Adoption in Ireland: Discussion

I remind members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery that all mobile telephones should be switched off or put on airplane mode for the duration of this meeting because they interfere with the broadcasting of proceedings and cause unnecessary disturbance to staff members' headsets.

The meeting has been convened to discuss adoption in Ireland. This morning we will have the opportunity to engage with a range of organisations working on the issues regarding adoption in Ireland. I welcome to the meeting Ms Maria Corbett from the Children's Rights Alliance; Ms Susan Lohan, co-founder, and Ms Edel Byrne from the Adoption Rights Alliance; Ms Ruth Lennon, chairperson, and Ms Trish Connolly from the International Adoption Association; and Mr. Kiernan Gildea, acting CEO, and Ms Celia Loftus from the Adoption Authority of Ireland.

I advise that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continues to do so, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Ms Maria Corbett to make her opening remarks.

Ms Maria Corbett

I thank the committee for the invitation to present today. The Children's Rights Alliance unites over 100 organisations, working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. We aim to improve the lives of all children and young people by campaigning for the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and through securing the necessary changes in Ireland's laws, policies and services. We are delighted to be here and to accept this invitation. We have a short period of time and I thought I would touch briefly on three areas: the current adoption system; gaps in the adoption legislation; and the commission of investigation.

On the current adoption system, we would like the discussion to be framed by the right of a child to be adopted. Adoption is the right of the child. Adoption is a pathway to realising a child's right to grow up in a family. When discussing adoption, we may rightly focus on the story of prospective adoptive parents, but we must be careful not to lose sight of the fact that adoption is about children, their rights and needs. Adults do not have an automatic entitlement to adopt a child. I flag that the child's right to adoption is mapped out in Article 21 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which I included as an appendix to the presentation provided to committee members.

Moving on to look at why we need the Hague Convention, unfortunately, at times the adoption system can fall foul to criminal activity, including corruption, deception of birth parents, and the abduction, sale or trafficking of children. Therefore, it is critical that there is a rigorous verification process for all adoptions. The Children's Rights Alliance welcomed the ratification by Ireland of the 1993 Hague Convention, which was brought into law through the Adoption Act 2010. The Hague Convention is the international standard setter and it is the best available framework for managing the risks inherently associated with intercountry adoption.

We are also conscious that the ratification of the Hague Convention has had a profound and personal impact on hundreds of prospective adoptive parents. The number of children available for adoption domestically and internationally has plummeted in recent years and this situation is unlikely to change in the near future. We believe that we need to respond to this in three areas. The first relates to the work of the Child and Family Agency, in terms of it having good communication about the changed circumstances in relation to the Hague Convention with prospective adoptive parents. We believe that there needs to be clarity and a standardised policy on whether prospective adoption parents can undergo fertility treatment or foster while also seeking to adopt. There seems to be inconsistency in practice around the country.

Second, the agency should deliver its child care and adoptions services through one joined-up national service whereby staff would provide assessment and support to both prospective foster and adoptive parents while managing the interplay between the two in the different legal proceedings. We welcome the fact that the Child and Family Agency is raising awareness of fostering opportunities among prospective adoptive families.

Finally, we firmly believe the Hague Convention is the appropriate mechanism for Ireland and we would urge caution on the consideration of entering into bilateral agreements with non-Hague compliant countries. On child protection concerns, we believe the Hague Convention is an essential component of the Irish legal framework and we should not deviate from it.

As I am conscious of time, I will touch briefly on a few areas where I believe there are gaps in the adoption legislation. The first area is information and tracing. I understand the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, commented in his maiden speech on this issue and has committed to prioritising a Bill in this area. This is a pressing issue. Under the UN convention, children have the right to their identity. That right must be respected and mechanisms are needed to ensure that such rights can be fulfilled when the child reaches the age of 18.

The second area is open or semi-open adoption. As the committee will be aware, Ireland operates a closed system of adoption. We believe there needs to be reform to allow for an open adoption system which, we believe, would encourage parents of children who are in the care system to place their children for adoption. We believe this is an important mechanism that would improve the adoption system.

An important piece of legislation, the children and family relationships Bill, was published earlier this year. It addresses an area which can be called either step-parent adoption or second-parent adoption. This is an issue whereby the natural mother of a child, if she wishes for her spouse to adopt her child but the spouse is not the natural father of the child, must give up her own child for adoption and then establish a connection to her child by undergoing a joint adoption with her new spouse. It is a convoluted process. It represents the majority of cases that the Adoption Authority deals with - in 2013, the Adoption Authority processed 116 adoptions, 86 of which were second-parent adoptions. We believe that this is an unnecessary mechanism to establish a connection between a non-biological parent of a child and the child.

Would Ms Corbett go over that again because I did not get it?

Ms Maria Corbett

It is confusing and I am sorry if I am not making it clearer. What the children and family relationships Bill proposes to do is introduce a form of guardianship that would be extended to the spouse or civil partner to allow him to create a legal relationship with the child. Rather than requiring the mother to give up her own child for adoption and re-adopt that child as part of a married couple, one could create a special form of guardianship to allow a connection between the non-biological parent and the child.

What are the figures?

Ms Maria Corbett

The figures I have, from the Adoption Authority, are for 2013. Of the 116 adoptions that were completed, 86 involved step-parent adoptions. Perhaps we could get the Adoption Authority to confirm whether that is correct.

The Children's Rights Alliance warmly welcomes the Government's commitment to establish a commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. There is a clear need for the commission to examine the issue of adoption. From anecdotal evidence and initial reviews undertaken, it is likely that two issues will emerge. It appears that some adoptions may have been forced and were, therefore, unlawful in that the full and free consent of the birth mother was not secured. In other cases, it may have been that an adoption never actually took place but instead that the child's birth was unlawfully registered. Obviously, both scenarios raise serious concern and require full investigation. I acknowledge that this issue is under review but I wish to make the point that these issues really require public investigation.

I welcome Ms Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, and the co-ordinator in the North, Ms Edel Byrne. Ms Lohan will begin the presentation.

Ms Susan Lohan

I am the co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance. We formed in 2009 in response to a proposal by a former Minister of State with responsibility for children, Mr. Barry Andrews, to consolidate all the existing legislation. We were quite astonished to discover that the Bill was not to include so much as an additional full stop in the form of legislation on information and tracing for adopted people, almost 60 years after the introduction of adoption into Ireland. The group was founded by me and Ms Claire McGettrick. Shortly afterwards, we were joined by Mari Steed, our US co-ordinator. Interestingly, Ms Steed is probably one of Ireland's first intercountry adoptees because she was one of the 2,000 children trafficked from Ireland to the United States for adoption. Therefore, we have some valuable insight into the whole experience from her. We can learn from some of her observations.

Ms Edel Byrne

As Ms Lohan stated, it is forgotten that Ireland started out as being a sending country for intercountry adoptees. We are gravely concerned that the Irish intercountry adoption system has become a service for adults instead of a service for children. Adoption is not an adult right; it is about finding homes for children in extreme circumstances, whose immediate families, close relatives or wider community or fellow citizens cannot care for them.

In the Hague Convention, adoption is seen as a measure of last resort. Since Ireland's ratification of the convention, there has been a considerable outcry over the drop in the number of adoptions. We support the Adoption Authority's contention that its work should not be measured by the number of adoptions but, rather, by the quality and propriety of those adoptions. Mr. Nigel Cantwell’s opinion piece in the Irish Examiner last September shows we cannot have it both ways in adoption policy. We have the article available for members.

Ireland is not out of sync with other receiving countries. Some journalists and certain broadsheet publications have reported that the numbers of children adopted into Ireland from abroad was 11 in 2012 when the actual number was in fact 117. Ms Laura Martínez-Mora, the principal legal officer for the Hague Conference on Private International Law, reflects those numbers in her documentation. Falling numbers of children available for intercountry adoption are becoming an international norm as sending countries develop their own domestic adoption systems.

I encourage members to review the Tristan Dowes case. The circumstances in question were cited in Trinity College’s Study of Intercountry Adoption Outcomes in Ireland and no action appears to have been taken as a result. The Adoption Rights Alliance reported this issue to Deputy Frances Fitzgerald when she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and also to the Adoption Authority and the HSE, all to no avail. The HSE claimed it cannot monitor the success or otherwise of any adoption as it would be seen to be discriminatory. We have anecdotal evidence to show there is some breakdown in country adoption for some children in Ireland. Historically, Ireland’s adoption system has put the needs and wants of adults before those of children, resulting in a disturbing culture of entitlement, which is bolstered by a lack of courage on the part of many of our politicians and public figures who bow to calls for the re-opening of corrupt countries from which we used to adopt.

Ireland’s treatment of children in intercountry adoption has all the makings of the subject matter of a Ryan report of the future. The mere fact that the register of intercountry adoptions, by contrast with the register of domestic adoptions, is closed will make it next to impossible for adoptees or birth families to reconnect in years to come.

It seems clear we have learned nothing from our nation’s past and those with the power to influence and change ought to think about how they will be viewed in the court of history. Those individuals, institutions and organisations have a duty to pay attention to the needs of these children and listen to those of us who try to give them a voice, and they should have the courage to say no to the adults demanding the right to be parents.

