It is a privilege for me to present this Bill to the Seanad. I am proud of the fact that this legislation was initiated and drafted by Deputy Alan Shatter. I wholeheartedly welcome and appreciate the fact that the Bill has been accepted by the Minister almost in its entirety. When we proposed the Bill in Dáil Éireann we said it would come up for a certain level of finecomb discussion and amendment. We are delighted that that process should take place and we will co-operate fully with it. It is particularly heartening for us to have been ahead in this area of important social legislation.
Basically, the Bill prescribes, for the first time, the legal rules applicable to the recognition of adoptions from outside our country. Children adopted from outside the country will now have legal equality with children adopted in Ireland. The Bill empowers the Minister for Health to designate specific registered adoption societies to become directly involved in making arrangements for inter-country adoptions and imposes a duty on health boards to carry out family assessments and prepare home study reports when requested. It is significant, and we were very conscious of this in preparing the Bill, that no legislation of this kind previously existed. The 1989 report of the Adoption Board requested this type of legislation. It is clear to everyone that the number of children available for adoption here has fallen dramatically, as the number of single mothers who keep their children has increased over the years. None of us would quibble with the desirability of that, when the circumstances are correct. Whatever attitudes we might have on that question are irrelevant to this debate in that what we are discussing here is the social reality that many more single mothers are keeping their children.
Under our current law there is no recognition for children adopted under the domestic laws of other countries. It is a feature of contemporary society that many people go to work abroad for short periods. With the EC becoming more widely understood and accepted there is greater mobility within EC countries. Up to now an anomaly existed whereby a person could go abroad for a short period to work and while abroad adopt a child but that child, while properly adopted abroad, would not have proper legal status here when the parents returned with it. All of us in political life welcome the return of emigrants or people who have lived abroad.
It was unquestionably the plight of thousands of children in orphanages in Romania that was the catalyst for the initiation of this Bill. A number of people in the Minister's constituency, which is also my own constituency, have adopted children in Romania. The Minister will be aware and will have met a number of those people in the Cavan-Monaghan area. This situation has been repeated throughout the country. There are harrowing tales home from Romania from those people. I have heard dreadful stories of orphanages that lack any form of colour, decoration or ornamentation. One of our colleagues here, who will be speaking later, has been to Romania and he will corroborate this. The orphanages in Romania are absolutely barren and dreadful places. Added to that, children are sleeping in cramped conditions with six or seven to a cot. There is an appalling lack of emotional support for the children, an appalling lack of physical support, manifested in malnutrition, and an appalling lack of any kind of environment that would lend itself to proper emotional, psychological or creative development. That is the dreadful reality of Romania. One could hold up the House — and, God knows, it might not be a futile exercise but I do not propose to do it tonight — for a long time talking about the harrowing stories of people who have been to Romania and witnessed the tragedy there.
It was the ordinary people of Ireland who took the initiative on the Romanian question. It is regrettable that it was the ordinary people solely who took the initiative, although that in itself is desirable, but the initiative came completely from ordinary people rather than from the Government. Another human tragedy is that much of the aid that was sent to Romania by well meaning people throughout this country was sold on the black market. I am very proud of the fact that in the capital town of County Cavan there is a very active support group for Romania. It is a horrific concept that items such as soap being sent to the orphanages has to be marked so that it will not be possible to sell it on the black market. We have heard stories of children who got beautiful clothes and were properly dressed one evening only to have them removed the next morning. The conditions that exist in the orphanages in Romania are harrowing and this is being manifested in many ways. I know a person who has adopted a Romanian child of three and a half years of age and that child is not yet able to walk. Those are the kind of physical manifestations of an absolute horror story.
The Romanian orphanage appeal fund in Ireland raised £900,000. They raised that money without any help from central Government and that was a significant achievement. It is only right that public representatives should put on record our admiration for those people. I again urge the Minister and the Government to consider a much more active role to assist people who give voluntary aid to Romania.
There are two orphanages, specifically, where Irish voluntary groups have had a particular input. In one of those orphanages in Tirgoviste there are 150 children who range in age from three to 18 years. In the other orphanage in Videle there are 170 children ranging in age from three to 18 years. In this institution there is grim, harrowing evidence of undernourishment, total deprivation and great human affliction. Again, this raises the question of what we can do to help those people. The World Health Organisation estimate that there are 160,000 children institutionalised in Romania. Those are children of the Ceausescu regime.
I will depart from the essence of the Bill to make this relevant point on this stage. This must undoubtedly nail the lie once and for all with all age groups here that there is anything attractive about the regimes of eastern Europe or that there is anything attractive about the philosophy which gave rise to those regimes. This is an important point and I hope other public representatives will echo this observation. The horrific end product of the philosophy behind regimes such as that of Ceausescu must be brought home clearly to third level students, in particular, and to all young people who may be victims of misguided idealism. The same human tragedy has been repeated throughout eastern Europe. All of us in democratic politics right across the western world should make this point at every available opportunity. I have no doubt that those who ever flirted with or were in any way associated or sympathetic to that kind of philosophy or those kind of regimes must now have egg on their faces and it is not wrong to remind them of that in public. I know that may be slightly extraneous to the matter under consideration but it is a valid observation.
It is worth remembering that the human tragedy recorded by the World Health Organisation was brought about by draconian issues such as the fact that every married woman in Romania was expected, by law, to have five children. Regular tests were held under the Ceausescu regime — and I had this explained to me in harrowing detail by people from the Romanian support group — who were out there in factories and so on to ensure that women were having the maximum number of pregnancies. Of course, all forms of contraception were outlawed.
During 1990, approximately 150 Romanian children were adopted by Irish couples and couples are still going out there. There are currently 450 adopted Romanian children in Ireland. Each couple going to Romania had to have a family assessment carried out to comply with Romanian law. Neither the health boards nor the adoption societies in Ireland co-operated with this process. It is extraordinary that the health boards refused to give them assessments already made when they sought to adopt the Irish context. There was an urgent need to do something about this and that is what this Fine Gael legislation proposes to do. There is an urgent need to establish an adoption agency with responsibility for foreign adoptions and that is the function of this legislation.
The Bill deals with all foreign adoptions and this is an important point. It deals with recommendations made by the Law Reform Commission in May 1989. That report noted that increased mobility within the EC probably added to the number of people adopting abroad and coming back to live in Ireland. It was important that the position be regularised.
The Bill specifically proposes that assessments be carried out by the health boards or adoption societies and that those assessments are used in foreign adoptions. Information is coming back to colleagues of mine over the past few weeks — the Minister spoke on this in the Dáil last week — that the health boards are not co-operating with this process and that they are saying it could take up to two years to prepare the assessments.