stage of the process. Prospective parents can often be in their mid to late 30s or early 40s. Their concern is how long it takes to adopt a child from another country, which can take up to eight years, by which time the couple may be in their late 40s.
The standards that apply to the Hague Convention are to be welcomed. Prospective adoptive parents concerned about changes in the countries from which they wish to adopt are at one on the standards. The convention puts in place the equivalent of a contract between each state to regulate the standards to apply in each jurisdiction to safeguard children being adopted. This is important from the perspective of adoptive parents. It is especially important to have confidence in all aspects of inter-country adoptions providing assurances for children, their families and the State that the standards of the Hague Convention have been followed.
New challenges regarding the timeframe that face adoptive parents have changed substantially since the legislation was debated in the Seanad earlier this year. The timeframe was shorter then, with several options open to parents. It concerns me that the situation has changed so fast and the options open to parents have been reduced. One prospective adoptive couple informed me they moved from adopting in China to Vietnam to Ethiopia because of delays in the process. Couples like this and many others are pleading for the introduction of a safe solution which will allow them to complete their adoption journey.
The debate's focus has been on inter-country adoptions because of their significant effect on the lives of many Irish families. However, the Minister of State should also endeavour to address the issue of foster care. Many children who have no contact with their birth parents are not eligible for adoption by the families with whom they live and who would love to adopt them.
The Bill is an emotive issue for many people. Couples who choose to adopt a child from abroad undertake a lengthy and emotional journey. They have a loving home to provide for a child and live with huge expectations but also uncertainty. Several such couples are among my close friends, neighbours and constituents and they have told me about their own experiences of heartbreak and stress. One couple, waiting seven years to adopt, have recently been advised there is only a trickle of adoptions coming from China. What are they to do? Inter-country adoptions give great joy to families, work extremely well and are to the advantage of the child who would otherwise be reared in an institution in their country of origin.
All Members know of many couples' adoption processes affected by the suspension of the agreement with Vietnam. It has been well-publicised and has been an extremely anxious time for the many couples involved. We are advised there were legitimate reasons to suspend the agreement and understand adoptions must meet accountable and transparent standards. Adoptions from non-Hague countries like Vietnam, Russia or Ethiopia have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, for those couples who have spent years trying to adopt a child from Vietnam or some other country, they are now in limbo. There are about 500 couples in this position who are looking to the Minister of State and the adoption authority for guidance in this matter. The harder the Minister of State's officials can work on this and the more progress they can make will be important for Irish families who find themselves in this limbo. I appreciate the Minister of State's commitment to addressing this and I thank him and his staff for their consideration of the many concerns I have brought to them.
In passing this legislation and ratifying the Hague Convention, we are providing Irish couples with a range of new countries from which to adopt a child, a positive development. Ireland is the last EU member state to adopt the Hague Convention which sets the standards in inter-country adoption. We must remember this process is about what is best for the child. All the evidence suggests that children adopted from abroad respond well to their new parents and their new homes. Much joy has been brought to many Irish homes with such adoptions. I hope this legislation will open up many more doors so that the life-time happiness experienced by so many will happen for others.
I wish to share time with Deputy Connaughton.
Adoption is an emotive issue and I appreciate the problems in it which other Members already have raised. Deputy Kathleen Lynch pointed out that two mothers are involved in the process. I recall how my next door neighbour lost her husband at an early age. She already had four children and was expecting another. Due to her changed economic circumstances, it was agreed the best outcome for the new child was for her to be adopted by a family member in America. My mother was very close to the lady in question and I well remember the trauma of the child being taken to the airport to be sent to America. Adoption, no matter what country the child comes from, is the result of a birth that a mother did not expect, want or could not maintain due to economic circumstances. I have many memories of that event. I listened to Deputy Ó Caoláin's explanation in regard to some of the other issues, of which none of us can be proud.
While I accept the Minister of State is making an effort in this area, the current situation is dangerous. The Bill is long promised legislation which is very necessary. As drafted, it does not provide for transitional arrangements, an issue that requires serious consideration. My party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, raised this issue in the House this morning. I was glad to hear the Taoiseach state in his reply that we must find a way forward in this respect, an issue referred to today by speakers from all sides of the House.