We should listen to Interpol’s assistant director on human trafficking, an Irishman called Michael Moran, who has described illegal intercountry adoption as an example of human trafficking. No Member of either House of the Oireachtas will be able to stand up in ten years’ time and claim he had no idea of what was going on.

Ms Susan Lohan

Let me refer briefly to Ireland's history of intercountry adoption as a sending country. It is worth referring to the practices that obtained from the 1940s to the 1970s in that regard. There is considerable evidence of corruption on the part of State actors and religious organisations in the movement of children to other countries. All of this is well exposed in Mike Milotte’s book Banished Babies. It is disturbing that, on foot of having that knowledge, we have proceeded to develop bilateral agreements of a lower standard than what is stipulated in the Hague Convention with so many countries that would feature quite prominently at the top of Transparency International's corruption index. I refer to countries in respect of which we would refuse or be reluctant to have trade arrangements because we simply do not trust their paperwork. It is disturbing that, with many of the sending countries, we have no idea how they will tackle the problems of adopted people coming back in the future to trace their relatives, as is absolutely inevitable. They will suffer many disadvantages because they will not even be able to translate their own birth records or original files. There is very little oversight of this.

We are also troubled by the fact that, in 2013, the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, sought to unpick some of the protective measures that had been set out in the Hague Convention, which we ratified in 2010. That has been criticised internationally, no less than by Nigel Cantwell, whose recent article was referred to by Ms Byrne.

We are also disturbed by the connection of intercountry adoption arrangements with trade missions that the Irish State undertakes. There have been a number of cases in which talks on bilateral agreements have been attached to trade missions. That only feeds into the narrative that children are really a commodity in this matter. On the actual narrative, we are concerned about comments in the print and televisual media that the case of adoptive parents who feel disappointed at the reducing number of children available for adoption warrants cross-party intervention at the very highest level. Mr. Nigel Cantwell and other experts in this area can readily attest to the fact that the decrease in the number of intercountry adoptions is a very positive development because it attests to the fact that countries that were previously sending children have developed more mature systems of catering for vulnerable and orphaned children in their jurisdictions.

I urge members to return to their parties and really caution fellow party members on taking at face value some of the lobbying on this issue. If the previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs could amend legislation to accommodate 23 couples who wanted to adopt from a country not in compliance with the Hague Convention, surely the current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs could introduce the legislation we desire.

At this stage, we reckon there are about 100,000 adopted people in Ireland. Yesterday, we were pleased to meet the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to discuss some of the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry into practices surrounding adoption in mother and baby homes. The Minister gave us an undertaking that he is most concerned to have tracing and information legislation out as soon as possible.

I now welcome from the International Adoption Association (Ireland), Ms Ruth Lennon, chair, and Ms Trish Connolly, administrative director. I call on Ms Lennon to make her presentation.

Ms Ruth Lennon

On behalf of the International Adoption Association (Ireland), IAA, I thank the joint committee for the invitation to address it. The IAA is a voluntary support group and the leading support organisation for families engaged in intercountry adoption in Ireland. Currently, more than 5,000 children are entered on the register of foreign adoptions.

We understand that Ireland is in a transition period since the enactment of the Adoption Act 2020, but we have identified a number of concerns and issues within the current process. I will outline the priority issues for us, the first of which is the capacity of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, to carry out its functions. We also believe that the Adoption Act 2010 is too restrictive and should be reviewed.

Inconsistencies have emerged across the country through the assessment process. Tusla is the agency managing the assessment process and there are huge inconsistencies in how people are treated during that process. We also believe the AAI is not adequately resourced to carry out its functions.

The IAA acknowledges that the landscape is changing across the globe as regards intercountry adoptions and that numbers are falling. As a group of parents and prospective parents, we welcome this because we see that, as reported by the ISS, standards are improving within countries. This is leading to increased domestic adoption locally, which is welcomed by all of us.

There is no denying, however, that adoption figures have dropped. Reports commissioned by the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption show that they have dropped by over 50% globally. By comparison, Ireland is looking at a post-Hague Convention situation. It is not that our adoption figures have dropped by 50%, they have completely collapsed to 11, which is an accurate post-Hague number of adoptions in Ireland in a three-year period.

The fact remains that, despite improvements at local level in countries, there are still hundreds of thousands of children languishing in institutions worldwide. They are not getting the opportunity to become part of a family. It is estimated there are just under 18 million orphans who have lost both parents. They are living in orphanages, in institutions or, worse still, on the streets. We believe they deserve and warrant the opportunity to be part of a family. We must remember that that is one of the core principles of the Hague Convention.

In November 2010, Ireland enacted the Hague Convention which is to protect children and their families against illegal and irregular activities. The IAA and the wider community welcome the introduction of the Hague Convention. We recognise strongly that adoption is a service for children and not for prospective adoptive parents. We have no doubt about that. However, since the convention's introduction, there has been growing frustration and disillusionment across the community over the lack of effective implementation of the principles by our own central authority.

An article by Rosita Boland, published in The Irish Times in March 2004, revealed that the number of adoptions was 446 pre-Hague and 11 post-Hague. That is the future scenario.

We have a higher standard of implementing bilateral agreements compared with our other fellow convention member states. Currently, the condition is that every proposed bilateral agreement is required to be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. We contend that the power of bilaterals should rest with the central authority, as is the case with other convention states. We also believe that if a country has signed up to the Hague Convention, but has not fully ratified it and is thereby working within the principles and spirit of that convention, it should be accepted as a sending country by way of an agreement.

We are concerned that intercountry adoption has no direction. There does not seem to be any real responsibility or idea about how we want to perform. There is continued wasted expenditure by the State on the assessment process, which is costly. Once people get their declaration, they have little hope of ever effecting an adoption.

The Adoption Authority has advised us that it has made 23 submissions to the Department on proposed amendments to this young legislation which only dates from 2010. The IAA is concerned about the defensive approach that the Adoption Authority has taken, particularly in its defence of the 11 post-Hague adoptions. We believe it is a deliberate distraction from performance failure. We are calling for greater transparency and accountability by the authority.

Since 2010, the AAI has accredited three adoption mediation agencies. The authority has indicated to us that that was based on the expectation that adoptions would not collapse as they have done, but that intercountry adoptions would continue into Ireland. The Adoption Agency now confirms that there is not a need for three agencies. We understand that the Department has confirmed it will only fund one agency.

The time, effort and cost spent by the State in processing these accreditations should be examined, along with the apparent lack of consideration for the agency's long-term sustainability. We firmly believe that the authority needs to engage urgently with countries where children are available for intercountry adoption. Those engagements and plans should be regularly updated and advised to those who are interested in the process.

Tusla is the agency responsible for the application process and, as I mentioned earlier, we believe there are inconsistencies. This is our experience from people who are currently being assessed across the country. It is broadly recognised that the age profile of a child will be older and they may also have additional needs. However, there appears to be a lack of willingness to assess couples for adopting older children or children with additional needs. For example, a couple advised us that they asked their social worker to assess them for an older child, but were told: "No. The criteria is that you either need to have a medical background or children in the family already." When they said they were aware of another couple who had been approved, the response was: "Oh, that must just be in a different region." It is a matter of grave concern to us that if a person is assessed in Cork, it may be a different experience from being assessed in Dublin.

We would support the Adoption Authority on the idea of amending the legislation with regard to the current lifespan of the declaration. The declaration has a definitive lifespan of up to three years, which is not sufficient to effect an adoption. That matter needs to be re-examined.

When the Adoption Act was enacted in 2010, the IAA was extremely disappointed that there was no provision for post-adoption services, as laid down in our Act. While the Hague Convention does not call for the mandatory provision of such services, it certainly highly recommends them. While there are certain providers, their accessibility for parents and families in need of such services is not standard throughout the country.

I will now summarise the IAA's recommendations. We request that an external review of the Adoption Authority’s operations over the period of time since Ireland ratified the Hague Convention be carried out. The adoption legislation is too restrictive and should be reviewed. The Adoption Authority should be adequately resourced to make the changes necessary to implement the Hague Convention to a standard that meets the criteria as set out in the convention.

As I have already mentioned, we are concerned that the assessment process should be consistent throughout the country.

A review of Tusla policy is necessary to ensure we are adequately and responsibly assessing people throughout the country in line with global intercountry adoption changes. We require a review of availability and provision of post-adoption services on a national basis.

The final set of speakers in this segment is from the Adoption Authority of Ireland. I ask Mr. Kiernan Gildea to make his opening statement.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

I am grateful for the invitation today. The Adoption Authority of Ireland is the national central authority for adoptions in Ireland. The authority's functions are carried out pursuant to the Adoption Act 2010 and the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Intercountry Adoption. The three adoption service areas regulated by the authority and covered in my opening statement are domestic adoption, information and tracing and intercountry adoption.

