I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak to this important Bill. The Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 updates the law on adoption in a progressive manner in Ireland. We face a daunting task as legislators in this regard. We are trying to provide a legislative framework that will ensure the best outcomes and fairness for all children adopted in Ireland. The vast majority of children who are adopted in Ireland come from abroad.
As Deputies, we have to be reminded of our responsibilities to legislate correctly for this most vulnerable group in society, our children. A child without a parent who can care for him or her is especially in need of care and love. Such children need legislation and an Adoption Authority that responds to their needs and is in step with a society that is constantly changing. Youth holds the promise of the future. With all the energy and challenges of childhood and adolescence, it is a vital time that leaves its mark on us all. Children who are to be adopted in Ireland require adoptive parents who will love them and who can care for them. Where they are of an age where they can express themselves, the requirement that their views be considered and that all decisions be made in their best interests is of paramount consideration.
As a family lawyer, I have seen great changes in the law on adoption and welcome the Bill as a responsible and progressive updating of adoption law in Ireland, as required by the will of the people who passed the children's rights referendum in 2012 and the marriage equality referendum in 2015. It was in the reforming era of the 1960s that the legal concept of the best interests of the child became the cornerstone of family law in Ireland with the passing of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. This Act has been significantly amended by the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, which recognised that children had a right to be heard when of an appropriate age. The Act also accepted that children are raised in all sorts of circumstances, primarily by married parents but also by relations, step-parents, civil partners and parents who are straight and gay. In a similar vein, this Bill updates the law on adoption to give children of an appropriate age, a voice in the proceedings and to respond to ever-changing more complex family situations.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland ratified in 1992, acknowledges the family as the fundamental unit of society. It stresses the role of parents as primary care givers with responsibility for the upbringing of their children and obliges governments to support parents in fulfilling their roles. In addition, the convention provided that children's views must be considered in all matters affecting them.
Ireland has signed up to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The Adoption Act 2010 strengthened the regulatory framework governing adoption to ensure the best interests of children are protected in the adoption process. Ireland permits international adoptions only with countries which have signed the Hague convention on intercountry adoption or with which Ireland has a bilateral adoption agreement. This protects the best interests of the children involved.
The 31st amendment of the Constitution on the rights of children obligates this House to legislate to allow a child the opportunity to be adopted where the parents have met a high threshold of failure towards the child, where it is in the best interests of the child and where all other options have been explored and failed. I am very relieved that section 23 of the Bill provides a robust provision whereby, after three years, a child can be adopted where the parents have failed in their duty towards the child to such an extent that the safety or welfare of the child is likely to be prejudicially affected, where there is no reasonable prospect that the parents will be able to care for the child and where this failure constitutes abandonment.
The proposed Bill is strict, as it should be, in considering what limited circumstances permit a child to be adopted when abandoned and where the parent cannot provide care. This is in step with our policy, which is aimed at doing everything that is reasonable and in the best interests of the child, to keep a child with his or her parents. However, I have seen some clear cases in which children in care have been abandoned and where the parents do not have a capacity to parent. Many of these children remain in care all their lives when adoption should also be an option. This Bill makes it increasingly possible that such children could be adopted either by relatives or foster parents.
For children in care who have been abandoned and where there is no parental capacity to parent, adoption would be a more secure and emotionally rewarding experience than remaining in foster care all their lives. For these children, adoption should be a real alternative. I believe passionately that these options need to be examined by foster parents who wish to adopt.
Article 42A of the Constitution commits the Oireachtas to introduce legislation that allows parents, either married or unmarried, to voluntarily place their child for adoption and to consent to the adoption of their child. The Bill also provides that where the child is of an appropriate age their own particular views are considered and taken into account.
The Bill will also allow civil partners and cohabiting couples to adopt. It contains a new provision for cohabiting couples who have been cohabiting for a continuous period of three years to jointly adopt. Under section 18, the Bill further allows a step-parent who has a home with the child's parent for a continuous period of two years or, in exceptional circumstances, less than two years to adopt the child of their partner. The Bill allows for a change to step-parent adoption by removing the requirement for the other parent to adopt their own child, making this option more feasible and more realistic.
The Bill will allow civil partners to adopt. Married couples, which include same-sex couples, can adopt. I welcome the support of Barnardos and its guardian ad litem service for this Bill. Those guardians ad litem, who represent the voice and best wishes of the child in child care proceedings, have years of experience dealing with children in care. Barnardos described this Bill as another crucial piece of legislation prioritising children, and I welcome that. I also welcome the support of Children's Right Alliance for it.
Our current law prohibits married parents from placing a child for adoption and this has left many children in long-term foster care who could have been adopted but whose parents were married. The Bill removes that outdated provision. It provides for adoption where the parents, married or unmarried, have abandoned the child and have failed for a continuous period for three years in their duty to that child.
It is correct to broaden eligibility for adoption which the Bill proposes. Our adoption law would then be updated to best international practice regarding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption. The Bill updates the law on adoption, taking into consideration the already expressed wishes of the Irish people in two referenda and that in itself is a unique situation where the Parliament is responding to an issue where every citizen was given a voice. As a practitioner of family law, a mother and a citizen, I very much welcome the Bill.