The Adoptive Leave Act 1995 was introduced to provide leave similar to maternity leave for an adopting mother after the placement of a child into her care. The purpose of the Act was to redress a perceived anomaly that women who adopted children were excluded from the maternity leave entitlements in place under the Maternity Protection Act 1994. The 1995 Act replicates all the relevant benefits of maternity leave for women whose motherhood arises from adoption and its provisions were modelled on existing arrangements for natural mothers. It also makes provision for similar leave for men in exceptional circumstances which arise where the employee is a sole male adopter or if the adopting mother dies either shortly before or shortly after placement of the child.
The Adoptive Leave Bill 2004 seeks to amend the 1995 Act in order to apply, where appropriate, to adoptive leave the recommendations made by the working group on the review and improvement of the maternity protection legislation. The maternity working group was set up in accordance with commitments in the Government's An Action Programme for the Millennium and the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. The working group, which was chaired by my Department, included representatives from all pillars of social partnership, relevant Departments, the Health Services Employers' Agency, the Health and Safety Authority and the Equality Authority. In late 2000, the Government accepted the recommendations of the maternity working group in full. Significantly, the Government also decided at that time to amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 to incorporate, where appropriate, the improvements proposed to the Maternity Protection Act 1994. The most significant recommendation, to extend the duration of maternity and additional maternity leave by four weeks each, were immediately implemented in March 2001 with identical increases applied simultaneously to adoptive leave and additional adoptive leave bringing the statutory adoptive leave entitlement which attracts payment of salary or adoptive benefit to 14 weeks and additional unpaid adoptive leave to eight weeks. The remaining recommendations of the working group of relevance to adoptive leave require primary legislation to amend the Adoptive Leave Act 1995 and these will be implemented on the enactment of this Bill.
The birth of a child requires considerable advance preparation and adjustment and this is equally true in the case of the arrival of an adopted child. The adoption process is a long and anxious journey for parents but happily in the majority of cases it culminates in the fulfilment of their wishes to have a child. For good reason the preparatory and assessment process is thorough and demands the full commitment of adopting parents. It is important that we ensure that those wishing to adopt or who have just had a child placed with them are given every support throughout this period. The measures introduced in the Adoptive Leave Bill will enhance the existing legislative provisions for employed adopting parents and will offer them greater employment protection and more flexibility in managing their work and family responsibilities during this important period. The decline in the numbers of children available for domestic adoption in recent years has given rise to a marked growth in the number of foreign adoptions. Adoption Board figures for 2002 show that, of the 602 adoptions authorised that year, 336 were foreign adoptions, 99 were Irish non-family adoptions and the remaining 167 were adoptions within families. Senators may also be interested to note that in the same year there were 215 recipients of adoptive benefit payments to employees by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
The Adoptive Leave Act 1995 was introduced to provide an entitlement to periods of leave from employment for an adopting mother after the placement of a child into her care on an equivalent basis to the entitlement to leave available in the maternity protection legislation to natural mothers. This equivalence was maintained in 2001 when matching increases in the periods of leave available to natural and adopting mothers were applied. In keeping with this policy, a recent proposal on maternity leave entitlements will also be applied to adoptive leave. As Senators are aware, the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Bill 2003 currently before the Dáil provides for the reduction of the compulsory pre-confinement period of maternity leave from four weeks to two weeks, thereby increasing the period of such leave available post-birth to 16 weeks. In the interests of maintaining parity of entitlements between adopting and natural mothers, the Government has agreed to accordingly increase the period of adoptive leave by two weeks to 16 weeks. This provision in section 3 effectively means that both natural and adopting mothers will be able to avail of 16 weeks leave from work with payment of Department of Social and Family Affairs benefit from the time a child is born or placed into their care.
As a consequence of the growth in foreign adoptions, the Department of Health and Children introduced a structured approach to preparing and assessing prospective adopters for inter-country adoptions. As part of this structure, adopting parents are now required under the standardised framework for inter-country adoption to attend a series of structured group sessions organised by their local health board or adoption agency. Participation in the education and preparation stage of the standardised framework is compulsory for adopting parents and will become a statutory requirement under legislation to be introduced by the Minister for Health and Children to ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption. This important stage of the process gives prospective adopters an opportunity to learn more about inter-country adoption so that they can make an informed choice as to whether this is an appropriate step for them to take. It provides them with an opportunity to evaluate and improve their knowledge regarding inter-country adoption and a place to meet other applicants who are at a similar stage in the process where mutual support and learning can take place.
I understand courses normally comprise between six and eight, three hour sessions, giving 18 to 24 hours of preparation and are generally held over a four month period. Alternatively, some health boards run the course over three days. I understand the Department of Health and Children is currently encouraging health boards to explore the possibility of introducing more efficiencies in the education and preparation stage of the inter-country adoption process which may result in classes being held outside of working hours and a reduction in the time between the completion of classes and actual placement.
All prospective adopters, whether they are involved in domestic or inter-country adoptions, are required to attend an average of five to seven pre-adoption interviews, each of about one and a half hours to two hours duration, with social workers with respect to their adoption application. I understand that these interviews generally take place during regular office hours at the health board or adoption agency offices. However, this part of the assessment process also includes at least one home visit by a social worker.
Some employers allow their employees paid time off from work to attend pre-adoption meetings and classes. However, many employers do not allow paid time off for this purpose which places a further financial cost on adopting parents. To alleviate this, the Bill provides for a new entitlement for adopting parents to time off from work, without loss of pay, to attend pre-adoption classes and interviews, which they are obliged by the State to attend as part of the adoption process. This new provision parallels the provisions in the maternity protection legislation for paid time off work before the birth for pregnant women to attend antenatal care appointments. However, it also recognises that the adoption process differs from maternity in that it requires the full participation of both parents at each stage of preparation. This new entitlement will better facilitate prospective adopting parents in meeting their work commitments while also attending the required elements of the application and assessment process for adoption.
I have set out the detailed provisions of the Bill in the copy of my speech which has been circulated to Members. If Members wish I will go through each section, but if they want to take it as read I am equally happy with that. I am in the hands of the Leas-Chathaoirleach.