Domestic adoption occurs when families living in Ireland adopt a child in Ireland. Domestic adoption was legalised in Ireland in 1952. To date, there have been in excess of 46,000 domestic adoption orders finalised by the authority and its predecessor, the Adoption Board. In 2013, 116 adoption orders were granted, of which 86 were step family adoptions. The authority granted 164 declarations of eligibility and suitability for domestic adoption in the same year. The authority welcomed the children's referendum in November 2012, the result of which has yet to be ratified, as it highlighted the rights and best interests of children and sought to ensure the voice of the child would be heard in all matters concerning the child. In its commitment to domestic adoption, the authority works closely with the Child and Family Agency to place children in need of adoptive homes in Ireland in a timely and child-centred fashion.

In 2012 and 2013, a number of issues requiring legal attention were brought to the attention of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs by the authority, including the option of open adoption; a legal means other than adoption to be explored in step family and extended family situations to establish the rights and responsibilities of adoptive parents without changing the status of the child's mother to that of adoptive parent and to prevent the birth or natural father's loss of rights and responsibilities in relation to the child; and the removal of the automatic legal right to an assessment for adoption. Due to the legal right to assessment, no legal restriction can be placed on the number of people seeking assessment for adoption.

To turn to information and tracing, I note that in Ireland identifying information is not given to people who were adopted nor to their birth relatives without each other's consent as there is no legal basis to release the information. Case law has prohibited the release of identifying information to people involved in adoption to date. There is, therefore, little legal basis for the existence of services in this area. As there have been in excess of 46,000 legal domestic adoptions affecting at least 150,000 Irish citizens and unknown numbers of illegal registrations, the authority believes that provision of a legal framework in this area is urgent.

The National Adoption Contact Preference Register, NACPR, was set up by the former Adoption Board in 2005. It allows birth relatives and people who were adopted to express their choice for contact or a veto on such contact with a blood relative. In 2012 and 2013, there were 1,236 applications to join the NACPR, which resulted in 125 matches in those years. By the end of 2013, there were almost 7,500 adopted people and 3,400 natural relatives on the register. This has resulted in 670 matches to date. As the NACPR is voluntary and passive, its success depends on the number of adopted persons and birth relatives choosing to register their wishes in relation to contact. This is because people register and are matched before any connection can be made between the parties. Any enquirers to the authority, the Child and Family Agency's adoption services or accredited adoption service providers are routinely informed about the existence of the register and strongly encouraged to join. The authority appeals to any other persons or organisations with an interest in this area to do the same.

The authority holds the view that all people who have been adopted have rights to identifying information. Release of birth certificates when an adult adopted person reaches 18 years must be given serious consideration by the Legislature. The authority has made submissions to the Minister in this regard. As is the case in other jurisdictions, the authority believes that the release of identifying information should be a legal right subject to certain conditions such as a veto for the birth or natural mother or person who was adopted of the release of information or contact, or being informed prior to the event, and counselling or mediation prior to release of the information. International experience and research demonstrate that access to knowledge of birth family and the availability of professional counselling and mediation services in the area of search and reunion are essential post-adoption services for people involved in the lifelong process that is adoption. In the absence of legislation to frame practice, people have resorted to a number of methods to connect with birth families. The use of social media has resulted in immediate contact without the safeguards such as counselling and time required to protect all parties' rights in this highly sensitive area.

The authority has made submissions to the Minister to the effect that people who believe themselves to be adopted or believe that they placed their children for adoption, such as people affected by illegal birth registrations, should also be free to avail of post-adoption services and have a legal right to be given identifying information where this is available. It should also be noted that managing expectations about the level and accuracy of available information on old records is an important issue for those seeking information about birth relatives. The Adoption Board, now the authority, called for the introduction of legislation in this area as far back as 1983. While the difficulties of drafting legislation in such a complex and sensitive area are acknowledged, the lack of a statutory basis continues to cause difficulties in the provision of a national adoption information and tracing service to meet the needs of thousands of adopted people and their birth or natural relatives.

In respect of intercountry adoption, there are at least 14 times more prospective Irish parents seeking to adopt babies and children than there are children being referred to Ireland for adoption from abroad. People seeking to adopt young and healthy babies are most unlikely to have a child placed with them due to the worldwide decrease in the number of infants available for adoption. However, large numbers of older children and children with special needs continue to live in orphanages and state institutions around the world and can often be available for intercountry adoption. In 2013, the authority granted 266 declarations of eligibility and suitability to people seeking to adopt abroad and 141 entries were made in the register of intercountry adoptions.

The authority hosted the 18th informal meeting of European central authorities for intercountry adoption in Dublin and 55 delegates attended from 23 countries. Representatives from the Hague Permanent Bureau and UNICEF also attended. Trends identified throughout Europe were that children available for adoption are getting older; the majority of children available for adoption will be regarded as "special needs" - a term used in those countries; the number of children available for adoption is decreasing worldwide; and the viability of many European accredited bodies is in doubt due to the decreasing number of intercountry adoptions. As a result, the preparation for prospective adoptive parents will have to take account of the new reality and prospective adoptive parents and adoption service providers must manage their expectations of intercountry adoption in line with the current realities.

During 2012 and 2013, the authority continued to progress negotiations under the Hague Convention with a number of jurisdictions in an attempt to conclude administrative arrangements in the area of intercountry adoption. Equally important are the functions of accredited bodies in this field. Due to the challenges faced by children with additional needs and the difficulties faced by prospective adoptive parents in effecting adoptions in foreign countries, the use of accredited bodies in facilitating intercountry adoption on behalf of families and in line with the Hague Convention is considered best practice and is promoted by the authority. There are approximately 650 valid declarations for intercountry adoption in Ireland while there are decreased numbers of infants adoptable worldwide, notwithstanding that the numbers of older children and children with additional or special needs remain at high levels in institutions. There are, therefore, a significant number of Irish families with declarations which are unlikely to result in the adoption of a child. The number of children being adopted internationally has been falling significantly in recent years. This is due to the regulatory standards imposed by the Hague Convention in the intercountry adoption process, the fact that most prospective parents want to adopt young and healthy infants, and the putting in place by many countries of origin of child protection frameworks domestically which are aimed at maintaining children within their native countries. It must also be said that prior to the State's ratification of the 1993 Hague Convention in November 2010, Ireland had a disproportionately high level of private independent adoptions, that is, adoptions not involving the national central authority in the country of origin.

Children are often over 18 months old when available for intercountry adoption. Generally, such children are between three and six years old as well as which they may have an older or younger sibling and, in many cases, additional health or medical needs. The international trend is that children are being placed on average from about four years of age having spent 44 months in institutional care.

The authority has made a comprehensive submission to the Minister with regard to possible amendments to the Adoption Act 2010.

Adoption legislation was first legislated for in Ireland in 1952. To date, there have been in excess of 46,000 adoption orders made. The number of adoption orders made in one year peaked in 1967 at 1,493. During this entire period, the legal definition of adoption has remained the same but the profile of adoption in Ireland has undergone tremendous change. This change is characterised by the decline in the total number of adoption orders granted; the decline in traditional infant adoption; the practice of open adoption; an increase in family adoptions particularly step parent adoptions; in exceptional circumstances, the adoption of marital children; the legal requirement to consult birth fathers in adoption applications; a significant increase in the rate of intercountry adoption from 1991 to 2010; a significant decrease in the numbers of intercountry adoptions since 2010; an upsurge in the number of information and tracing queries countrywide; increasing demands for post-adoption services; the establishment of the National Adoption Contact Preference Register in 2005; the introduction of the Adoption Act 2010, including the Hague Convention standards; and changes in the profile of children available for adoption from babies to older children with additional needs.

I thank Mr. Gildea. I ask Deputy Troy to allow Deputy Ó Caoláin to go first as I know he has to go to the Dáil. I thank Deputy Troy for his co-operation.

I apologise to all our guests but a debate on the Health (General Practitioner Service) Bill 2014 is about the start in two or three minutes in the Dáil and I must cover that legislation. I join the Chairman and my colleagues on the committee in welcoming each of the witnesses here. It has been very helpful. Indeed the witnesses' print submissions are very useful references for all of us working in these areas. I thank the witnesses sincerely for that.

I have a small number of questions. There is a clear distinction between some of the voices here this morning concerning intercountry adoption outside of Hague Convention sign-offs. I note that the Children's Rights Alliance expresses caution in this regard. Could Ms Corbett elaborate on that? I apologise that I will not be able to remain here to hear what she has to say, but I will pick it up in the transcript of the meeting subsequently. I feel it is a very important area. There is no question that we all understand and accept that this is about the child first and foremost. That said, there are many prospective parents in Ireland whose hearts are broken because they have not been able to fulfil a personal and shared ambition to become adoptive parents. That is a reality we cannot ignore.

In its submission, the Children's Rights Alliance said that it urged caution in respect of the consideration of entering into bilateral agreements with countries that are not compliant with the Hague Convention given child protection concerns. I can understand that but I will only try to open it up a bit because what better protections might some of these children have than to be placed in the care of parents who have gone through the very rigorous assessment process we have here and who tick the boxes in terms of what is expected and what must be provided?