I appreciate the Minister of State is dealing with difficult issues. However, we must also appreciate that many parents have gone through a long transition period to get to where they are. Many of them will have tried to have a child of their own and when this failed may have tried alternative means of having a child. When this also failed, they will then have realised the only way they could have a child was to go the adoption route. I would like to read into the record an e-mail I received from a person indirectly but closely involved in this House. The e-mail states:
We adopted our child in August 2004 and immediately applied to adopt a second child. The second assessment was very lengthy with a number of delays [another adjective is used here] that were out of our control. Eventually, in May 2008 [one can understand the reason a frustrated person might use a strong adjective] we received our declaration — which was another four years later — of suitability and eligibility to adopt and sent our papers to Russia in November 2008.
In October 2008, this lady spoke to an official in the Department and to the chairman of the Adoption Board and was advised to submit her paperwork to Russia, which she did, as there would be transitional measures to allow families like them to complete their adoptions. Two weeks ago, at the International Adoption Association annual conference, it was announced that the Bill as drafted provided for no transitional arrangements, leaving this couple in a difficult situation. They are hoping to travel to Russia in a few weeks to meet a child whom they hope to adopt. All going well, they will return to Russia some time in the New Year to go to court to complete the adoption. If the Bill, as drafted, is passed before the court hearing in Russia, they will not be able to complete the adoption.
These people, through all the legal technicalities and so on, have waited from 2004 following their first adoption to now to adopt a second child. With the flick of a pen, their efforts to provide a child with a loving new home could come to an end. I beg the Minister of State to rethink the situation and to ensure that transitional arrangements are provided for in the Bill.
A second case involves a couple who commenced on the road of adoption in 2005 through PAC. They were approved for adoption in March 2009 but did not receive their declaration until August 2009. They, too, are seeking to adopt from Russia and have been led to understand they could be called soon to go to Russia, that a child has been earmarked for them and that all going well they could bring that child home with them some time in January. These are two of many cases. The Minister of State's colleagues spoke of the e-mails they have received on this issue. It is absolutely essential that these people, who have gone through a great deal, in terms of soul searching and effort, to meet the criteria to allow them to adopt are not left in limbo.
A previous speaker stated there should be a right to switch, which is difficult. It would seem from the information we have been given that the main countries in which children have been available for adoption in recent times are Russia, Vietnam and China, although to a lesser extent. As has been already stated, adoptions in Vietnam are no longer possible owing to a lack of agreement in this area, leaving many families in limbo. I recall another young couple who were unable to have a child of their own and who went to a foreign country to adopt. The pleasure they have obtained through adoption of that child is extraordinary. The grandmother, family and community dote on the child who lives in a small village. The child is adored and has a great life. I know of two other adopted children in my parish who are involved at every level in the community, one of whom is playing Gaelic football at national level. There is ample proof that adopted children are well cared for.
I would like to raise a particular issue with the Minister of State. The young couple involved with PAC took part in training with a few other couples. Two couples involved in that training and who live nearer to Dublin city than they do have been able to adopt a baby from the national pool, which is obviously very limited. It seems, from comments made by their social worker and others, that the distance of their home from Dublin was part of the reason they were not successful in adopting a child here. I am not sure if the reason for this is that the parents of the adopted child requested that their child be brought up in an urban area. It is a little strange that of the small number of couples involved, two from a city area have been deemed suitable for adoption of children here while none of the couples from the rural areas has been successful. I grew up in a rural area and it is not a bad place to grow up.
My colleagues, Deputies Alan Shatter and Jim O'Keeffe, have played a major role in bringing this legislation before the House. Deputy Shatter spoke on the Bill this morning and Deputy O'Keeffe hopes to do so at length when it next comes before the House. Both Deputies have more experience than I in terms of the legalities and technicalities of legislation. However, they have made it clear to me they want clarity on the transitional situation we are in. I want the Minister of State to say tonight that he will seriously consider the issue of transitional arrangements and will do his best to move an amendment when he has the opportunity.
The records show that 4,000 foreign adoptions have been registered since 1991. There are now up to 400 families who are in limbo, waiting to see what will happen with this Bill. Officially, in 2007, a total of 377 foreign children were adopted by Irish families — 160 from Russia, 130 from Vietnam, 31 from China and various numbers from different countries. At present, 76 countries have ratified the Hague Convention; however, some of the countries with which we are particularly involved have not done so, and that is why it is essential to have transitional arrangements in place. There have been long discussions about information I understand the Minister has from reports that have not yet been made available. If this information were made available, it might help us understand some of the reasons for the delay in the area of transitional arrangements.
