I thank the joint committee for inviting us to this meeting today. I will first make a few brief introductions. My name is Shane Downer and I am accompanied by Mr. Brian Kearney and Ms Trish Connolly. We are all from the International Adoption Association, which is the largest support organisation of its kind in the country. We represent more than 1,300 families who have adopted or are adopting children into Ireland. Ms Connolly has adopted from China, Mr. Kearney has adopted from Russia and I have adopted from Vietnam.
The IAA welcomes the opportunity to appear before the joint committee in advance of its consideration of the Adoption Bill. We have already made a formal submission concerning some issues in the Bill and look forward to dealing with these in the questions and answers session. I would first like to comment briefly on the right to a family, the importance of the Hague Convention and the best interests of the child, before concluding with a reminder of the points made in our formal submission.
There has been much debate on the Adoption Bill dealing with transition measures, waiting times and so on. Some of the debate has focused on applicants, their experiences at the hands of the HSE and the current lack of bilateral agreements with particular countries. Let me be absolutely clear, in our opinion there is no absolute or otherwise right to a family on behalf of adoptive parents. As adoptive applicants, we do not have the right to be adoptive parents. In fact, the only person who has the right to a family is a child. This right is contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and is specifically referenced in the preamble to the Hague Convention. We do not, therefore, represent people who demand to be allowed to adopt children or who are desperate to have children at any cost. We do represent people who view the best interests of each and every child as the most important consideration in any decision concerning adoption or other forms of child care or protection. We, therefore, categorically support the ratification of the Hague Convention. There is a view in some quarters that our community is against Hague. We are often asked do we really want Hague? Please allow me to be unequivocal once more — we would pass the Bill in the morning if we could. It is not our job to do so, but that is our opinion. We have been asking for this Bill for several years. Ratification of the convention is the right thing to do and it is important that we do it as soon as possible.
This does not exclude our responsibility to identify shortcomings, if any, in the Bill. To be fair to the Minister of State with responsibility for children, he has engaged with our community in this regard. While we do not always agree, at least we have been able to discuss our differences and find some points of agreement. In addition, we recognise and applaud the efforts of the Adoption Board of Ireland in informing our community on matters relating to adoption in general and, more recently, its commitment, as illustrated by its work in preparation for the ratification of the convention.
This Bill is worthy of everyone's efforts to improve our system of adoption in the hope that we can provide more safe, secure and loving homes for children in need. It is unfortunate, therefore, when a representative of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs states in front of the other 46 member states of the Council of Europe and representatives of the Hague Convention and the European Commission that there are lower standards applied in inter-country adoption into Ireland than domestically and, more seriously, that the passage of the Bill is subject to severe pressure from support groups seeking to water down future standards, as occurred last week in Strasbourg. Such representations are an insult to adoptive parents and applicants and, more seriously, disparage existing adoptions as well as future ones. The idea that our community operates with anything other than the best interests of the child is unworthy. The assessment of applicants for inter-country adoption in Ireland is rightly robust. Adoption should not be easy and not everyone is suitable to be an adoptive parent. For those who are approved, adoptions of children are conducted in good faith by committed, trained and suitable applicants who know what their responsibilities are.
This brings me onto the most important consideration in adoption, namely, the best interests of the child. While this concept is not specifically defined in the Bill and may be undefinable, it underpins every aspect of the Hague Convention. Adoption is and should only be a service for children. The challenge of how to determine the best interests of the child goes beyond separate legal, medical, social or psychological interpretation. It must be informed by a unique and holistic interpretation, including all of the above for each and every child. We should start by considering those children most in need who currently reside in institutions.
Let us consider one such child, who shares a cot with another child or two, who may receive one hour of one-to-one contact with a carer every 24 hours and who has learned the futility of crying because it brings no comfort. Orphanages can be silent places, as each of the three of us present can attest. Leaving children in such circumstances is not in their best interests and this should be to the forefront of consideration regarding the issues identified with the Bill.
While we do not seek any dilution of standards, we have identified five issues in our submission. The exclusion of adoptions from non-Hague or non-bilateral agreement countries is not a requirement of the Hague Convention. The convention requires that adoptions are conducted according to its standards, but does not exclude children in need based on their origins. The likelihood of children ending up in the High Court due to a failure to allow for appropriate transition from the existing system to the new regime is also a risk. The result could place 400 or 450 children in a legal limbo. We are all aware of the appalling waiting times for assessments, which effectively means that adopters can be as much as three years older than they need to be when welcoming children into their families. Adoptive parents require a certain amount of energy, so this is an important point.
The lack of a grandfather clause is an issue. If I was a child adopted from Russia, the grandfather clause would allow my adoptive parents to adopt another child from Russia, which would allow me to have a sibling from a similar background and birth culture. The continuing discrimination of sole applicants in terms of their eligibility to be considered as adoptive parents for children in need does not recognise the modern profile of Irish family structures. These issues should be discussed in the best interests of children. We look forward to doing so.