There is a pending commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and similar institutions. We do not yet have a definitive list but I certainly do not want to stop at mother and baby homes in terms of someone's idea that this is what it is all about. It is about an awful lot more. We want to see terms of reference that will address this in a very holistic way. It needs to be done. The Children's Rights Alliance mentioned adoptions that never actually took place but where the child's birth was unlawfully registered. I can only second-guess what the alliance is saying here but could Ms Corbett elaborate on it in order that we fully understand what she referred to?

I thank Ms Lohan and Ms Byrne for their contribution. We have the Adoption Authority of Ireland here with us. I am very mindful of the terms of reference of the commission of investigation. The Adoption Rights Alliance's submission referred to "a delay largely caused by the deliberate obstruction of a registered adoption agency, never sanctioned by the Adoption Board/Adoption Authority despite years of complaints against them". It is a question for the Adoption Authority of Ireland. I have no doubt that we are looking at historic situations here. There is not a finger of accusation as to contemporary practice but this is part of the story that must now be told and exposed. I invite witnesses to elaborate on that because these things can be missed. I noted the meeting with the Minister yesterday but things can be missed and if we do not get the terms of reference right, this project will fail in completing its job of work. Would speakers from the Adoption Authority of Ireland like to comment on whether they accept or believe that this point merits historic investigation? I appreciate that the clock has beaten me and I apologise to the rest of the attendees. I am sure my colleagues will pick up on other questions. I apologise but I must leave.

I thank Deputy Troy for his co-operation.

I apologise to our guests for being late. Unfortunately, I have another commitment and must leave shortly. In respect of international adoption, like many of my colleagues, I have received numerous items of correspondence and representations relating to families who wish to adopt internationally. Following the Adoption Act 2010, people can only adopt from countries that have signed the Hague Convention. There is a growing call for more bilateral agreements with other countries - Russia and India, to name two. I would like to hear the opinions of our guests regarding this issue. As Deputy Ó Caoláin said, the best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration in all cases. One wonders whether a child would be better off moving to a foreign country where they would have a loving home as opposed to possibly spending the majority of their childhood in some sort of institution. We must weigh up both scenarios.

Listening to RTE radio the other evening, I heard a report from the High Court about four cases in front of Mr. Justice Henry Abbott involving fathers. In each case, the father of the child was unknown and the parties wished to proceed with an adoption. Until now, one had to make sure fathers had signed away their right. Perhaps that is not the right word but I think the witnesses know what I am saying. The challenge to the children's rights referendum has delayed matters. The previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs had given a commitment that she was going to update the adoption legislation. The challenge to the referendum has delayed the updating of the adoption register.

I would like to hear the view of the witnesses on what needs to be changed in the legislation.

Having met Ms Lohan previously, I am aware that the Adoption Rights Alliance has been to the fore in advocating for the information and tracing Bill, which will give people the fundamental right to their identity. It is regrettable that this Government and, it must be acknowledged, its predecessors have dragged their heels on this legislation. The harrowing stories that emerged in recent weeks regarding the mother and baby homes have highlighted the critical need for the legislation. The previous Minister for Justice and Equality identified constitutional issues which prevent the introduction of the Bill. I would welcome the view of the witnesses in that regard. I apologise that I must also cover the Dáil today. That is the problem with being a Member from a small party. There are only a few of us to go round.

Long may it continue to be a small party.

I thank the witnesses for their informative contributions. I welcome that the committee is considering the issue of adoption. As we have agreed to consider separately the issues pertaining to information and tracing, I will focus my comments on domestic and intercountry adoptions and to briefly consider the legislation.

In regard to domestic adoption, we passed the children's referendum in 2011 but the Supreme Court is still considering it. In the absence of the Supreme Court judgment, 6,500 children are in care, of whom 92% are in foster care and just under one third, or 2,000 children, are in long-term foster care and potentially eligible for adoption. In 2013, 20 adoptions took place involving children in long-term foster care, which equates to 1% of the 2,000 children in long-term care. These children will potentially be available for adoption if and, I hope, when the amendment Bill is enacted. I am conscious that every day we delay enacting the amending legislation, children are turning 18 years old and their rights are being expunged. What is the Adoption Authority doing to prepare for the change to the law allowing these children to be adopted? The worst case scenario is that in the time period between the approval of the amending Act and the introduction of further legislation, we will not be ready for children who can legally be adopted. Sometimes when we discuss the issue of adoption we immediately jump to intercountry adoption. There are children in Ireland who wish to be adopted and in respect of whom everybody agrees to their adoption. There is no contention but they are not being given this second chance in life.

Intercountry adoption is a sensitive issue. I am happy that Ireland is a signatory to the Hague Convention. We were at the end of the list because we were so late ratifying it. Mr. Gildea mentioned some of the figures involved. According to the figures presented at the April conference, Ireland is medium to average when it comes to intercountry adoptions. The International Adoption Association has cited a figure of 11 adoptions in the last three years. I cannot find the basis for that figure. Perhaps the Adoption Authority can clarify the matter. The figure is regularly repeated in the media but I do not know the source. This morning the authority set out a figure of 141 for 2013. The presentation from Hague indicated that in 2012, Ireland had 117 intercountry adoptions. I want to understand the basis for the figure of 11 adoptions.

If a prospective adoptive parent goes for assessment, he or she is automatically assessed, and often it is not until two or three years into the process that he or she is told the reality, as the authority has outlined, that there are 14 times more applications than there are available adoptees and that the children are going to be older and more likely to have disabilities. It is a serious issue if we are not being upfront with prospective adoptive parents about the availability and the likelihood of adoption. It is something we have to address. We are carrying out assessments needlessly.

The International Adoption Association raised an issue regarding inconsistency in assessments. However, I have also read about negative assessments being overturned in a study of intercountry adoptions carried out in 2005. Children ended up in care after being adopted because they were not being monitored. A promise was given to establish a database on these figures. Where stands the authority in that regard?

In respect of prospective legislation, I am a supporter of open adoption and the right to identity. The Adoption Rights Alliance and the Children's Rights Alliance have clearly stated their position on these issues. I do not agree with the Government on the constitutional block. If we consider the case of I. O'T. v. B, it was quite clear in regard to the right to identity in that it invited the Government to introduce legislation to clarify the situation and determine the balance by statute. We need to consider carefully the possibility of establishing a system of open adoption and the right to identity. However, I ask the authority, in light of its experience in this area, whether it is satisfactory, if we introduce this legislation, to arbitrarily provide that anyone born on a certain date will have a right to his or her identity but those born before the date will not have that right. We will have to consider that issue seriously.

Several years ago a number of international reports raised serious questions about accredited bodies. I ask the authority whether it can assure me these questions have been addressed and that all bodies' accreditation is up to date.

Deputy Anne Ferris has introduced an open adoption Bill in the Dáil. During the debate on that Bill, the Minister for Justice and Equality invited her to address the committee. At a future date we will invite her to make a presentation on the subject of open adoption and her Bill.

I, too, want the very best for children. How many children have been adopted through the Hague Convention in 2013? I understand that 266 people were granted declarations of eligibility and suitability this year. I have been contacted by a number of prospective parents regarding the prohibitive cost of getting such declarations. I ask the witnesses to comment on that issue. What is the cost to the State of the several cases that are currently before the High Court? Can parents be helped so that they do not have to go through the High Court? I have been contacted by very distressed parents. Are the staff of the Adoption Authority trained to deal with distressed parents?

I have been a school principal and I taught many children who were adopted from Russia, Vietnam and other countries. I take exception to the comments by Ms Lohan and Ms Corbett - perhaps I picked them up wrongly - when they cautioned against bilateral agreements with other countries.

Ms Lohan mentioned corrupt countries. In the same line we talk about adopting children from Russia and Vietnam, which has worked out well for those children. I take exception to use of the phrase "corrupt adoptions" and its implication for parents who have adopted beautiful children from these countries and reared them in beautiful families.

I have been contacted by many parents, particularly women, who genuinely want to raise children in good family homes. Then I turn on the television at night and see children in other countries in distress, suffering poverty and hunger. I find it difficult to understand that we are saying there are no children available from other countries. The number of intercountry adoptions this year will be startling. I agree with bilateral agreements.

I have a stake in this as, probably uniquely in this room, I sometimes cause infertility. Cancer treatments can cause side effects and every oncologist must warn patients in advance of them. There is even a small chance of dying from the side-effects of some treatments for which the alternative is inevitable death from cancer. The most difficult thing we have to do is tell people they may become infertile. It is desperate. I see this from the other side and it is a discussion I have frequently. I also have discussions with patients who have gone through cancer treatment, been cured and, many years later, are trying to engage with the adoption services. While it is a truism, and we all agree, that children's rights must come first, there is another side to the story. There are people on the other side who have reasonable expectations and who must be treated correctly and with sensitivity. We must understand that the rights of the child are not some kind of balance against which the rights of the prospective parents are see-sawed. It is better for both if adoption happens. People must understand that if children are up for adoption it is because they are in poor circumstances that can be improved.