The Minister must now clarify to the 300 families wishing to adopt in Vietnam whether a bilateral agreement will be advanced prior to Vietnamese ratification of the Hague Convention. From the day of commencement of the Adoption Bill, it will not be possible to effect an adoption from such countries if a bilateral agreement is not in place. The Minister needs to relay the concerns and anguish of families approved for adoption in Vietnam and establish whether transitional arrangements will be put in place for these families prior to the enactment of the Bill. In the case of Vietnam, 20 families are on that road; I am not sure of the corresponding number for Russia. The numbers are not large, but to those families it is critical.
The Minister must publicly disclose the issues that must be addressed with regard to Vietnam adoptions. What is the status of the transitional bilateral agreements with Ethiopia and Russia? The Russian authorities have established bilateral agreements with other countries, which shows there is a precedent and intent on the Russian side. Considering this, will the Minister outline the course of action the authorities plan to take? The Minister must be clear about whether the Irish authorities intend to pursue the established bilateral agreements with Russia and, if so, what action is being taken?
There have been long discussions about the grandfather clause and other such things. I heard one of the Minister's Green Party colleagues talking about this earlier. If a family has already adopted a child from a certain country and another child from the same family or background becomes available, it is important that the door is left open for them to adopt the second child. This would help the structure of their own family and help the child that is already there. That is extremely important. I understand such a grandfather clause was recommended by the Law Reform Commission but is not included in the Bill. As the legislation stands, families that have adopted a child from a country that falls outside the restrictions are prevented from adopting a second child from that country. Inter-country adoption aims to build families with more than one child from the same country or origin, with similar backgrounds and experiences, and it is important that this be facilitated.
The issue of post-adoption services is equally important. It is a different family structure. The child comes from a background with different smells, feeding structures and so on. We need to be careful that there is proper follow-up after adoption and that the parents and child have the best possible advice and opportunities available to them. It is important that adopted children can learn to understand and cope with what is happening around them. This is why a follow-up structure is important. Birth relatives and adopted people often feel the need to talk about their experiences. Post-adoption services can offer a chance to meet others in the same situation through a groupwork service, and it is also important to have individual support, especially to birth mothers and adopted people who are considering contact with birth relatives.
Often in the past, when there were more adoptions than there are now, it was interesting to note that couples would adopt a child — or two, for that matter — and subsequently give birth to their own children after trying unsuccessfully for many years. There are all sorts of situations to take into account. However, I cannot over-emphasise the issue of transition. Normally, a mother, along with her partner or husband, has nine months to prepare for a child. However, when an adoption takes place, the process may take four or five years. The expectation is extraordinary. I sat in my home only three weeks ago last Saturday with a young couple who had tried in every way to have a family. They are now waiting to hold their child in their arms for the first time and know it is theirs. If the Minister and his advisers do the wrong thing here, that couple and many others will not be able to reach the goal they have so long sought. I urge the Minister to do what the Taoiseach said on another occasion, namely, find a way to deal with the situation and deal with it now.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I recognise and welcome the fact that the Government, on behalf of its citizens, has decided to ratify the Hague Convention. Some will argue, and rightly so, that this legislation is long overdue. Adoption in itself is a complex and difficult area, but foreign adoption involves even more complex issues and needs to be considered carefully. I am delighted the Minister is spending time in the House and listening to contributions from all sides. I do not want to be critical of Deputy Crawford's comments; he spoke eloquently about the issue. I do not think there is a majority of wisdom on any side of the House with regard to this——
I did not say that.
The Deputy certainly did not suggest that.
It is critically important that the prospective parents' rights and expectations are balanced with the rights and expectations of children as these currently exist, in some places in very primitive conditions. We must also look at the potential for children who are not yet born which plays into the process of adoption.
The Bill is about protecting children's rights and welfare and recognising what is in their best long-term interests. These, combined, are set out very clearly at the core of the Bill with the establishment of safeguards to ensure inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child while respecting his or her fundamental rights as recognised under international law. That is the wording used in the Bill. A system of co-operation must be established among states, whether the state from which the child is being adopted or a receiving country. We would see Ireland in the latter category. The Bill also aims to ensure the recognition in the contracting states of adoptions made, as set out in the Convention. Those are the overall aims.