The International Adoption Association representatives said the law is too restrictive. Could they tease that out and point out how it could be improved? Could somebody tell me whether the number of children adopted into Ireland from abroad in 2012 was 11 or 117? Rosita Boland, who wrote the article, is in the Visitors Gallery, and she deserves great credit for getting this public debate going again. I would be happy if the committee were to invite Ms Boland to answer questions, now that she is here. I would like to know the answer because everything hinges on it.

I have received representations about the structure and practices of the Adoption Authority of Ireland and I would like to know more. The assumption that legitimate, legal, ethical adoptions began only when the Irish Civil Service became involved is not correct. We all know people who have been through adoption processes over the years which have worked extraordinarily well and have brought great joy and happiness to both sides. What is the authority's budget? How many administrative and front-line staff does it have? Does it have a PR contract? It has outsourced some of its activities to a group called Arc Adoptions. A prospective parent who engages with the service must pay a fee of €2,750 to Arc Adoptions at the outset of the process and every telephone call made with Arc Adoptions attracts a fee of €66, which I find surprising. As a doctor, I do not charge my patients or their relatives for telephone calls, and I do not think many doctors do. I do not know why Arc Adoptions charges €66 for a telephone consultation. What functions has the authority outsourced to Arc Adoptions? One of our expert witnesses today is a social worker with the agency. I would like to know whether the agency has enough front-line staff to perform its functions.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Many of the issues I wanted to raise have already been raised. On average, how long does it take for people to get a certificate of suitability, from the date they apply to the date the assessment is completed? What is the average time from the date a person is deemed to be suitable and has the appropriate declaration to the date of adoption? There must be many people declared suitable to adopt on the list, because the number adopted is much lower than the number deemed suitable. How many are deemed suitable but have not yet adopted? It is important that people be aware of these figures. It must be very difficult for people who are very committed to adopting and who find they are waiting, or are unsuccessful. I am not sure people are aware of this when they begin the process.

Since 1952, there have been approximately 46,000 illegal adoptions in Ireland. Have we any idea, in view of the media coverage, of the number of illegal adoptions where different structures were established? For example, there was a structure whereby a pregnant person checked into a maternity unit under the name of the person who wanted to adopt the child, ensuring the birth certificate gave no indication that the child was adopted. In view of recent media coverage of one place in Dublin, have we any idea of the number of such occurrences and the scale on which it happened? It also happened in other areas of the country. Given that there is no information available to such people about their natural parents, is the Adoption Authority is examining structures it might establish to deal with the issue in view of recent media coverage?

Ms Maria Corbett

I will address the issue of the bilateral agreements under the Hague Convention and the question of the unlawful registrations.

There may be a vote in the Dáil. Apologies to witnesses if there is.

Ms Maria Corbett

For us this is very black and white. The Hague Convention sets out the minimum standards under which countries should operate. It has taken us a long time to get inside the Hague Convention network. We are there now and we cannot trust the processes in countries outside the Hague Convention countries.

It is quite clear from the 2009 ISS report that the circumstances by which the children are placed for adoption have been questioned. For example, the report states the number of "abandonments" depends considerably on the extent to which there is demand for the children concerned. If there was a demand for infant children, small children were effectively being placed for adoption. It is not conscionable that Ireland would engage in adoptions with a country when it does not know that those it is dealing with are not involved child trafficking, child abduction, deception of parents and falsification of documents. These are the details of what has been found internationally to have happened, not 20, 40 or 60 years ago but in the past few years.

It is a difficult issue for the prospective adopting families and I understand their personal pain as they wish to create or expand their families. They also wish to be protective of the children they have adopted who are being raised as citizens in Ireland as part of our community, and we need to be careful not to stigmatise them. I am conscious that when I speak I may cast question marks over adoptions in Ireland and I may stigmatise those children. I do not want to do that and I wish I did not have to make those statements, but I need to be clear that we are not able to trust the processes in non-Hague-Convention countries. The convention was established to set minimum standards for adoptions and we have to stay within it. There is no reason we would go outside it, as that would be a breach of children's rights.

The question was posed about children's rights versus parents' rights. This is a child protection issue. We do not know whether children are legitimately given up with the free and full consent of the birth parents or whether substantial money has changed hands in a corruptive practice. We cannot engage in that. While we are conscious of the personal plight of families who wish to adopt, our answer is not to go outside the Hague Convention and to engage with the Child and Family Agency. It is about being honest, up-front and clear with them. While they have a right to an assessment, do they want to be one of 14 waiting for one child in a lengthy, expensive, difficult and emotionally draining process? We have a large number of children in the foster service. We are constantly in need of new foster families. There is a hope that we will, in time and with legislative backing, be able to allow children in long-term foster care to be adopted by their foster families. This is a domestic solution to children who need homes in Ireland. It is also a way to address the genuine need and desire of families to create or expand their own families. I cannot put it any more black and white than this. We have to resist the emotional request from prospective adoptive families to move us outside the convention. There is no reason to do that. If one respects children's rights and is concerned about child protection, we must stay within the convention.

Ms Susan Lohan

It is imperative that we stay within the convention. To deviate from that and to go down the road of pursuing more bilateral agreements will bring back us to this table in the next decade or so, where we will undoubtedly be reviewing corrupt adoptions. I make no apology for using that phrase, because that is what is in the ISS report, which evaluated adoptions from Vietnam, with which we had a bilateral agreement, in 2009. To the credit of the then Government, that agreement was suspended. There was not only an international report on those adoptions but also a domestic report done by a Vietnamese Government department, which found evidence of the same corruption. It is naive to think that there are not people in Vietnam who are willing to exploit children and vulnerable families for this. Nobody suggests that prospective adoptive parents in Ireland are corrupt. Highly organised people in the sending countries are corrupt. The expression "triad gangs" has been used. They are not only involved in the corrupt trafficking of children for adoption abroad; they are engaged in trafficking abroad, because they are aware of the fact that there is a market for young children, which is demand-led. Is there anybody in this room apart from the Deputy across from me who would argue with that?

Can I interrupt? I prefaced my remarks-----

No. I will give the Deputy the right of reply at the end.

Ms Susan Lohan

The corruption is in the sending countries. It was the same in Ireland in the 1940s.

So everyone who came to Ireland from Vietnam came from corruption. That is not true.

That is not what Ms Lohan saying.

Ms Susan Lohan

I have not said that.

I prefaced my remarks.

I am chairing the meeting and there will be one speaker at a time. I will give Deputy Mitchell O'Connor the right of reply at the end.

Ms Susan Lohan

I agree with Ms Corbett that if we deviate from the Hague Convention, we run the risk of transacting corrupt adoptions because we will have no means of checking those that are corrupt and those that are not.

Even through a bilateral agreement?

Ms Susan Lohan

Yes, because that was the case with Vietnam in 2009.

I make no apology for repeating that these countries feature in Transparency International's index of corruption. They have a poor standard of public service among their civil services. Civil servants receive low remuneration and often kickbacks are the only means of maintaining a living wage. It is common sense. All the evidence is out there. Given our historical record of corruption as a sending country in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, we know all too well the degree to which this entire industry - it is an industry for criminals in certain countries - can be corrupted. It is naive to say it will not occur.

Ms Trish Connolly

I thank the committee for having us and for all the relevant questions. We believe bilateral agreements should be allowed. The Hague Convention makes provision for such agreements. At the AAI conference on 14 April, the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald said: "The countries that have most children for adoption are countries where bilaterals should be entered into, where they have the least organised central authorities and infrastructures." However, many of those countries are operating with the principles of the Hague Convention and against certain standards. Many of our European partners have bilaterals in place and they successfully effect transparent, ethical and not hugely costly and expensive adoptions.

Fees have been mentioned. For example, an adoption from Ethiopia will be effected for a couple of hundred euro or US dollars. One pays one's own court fees and does not require facilitators. I refer to other countries where we have had agencies approved. Prior to 2010, when Ireland implemented the Hague Convention, we had a bilateral agreement with Vietnam. The fees were on record and they were approximately $9,000 at the time. We had a working executive agreement with China prior to bilateral agreements and the adoption of the convention. The fee was $3,500. This was on the record, transparent and ethical for children who were legally available for adoption.

When we talk about these allegedly illegal adoptions, we do not know if the children were trafficked or were orphans legally available for adoption. Are we questioning all the children in my home, Ms Lennon's home and in homes that members know all around Ireland? The then Adoption Board stood over our adoptions and said they were legally recognised. We have children since the 1991 Act and they are now hitting 20 years of age. I have a nine year old at home. She can read the newspaper and watch "Prime Time," and she hears it on the road when we are going to school. She asks, "Mummy, was I stolen? Mummy, how much did you pay for me?".

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

With regard to bilaterals, the preferred choice of the AAI is that countries sign up to the convention first, and that is where we start. We will be cautious in any country we recommend for a bilateral agreement. There is provision under the 2010 Act for bilaterals with non-Hague-Convention countries. It is a unique factor in European convention countries that a bilateral would have to achieve the same standard as the convention, in that it would have to be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. That is one of the bulwarks we have. Any bilateral into which we enter has to go through the Dáil and the Seanad.

Having said that, the two countries which are probably the best candidates - if they were to be called so - for a bilateral agreement are Russia and Ethiopia, which are non-Hague countries, and were the two highest countries on the list prior to the ratification of the Hague Convention. They are very different countries with regard to infrastructure and history, but there is no doubt that we have concerns. We are extremely cautious with regard to entering into bilateral agreements. There are serious and complex constitutional issues regarding a possible bilateral agreement with Russia, with regard to consular visits to houses in Ireland, registration at the embassy in Dublin and, most importantly, the constitutionality of post-placement reports. The authority would be expected to police and monitor these and there is no statutory provision for this. We believe it would be unconstitutional to insist on them. It is all very desirable, but contrary to the Constitution.

We are also concerned about the costs with regard to Russia. Assessment in Ireland is free, as are the services of the Adoption Authority, but there are fees for introductions of accredited bodies for facilitation. The average cost of a Russian adoption in 2011 was €43,000, and €1.3 million left this country in 2011 for Russian adoptions, going to two named individuals who are facilitators. We urge extreme caution in going down this road. There is no central authority in Russia. This is not to say the adoptions are illegal or irregular; it is simply a fact.

What protocols has the authority put in place to safeguard these people?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

To all intents and purposes, Russia is closed.

We know this, but in terms of the figure quoted and the number of people involved, what protocols are in place to assist people in not having to go down this road?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

They choose unilaterally to go to Russia. A small number will still be able to go there for several more months, due to an amendment made to the Act last December. A total of 23 couples could have availed of the amendment; nine have done so and two have succeeded. Many dropped out of the system and we do not really know why.

I wish to inform members of the Seanad that a vote has been called.

As I must attend the vote, I ask the witnesses to answer the questions I have submitted.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Declarations issued after 1 November 2010 are Hague declarations, although they are the same declarations we have issued for 20 years. A total of 11 of these were used in the past three years. Many adoptions took place in the same three years by people holding declarations issued prior to 1 November 2010.

Ms Celia Loftus

Between 50 and 60 children were referred into Ireland in 2012 and 2013 from Hague countries. I apologise, as I do not have the figure. The total number may be 62.

I have different figures.

I ask Ms Loftus to provide this information after the meeting.

I prefaced my remarks by stating that I want the very best for children. I spent 31 years teaching children and I want the very best for them. People very close to me have adopted children from Russia and Vietnam. I can tell the witnesses they were not corrupt and I take exception to the use of that word.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

With regard to a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia, we visited Addis Ababa and met ministry officials who are all very well-meaning people who are very competent. There is no doubt there are children available for adoption from Ethiopia. We have met and held them. Unfortunately Ethiopia does not have the infrastructure to support a rigid and safe system. It has no database for registration of births and it has simply refused a bilateral agreement with Ireland at this time. It is very difficult to force it in such circumstances, and that is not what we should be doing.

Why do we charge, in that case?

Emotive contributions are a little unhelpful, given the sensitivity of this subject. It is not appropriate and gives an indication of some of the difficulties around this issue. I understand the desperation of parents who would like to have children. I know many brilliant parents who have adopted children, including my cousins and friends of mine, who are great people. There is no question of this. Nobody is questioning the bona fides of somebody who would like to adopt. However, we must also say that sometimes life is not fair and many people are faced with many challenges which, perhaps, cannot be overcome. There is a difference between the right to be adopted and the right to adopt. I am not against adoption if all of the other options have been absolutely and legitimately exploited and dealt with, but this does not mean somebody has the right to adopt just because of his or her circumstances. There is a difference.

The fact that children have come into this country and, as a result, become the children of loving parents in a happy family life does not take away from the fact that some of the practices have not been appropriate, and we as citizens must stand over best practice. The example has been given. We all know some of the people who were illegally adopted out of this country to the United States ended up with good parents who loved them. Of course they did, and that is not the issue. The issue is what happened later. Inevitably an adopted child will ask questions about his or her natural parents. Will the process be there to support the child in getting the information to which he or she is entitled? This is the problem - the legacy issues for the children at the centre of this. We must be incredibly careful.

People have different views on the ethics of this, but everyone agrees the Adoption Authority of Ireland is not working. I do that mean that personally against the witnesses, but it is a problem. How many staff does it have? How many functions are outsourced? There have been reports of people who were refused at the point of assessment as not suitable prospective parents who challenged this and went on to adopt, even though the assessment was negative. How is this process regulated? How many children who have come here from other countries have ended up in care? There is evidence that the number may be significant. I have not been able to get this information although I have sought it. There are issues with regard to information and tracing, but they are for another day.

The way in which prospective adoptive parents have been treated is terrible in terms of the financial costs, the uncertainty or stringing along, the heartache and the emotional path people must go down. These practices must be changed so that people know early exactly where they stand and what they are getting into.

I apologise as I was late, but I read the presentations. I ask the witnesses to point to a country which has introduced best practice and explain how the Oireachtas can learn from this. How do we introduce balanced legislation?

I propose that we suspend until after the vote and I apologise to the witnesses. At times the Parliament interferes with democracy. We will resume after the vote.

Sitting suspended at 11.29 a.m. and resumed at 12.10 p.m.

I apologise to the witnesses and Senators, but there were a number of votes in the Dáil and there will be more.

I will not take long. I thank the witnesses for their presentations. From reading them yesterday, it is clear that everyone is on the same wavelength and believes that the child comes first. Rightly so, and no one present would disagree. This is a matter of finding homes for children in extreme circumstances, their rights and their needs. In my humble opinion, no child should ever be taken away for adoption without the consent of the maternal parents or extended families. No person who seeks to adopt a child would have it any other way. I have personal experience in this regard. I have seen the love and care given by many people I know, including family, friends and neighbours, who have adopted children from home and abroad and the great good that comes from those adoptions, not only for the children, but for the people who adopt them as well. As a woman, the greatest gift I have ever been given was being able to give birth to my children. Sadly, this was not possible for some among my family and friends. People have a hunger for families of their own at some stage. Being human, we try our best to ensure that everything we do works out right for our children.

According to the Children's Rights Alliance's material, practice varies across the country and some families are not entitled to foster while seeking adoptions. Why is this the case? The provision preventing people in civil partnerships from adopting should be reversed.

I will keep my next question short, as much time has passed and many questions have been asked. It is for Mr. Gildea. His document reads: "Ireland had a disproportionately high level of private independent adoptions". Will he expand on this point? I was not able to make sense of it.

I thank the witnesses for their time and patience, particularly when we had to run up and down the stairs. We do not like that either.

I thank members and witnesses for their patience. As Deputy Byrne stated, it is disconcerting when we lose half an hour to a vote. I apologise. The witnesses might now deal with specific questions.

Ms Maria Corbett

I will make a quick comment. In no way am I questioning the adoption of any child in Ireland. These are Irish citizens who need to be supported and respected. When we try to have a conversation about processes, we can overlook what some individuals hear in it. This poses a difficulty. Our interest in the Hague Convention is only to ensure that we reduce the risk of engaging in adoptions over which we cannot stand. This is our ethos. We recommend that the Adoption Authority of Ireland mentor specific countries with which Ireland has a relationship to support them in raising their internal standards to the point at which they can ratify the convention so that we can continue adopting from them.

I was asked two questions, one of which, from Deputy Byrne, was on whether prospective adopters could foster while adopting. From what we have heard from prospective adopters, the practice varies. In some areas, the Child and Family Agency has told them that they cannot foster while in the adoption process, whereas they can in other areas. The same issue has arisen in respect of fertility treatment. When a child is to be adopted, we must ensure the family is aware that it must still take on that child even if it is fostering another, but there is no reason these processes should not be able to run in parallel. People who are interested in expanding or creating families should be entitled to explore options while having a sensible discussion on timelines, different scenarios and so on. We are aware that the numbers for adoption are low and the number seeking adoption is high. Let us a have a good, joined-up approach to this issue and work with families in going through common assessment and communication processes.

I was also asked about unlawful registrations. As I understand it, an adoption order was never made, so there was no adoption and the child's original birth certificate was effectively a false document, in that it did not give the birth mother's name, only the adoptive parents'. I am sure the commission on investigation will address and tease out this issue.

Ms Susan Lohan

I have three questions to answer for Deputy Troy. He asked whether it would not be better for a child to move to a loving home rather than remain in an institution. This calls for a domestic solution. We must always remember that the Hague Convention is a last resort. All domestic solutions, including adoption into the child's wider family, the community or elsewhere in the country of origin, should be considered before a child is put forward for inter-country adoption. There is a heap of evidence that many families from the sending countries who place their children in such institutions do so after being given false assurances. Ireland also has a history of this. In Romania, many families placed their children in orphanages on a short-term basis during the winter when food was scarce and they could not heat their houses. They were tricked into doing so. In Ethiopia, many of the families were illiterate. They did not give their informed consent to put their children up for adoption. They believed they were looking at temporary guardianship orders. We must be mindful of this.