It is a fact that the illicit trade of child trafficking is a feature of international criminality. We often avoid those facts but they must be addressed. We must recognise the difficulties the Minister of State has in framing legislation and guidelines and resolving the very real issues that exist from, on the one hand, the prospective parent's point of view and, on the other, the child's perspective. In the interests of children, regardless of their economic situation, it is vital that adoption from a foreign country be free of any shadow of impropriety or illegal activity. That is fundamental to protect children in their own country prior to adoption and to protect them as they grow into young men and women in this country. If anything were allowed to happen in the progress we are making now that meant the legislation or framework to be put in place for adoption was anything other than to the highest standard, it would be remiss of us, as legislators, and is something for which future generations would not thank us.
I am no different from others in the House across the political divide in that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of prospective parents, some of whom hope to adopt for the first time and some who have been successful already. When one hears on a personal level the many stories that exist and the life stories of so many people, one sees it is an extremely emotive situation. In many cases, parents who desired and failed to have their own natural children have made what is, in some instances, a very difficult decision. They wish to provide that love, shelter and family environment to a child in another country who, because of unfortunate circumstances there, does not have available to him or her that kind of loving warm relationship or family structure. In some cases, that is a major decision for people to have made. When they come to that decision and begin the process of adoption, we need a system in place that gives certainty as early as possible in the process, if such certainty is possible. Where it is not possible at least there should not be an undue expectation on the part of the prospective parents. Whatever way the process may be enhanced through this legislation, we must look at the process by which people adopt and, in particular, the length of time involved.
I am happy the Bill deals with the frustration many parents feel at the slow rate of progress in achieving a declaration of eligibility and suitability. The Minister of State mentioned an accredited agency in the Bill and has set out through ministerial guidelines that this element might be used for the purposes of assessment. A system must be put in place to speed up that initial process. There are prospective parents who have spent four or five years in the process who now find that because of the changes taking place — through no fault of theirs or of the Minister — it is possible four or five years might be lost to them. I hope that will not be the case and that the Minister of State will be able to find an accommodation for those individuals.
The current system is too slow. One arrives at an assessment of eligibility and suitability through the involvement of a social worker who carries out the assessment and then reaches a point where a declaration is issued by the Adoption Board. The pack is then sent to the relevant country, at which point a referral is made. Ultimately, the prospective parents take into their loving environment a child from a foreign country. The steps seem straightforward and relatively easy to get through until a person begins that process. It creates the greatest pain and difficulty for those people who have decided to take the monumental step of moving forward with the development of their family. For this reason, the period of time is too long.
The Minister of State has spoken in the past about transitional arrangements. Although the Bill does not set out in a clear way how these will be dealt with, there is a need to address the issue very succinctly. When the Bill becomes law, there are prospective parents in the system who will be affected. They have made the decision to adopt and may now, through the initiation of the Bill, find themselves outside the process or forced out of the process they had begun. My understanding is there are approximately 500 such prospective parents. As things stand, they cannot proceed to registration so we must find an arrangement. Having examined the legislation and met many of those prospective parents, I believe consideration should be given to facilitating those who already have a declaration of eligibility and suitability.
These are the people who have been in the process for the longest period and for whom an expectation has been created. They have passed what in all cases is the final obstacle towards beginning or continuing their families. For that reason I hope the Minister of State, in his bringing forward of arrangements for the transitional arrangements, will give serious consideration to setting as the cut-off point all those who have received a declaration, particularly one that applies to countries which have not signed up to the Hague Convention.
Deputy Crawford also referenced a point on which I have had a number of communications, namely, the grandfather rights and the assisting of those who have adopted already from countries that have not signed the Hague Convention. When the Minister of State has an opportunity to address the House again, he might identify for us the number of such parents who have adopted already and to whom the grandfather rights would apply. Deputy Crawford set out in a very clear and concise way the desire of parents to have another child of similar ethnic background or from a similar area to create a family structure in as coherent a way as possible. We must give any assistance we can in that regard, while recognising we do not wish to continue the system we have which does not bring about the necessary safeguards identified in the Hague Convention. However, for parents who already have entered the process and, in all cases, have been recognised to have provided a loving environment for the development of their family, special consideration must be given in that regard. I hope the Minister of State will be able, in the fullness of time, to address that matter.