Deputy Troy also asked about our views on the constitutional issues under the information and tracing Bill. I am glad that the committee will revisit the matter, as it warrants a separate discussion. We do not accept that the constitutional issues are insurmountable. Our opinion has been supported by a number of academic commentators, including Dr. Conor O'Mahony of UCC. Yesterday, I suggested to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, that he should create an expert group to examine these constitutional issues with a view to reinterpreting the 1998 IO'T v. B and the Rotunda Girls' Aid Society case in the Supreme Court.

We complained about the Sacred Heart agency, as did the Adopted People's Association previously. We were inundated with complaints about the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, particularly as regards a Sister Sarto, the agency's director. Quite unbelievably-----

We cannot name people.

Ms Susan Lohan

Fine, although the complaints made about her are in the public domain. In any case, I will withdraw her name. We spoke at length with several former Ministers about the agency, including Mary Hanafin and Brian Lenihan. We also spoke with a former CEO of the then Adoption Board. However, people kept being sent back to the agency to deal with them as if it were a competent body.

It has occurred to us over the years that the Adoption Authority has failed utterly in its efforts to monitor and observe the practices of adoption agencies. I was involved in an advisory group that constructed a handbook on how to deal with inquiries from people tracing relatives, be they adopted people or natural parents. That framework document was never adopted and people are still being sent back to these agencies, about whom serious questions, in terms of propriety, arise. The Adoption Authority is failing adopted people and natural parents in this regard.

That is Ms Lohan's personal view.

Ms Susan Lohan

Yes.

Ms Trish Connolly

I would like to again put on the record that a mentoring programme is available under the Hague Convention. However, this does not necessarily mean there must be a bilateral programme in place - it is down to interpretation. A mentoring programme that is working in one country could be used to assist another country.

Vietnam and certain agencies were also mentioned today. Adoptions from Vietnam have recommenced. We are told there are 15 proposals in principle, which is the equivalent of a child being referred, currently under way in Ireland. We would like to point out that the agency that had been in operation at the time the bilateral agreement expired is now back in operation.

On whether the current legislation is too restrictive, we believe it is not fit for purpose. We are aware that the authority has made 23 submissions on the legislation. There are four or five issues of concern to us. We are asking, and have asked previously, that the board of the authority should consist of an adoptee, an adoptive parent, a birth parent and another person who reflects any or all of the above and comes from the wider community of all of my colleagues around the table today. It is important somebody who can give first-hand information is on that board. Many of us come from both ends of the spectrum and, as such, have an insight into it. We also ask that the lifespan of the declaration be increased. Three years is not long enough within the process to effect an adoption. If we follow the principle of subsidiarity, which is not being talked about today, then a child is best placed in its country of origin, and if that option is not available it will then be placed for inter-country adoption as a last resort. The children we adopt will be older and, therefore, the lifespan of the declaration while journeying through the process is not long enough. We endorse the five-year declaration proposed by the Authority.

We would welcome information on tracing. We believe it is a valuable key to assisting every adopted child who, as he or she gets older, has questions around identity, culture, race or belief, whether he or she was adopted domestically or internationally. It is hoped that if the provision of information on tracing is successful, it will be extended to cover international adoptions, children whose paperwork is legally available and the many children who have contact with their birth families.

On required changes in the law, we are told that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, made an amendment to the legislation during the last hour of the last session prior to the Dáil's going into recess last December. It can be done and in a timely fashion.

On the issue of accredited bodies, I believe the authority will address this issue. We have had three bodies accredited for mediation agency purposes. They have since merged to form two bodies, yet the Department will provide funding for only one. A lot of time, heartache and expense on the part of the State went into the assessment of these bodies, yet they are not functioning properly and the number of adoptions is very low. Where is the sustainability in that?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

On Deputy Troy's question in regard to the High Court cases mentioned in yesterday's newspapers, the process identified in the High Court yesterday was a 16 year old process introduced by the Adoption Act 1998 which provides that where, in certain circumstances, the birth mother is unable, not in a position or refuses to identify the natural father, the consent of the High Court is required to dispense with notifying and consulting. Generally speaking, the consent of natural fathers is not required because they are not guardians. Where they are, we seek their consent. The cases mentioned yesterday were routine cases and that was the first occasion on which they had been reported on.

On Senator van Turnhout's questions, I will ask Ms Loftus to address the issue of the automatic right to assessment, the overturned HSE position and statistics and the possibility of a cut-off date for the release of information to certain parties.

Ms Celia Loftus

On the automatic right to assessment, it is clear that there are far more prospective adoptive parents assessed and finalised than there are children available. We know that, as pointed out, there are older children in institutions, but there are more families looking for younger and healthier children who could be directed towards fostering. The AAI recommendation is for fostering into adoption. We would agree that fostering should occur concurrently in respect of couples seeking to adopt also. In terms of the automatic right to assessment, I must in this regard speak for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, as well as the AAI, because that is a huge drain on resources. If there are 600 applicants for inter-country adoption and the maximum number of children that can under the Hague Convention be adopted here this year is 50, then many families will not be able to adopt inter-country. Assessment of all 600 applicants would therefore be a waste of resources. Assessment takes place over many hours, which is often very difficult for prospective adopters. The carrying out of an assessment, in terms of personnel and services, when it is not going to lead to the adoption of a child is a waste of resources. We have asked time and again that the law be changed so that it does not allow for an automatic right to assessment, because that means we often have to assess couples who are elderly or ill, which is what happened in regard to Irish children adopted by American people 50 years ago. Many of the parents who adopted children from Ireland at that time were old or in ill health. We are now in that position. We need to reduce the onus on the service in this regard and to put together criteria that allow us to assess couples correctly. The current automatic right to assessment results in a wastage of resources.

On negative reports, the issue in this regard is what has been described as the transition. Previously, when a declaration came through, it was almost definite that a family would get a child. That is no longer the case. In fact, it has not been the case for about five years. That had changed even prior to Ireland's ratification of the Hague Convention. While that convention is welcome in terms of the protection of children, the remainder of it leaves a lot to be desired. It is horrific for a couple who want children and are infertile to learn that children are not available by a route open to them up to 2010, namely, private adoption. I accept that there was and is a great deal of corruption in the countries concerned. It took a huge amount out of the social worker to write a negative recommendation in respect of any couple. In many cases the board of the AAI did not endorse those negative recommendations, and generally overturned them. Professional confidence in a person's assessment goes at that point. We are now trying to assist couples through the assessment as opposed to giving them negative recommendations. Since 2010, because our regulatory function is much more defined, only 20 of the 200 to 330 assessments which take place each year have been negative. Those negative assessments, which are coming through from the bottom up, are being upheld by the board. As such, the situation as outlined is no longer the case. Things have changed in those few years.

That is not coming out in what is being stated publicly. Many couples waiting for younger children have old declarations; these people are waiting three to five years for a child, so a declaration is there for a long time. The people have gone through an assessment and thought they were getting a younger, healthier child. The position has changed completely and we give very clear information from the authority on the profile of children through assessing social workers. Fewer couples will currently come through the assessment and make the same complaints, as it is not the case any more. They now know what they are getting into and they are much clearer about the fact that the children have needs.

We need resources for inspection, and one of the questions concerned numbers. I am a principal social worker and there are four social workers at the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI. Two of them work in information and tracing and two more provide ongoing review of assessments. That is the only inspection we have, and from that we have formulated guidelines for domestic adoption. I would hate to hear anybody say we are not working at the AAI, as we work very hard. We will rewrite inter-country guidelines and are in the process of formulating fostering guidelines.

Another question was how we are preparing for the pool of children in fostering. The board is very willing to agree with the negative assessments and in the process of review we have come up with at least another 20% that we as the social work service at the adoption authority would not give recommendations to. Some of those have also been overturned. It is a misrepresentation to say that where there is a negative report, we are not agreeing with it. We are mostly agreeing with negative reports, as they are not come to lightly.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

The Senator asked about different standards of information and tracing rights being legislated for. This might apply, for example, if a person was adopted prior to a certain date and had certain entitlements as a result. We are less than enthusiastic about that sort of approach of giving standards to certain people because they were adopted before a certain date. It is not something we would look forward to at all.

Ms Celia Loftus

The difficulty for the Legislature would be a retrospective element. We do not agree with that. It is absolutely possible to allow for privacy by allowing a mother or an adopted person the right to veto the information or contact. That can be done without having a constitutional referendum. It has been done in Alberta, Canada, and it has worked for the past ten years. We are very aware that a number of birth mothers would not veto that contact, but we also know from case law that some people would do so. There is a charter in Alberta, as opposed to a constitution, and it held a public vote. All the people wanted privacy for birth mothers or adopted people if they wanted it and information for adopted people. We do not need another referendum to tell us that, and we can legislate for both.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

There were questions regarding salaries, statistics and budgets, etc. Legal costs this year amount to €500,000, and there are eight cases currently before the High Court. I will not speak too much about them except to say we are the respondents in those cases and we have been taken to court. We have a small number of routine cases that go to court relating to the natural father issue I explained earlier. In cases where we are respondents, there may have been an application for entry in the register that was turned down, with the applicants seeking a judicial review or entry in the register under section 92 of the Act. We are respondents in the vast majority of cases.

The budget for the authority is €2.595 million. We currently have 21 staff and five years ago we had 34 staff. We are working quite well but it is a major challenge, and Ms Loftus has alluded to the major area of inspection and considering accredited bodies; we were declined staff for that work, but we need people for it. The last person was taken last Friday, believe it or not, for the commission of investigation into the banking issue. The majority of staff are on secondment from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and they are returning to the Department. We are under pressure with regard to staff. There are five social workers and the rest are civil servants.

Is there any public relations staff member?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

No; there was never a public relations contract. We have three contracts, with one for legal advisers, one for medical advisers and the third for our accountants.

Are those contracts advertised and robustly challenged with regard to costs?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Two of them are over €25,000 so they are e-tendered. The other, which is under €25,000, has also been tendered. There was a question regarding the timeframe for declarations of eligibility and suitability. When we get them from the Child and Family Agency, the turnaround time is approximately four to six weeks, although assessment takes longer. The date from such time to adoption is an unknown figure which can be anything from two years to seven years, as it is with China. That is where a declaration of three years is quite useless, and we have recommended five years as being a best option. It is impossible to indicate the number of illegal registrations. There are 100 applications on the national contact preference register for those people lucky enough to know they have a birth certificate but that they were not adopted. There must be many thousands out there in that position who may not even know they are not adopted and their registration is illegal or irregular.

There was a question about outsourcing. There are 14 accredited bodies providing approximately four services. Most attention turns on those which provide facilitation for inter-country adoption; there were three of those and we are now down to two. We are required to set fees and the major challenge is the issue of State funding. These bodies are in constant regular negotiations, virtually on a weekly basis, with the Department to establish a clear, rigorous and long-term solution with regard to State funding. Ireland has two of these involved with inter-country adoption, but Italy, for example, has 69 bodies. The notion of an accredited body facilitating an adoption is best practice. There is a cost, but Ireland would be unique if it did not provide State funding in some way or fashion in this regard. There are tax benefits, credits and grants in many other countries, and Luxembourg goes as far as providing a free service from start to finish. We are not in that position. Accredited bodies need State funding and the two which exist for facilitating inter-country adoptions currently get €10,000 per month, which is only guaranteed until the end of this month. They do not know what the position will be next month and we do not know what the costs or charges will be. Prospective adoptive parents are in the worst position because they would not know their expected costs either.

Ms Loftus may be able to assist on the issue of those in care, although we really only have anecdotal evidence.

Ms Celia Loftus

We do not have a database for this, although we have asked the Child and Family Agency to formulate such a database. I do not know how many adoptions are disrupted, but anecdotally we are very aware of children who come through particular countries such as Russia in need of massive post-adoption service. They are in systems such as the child and adult mental health process. Although they are not all in care, there are a significant number in care. We do not know what it is exactly.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

There was a question about my reference to private and independent adoptions.

If one looks at a league table of 13 countries, including most European states, in 2004 Ireland was fifth in that league table. We had one adoption per 10,000 members of the population. In 2008, we had moved to the top of the league. As there is such a low number of domestic adoptions, there is a disproportionately high number of inter-country adoptions. A number of things were happening. Ireland topped the league table in 2008 with one adoption per 11,000 members of the population. Meanwhile, the number of adoptions worldwide was going down. In 2004, there were 43,000 adoptions worldwide and in 2011 that number had decreased to 21,900, virtually a 50% reduction. Worldwide adoptions were decreasing by 50% and our place in the league table was going up. However, in 2010 the two countries from which we mainly adopt, Russia and Ethiopia, were technically closed to us. That is the reason the numbers are described as a collapse. These things were happening outside the authority's realm.

I hope I have covered most of the questions.

I wish to raise one issue. I will not refer to the specific details but I received a representation from Families Through Adoption about dealing with the AAI. Will you meet with its members after this meeting? I do not wish to go through the list of issues they raised with me in their e-mail and in my meeting with them. They have expressed frustration to me so could I ask you to meet and talk with them?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Certainly. Is that the Cork-based group?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

That will be no problem.

Thank you. I had a very positive meeting with them and they expressed concerns to me. I will not go through them at this meeting.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Yes; we will follow up on that.

Ms Susan Lohan

Senator Crown asked the Adoption Authority of Ireland whether it had a PR contract and what its budget was. We must also ask that question of certain accredited bodies. I am thinking of Helping Hands Adoption Mediation Agency-----

Sorry; we will not go into that now. The question was specific to the authority and Mr. Gildea has answered it. Other bodies are not represented to answer for themselves, to be fair.

Ms Susan Lohan

I have been very surprised at the State funding of the accredited bodies which Mr. Gildea just mentioned. We must look at the costs that prospective adoptive parents are being charged because of the PR contracts and so forth in which those bodies might be engaged.

The Senator asked me to remind you, Chairman, about the committee getting a clear breakdown of the figures in writing.

Exactly.

Also, I did not mean that the organisation was not working-----

Perish the thought.

I meant that there were problems with the funding. I fully appreciate that many of them are outside the organisation's control and I am not blaming the witnesses for them. However, everybody recognises that they exist.

Ms Edel Byrne

Given the times we are in, the fact that there are only two social workers dealing with information and tracing is substandard.

We will be returning to that in another part of the discussion.

Ms Edel Byrne

I just wished to put it on the record.

As I said, we will be continuing this discussion on adoption. This is our first meeting-----

I am sorry, Chairman, but I did not hear the reply to the question about the Arc Adoption company. What services does it provide and does the Adoption Authority of Ireland have any oversight over its billing practices?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Arc Adoption Limited is one of 14 bodies accredited in Ireland. There is provision under the Act to delegate certain responsibilities to it. It is a delegation of Hague functions, which is provided for under the Hague Convention. It deals primarily with the transmission of packs abroad, the handling of a referral into Ireland of a child and the handling of the acceptance of that referral to the country of origin, and also assists couples with logistics, such as accommodation, travel, drivers, translation, court dates, the court itself, passports and so forth. It is accredited to carry out those functions under the Hague Convention. There is a charge for that and those fees must be and have been approved by the authority.

We are in negotiations with Arc Adoption Limited, in particular, as it currently has a number of applications for fees to be struck, particularly for the United States, as well as a new fee structure for Bulgaria and a fee structure for Haiti. We are examining those but, as I said, the major problem is that Arc Adoption does not know what funding, if any, it will get from the State, with reference to the bill one pays.

I may be very stupid, but I am still not happy that I understand the number. Has there been a sea change in the number of adoptions since the implementation of the Hague Convention? We hear that there have only been 11 post-Hague adoptions. Does that mean the other 106 adoptions that took place last year were already in the system pre-Hague-----

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

No.

-----or that they were being conducted outside the Hague strictures?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

I will explain. This is the draft annual report for 2013-----

In short, what does Mr. Gildea think will happen to the number of international adoptions over the next few years?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Based on the small numbers being spoken about, they will probably increase marginally.

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

From 11, 12 or 20 to possibly 50, 60 or 70.

Does Mr. Gildea think that will be the steady state for the number of adoptions?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

Yes, I think it will.

I understand the figures were approximately 200 per annum-----

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

It reached 397 in 2008.

I am a simple soul here. Is it better to have 50 adoptions than to have 300? Is Mr. Gildea concerned that there was so much malfeasance taking place among the other pre-Hague-regulated adoptions that the evil will be countermanded by what will be a potentially tightening of the screws to the extent that legitimate adoptions which might not satisfy the bureaucratic strictures will not take place?

Mr. Kiernan Gildea

We have never referred to those adoptions in the way the Senator has. We stand over any of the adoptions in the register. The problem is that the two major countries of origin are not Hague-compliant and there are challenges with regard to getting bilateral agreements with them. In 2013, the number of adoptions entered into was 72, of which 44 were in respect of non-Hague countries - Russia, Ethiopia and Taiwan - and 28 were in respect of Hague countries.

Ms Celia Loftus

May I add to that? When it was 300 or so adoptions in a year, a huge number came from Vietnam. Vietnam has now reduced the numbers being let out. It is the countries that are deciding. India is also deciding that it has sufficient services and resources in that country to care for its children at home. It is not about us saying the country must be Hague-compliant or, if the country is Russia or Ethiopia, that we must have an agreement with them. We will process whatever child they refer to us. It is not about us deciding those numbers.

Would it be appropriate to ask if Rosita Boland could speak?

No, not today. That is not allowed under the rules of the House. You are putting her and the committee in an unfair position. You may request that she-----

I am not. I asked her and she agreed in advance.

You may request that the person you named be invited to appear at a future date and we will be happy to facilitate that request. There is no issue with the request being facilitated; it is just that this is not the appropriate way to do business. There is no difficulty with facilitating your request at a later date. As the Senator knows, we do that all the time.

On the last question on the figures, is that what we will get in writing?

Ms Celia Loftus

Yes. There are countries from which the numbers coming into Ireland have risen, such as the US. It is not a question of our refusing the children.

I thank everybody for their patience and for the quality of their presentations.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.50 p.m. until 5.15 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 July 2014.