I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.
This is a Bill to amend the Adoption Act, 1952. The amendments that it proposes are not radical, and indeed are entirely in the nature of modifications to a statute which has worked remarkably well and which has already, in the ten years of its existence, brought its benefits to nearly seven thousand adopted children.
That the Adoption Act should have proved so successful is of course a tribute not only to the sound principles on which it was based but to the Board which administers the Act. From the outset, the Chairman of the Board has been a District Justice: first of all Mr. Ó Donnchadha and, since April, 1962, Mr. Rochford. The Chairman receives no remuneration for this work, and I am glad to acknowledge, publicly, the dedication that each in his turn has brought to this task.
As for the other members of the Board, I find it difficult to express adequately the gratitude we as a community owe to them. That membership of the Board is unpaid is well known. What may not be so well known is the amount of time that members have to give to the work: it works out, on the average, as something of the order of a whole day per week, every week of the year. Moreover, some of the meetings are held in various provincial centres and this, of course, means added inconvenience for the members. This country is well served by people who sacrifice their time and leisure to voluntary work in various Boards of this kind but there can be few Boards, if any, which make such demands on the time of its members as An Bord Uchtála.
Another most important factor in the successful operation of a system of legal adoption has been the great work that has been done in the past, and that is still being done, by those charitable organisations that actually find adoptive homes for unwanted children, and that are formally registered with the Board as adoption societies. The majority of adoptions in this country are arranged by these societies and the proportion is increasing: they now deal with nearly 80 per cent of all placements. They have the responsibility of caring for and maintaining unwanted children, including children who can never be legally adopted, and, where children are eligible and suitable for adoption, the society concerned has the task of seeking and finding families willing and able to adopt them. It is these societies, therefore, that do all the basic work and the Board's role, vitally important though it be, is supervisory only. Without the societies, legal adoption in this country would be but a pale shadow of what it is.
Although the 1952 Act, as it stands, has been a remarkably successful piece of social legislation, I believe that the amendments proposed in the Bill will bring some further definite advantages, and that these advantages can be secured without any attendant risks. It is, of course, the easiest thing in the world to open wide the gates to more and more legal adoptions but this is a field in which pitfalls are numerous and the greater good of the greater number demands that avoidable risks should not be taken even if this means that adoption is not permitted in some individual cases where it might seem, on the merits, that there was every reason why it should be permitted. To say that hard cases make bad law may sound like a cliché but it is not the less true for that. I am, of course, speaking exclusively of legal adoption. The fact that legal adoption, which involves the permanent and irrevocable vesting of parental rights in the adopters, is not permitted in a particular case does not mean that the child cannot be adopted informally and given all the ordinary benefits of family life.
Most of the amendments proposed in the Bill are based, directly or indirectly, on recommendations made by the Board and, although in some respects the Bill does not go as far as the Board recommended, I think that it goes most of the way and in some respects it goes even a little farther.
Deputies will, no doubt, have seen the explanatory memorandum that has been circulated with the Bill and I do not think it necessary to repeat here what is already set out in the memorandum.I would like, however, to offer a few additional words of explanation in regard to some of the provisions.
Section 2 proposes to allow the adoption of legitimated children in certain circumstances—but not where the birth has been formally re-registered under the Legitimacy Act, 1931. The main object of the section is, as the explanatory memorandum indicates, a practical one. As long as the law absolutely prohibits the adoption of legitimated children the Board has to have regard to the possibility, in individual cases, that the natural parents may have married in the interval between the giving by the mother of her consent to the adoption and the date the case comes before the Board for decision. Consequently the Board has, frequently, to make last-minute inquiries, as a safeguard, even though the inquiries are often very troublesome for adoption societies and awkward and embarrassing for the mother concerned.
Apart from that practical problem, there have been some cases where a child who was eligible for adoption when it was placed with the prospective adopters became ineligible because the natural parents married before the adoption order was made. In some such cases, the natural parents find themselves unable to acknowledge the child and the barrier to legal adoption has no other result than that the child is kept by the prospective adopters without the benefit of legal adoption or is even sent back to spend its childhood in an institution.
The proposed amendment will meet these problems. As I have said, it does not propose to allow adoption where the birth has been formally reregistered, and there are two reasons for this. The first is that it is unnecessary, since the parents who take the step of re-registering the birth are thereby taking a formal decision to acknowledge the child as theirs, and they are not then going to surrender it to a third party. The second reason is that, since it is unnecessary, it should not be provided for, because to provide for it would be to make an arbitrary legal distinction between legitimated children, as a class, and legitimate children, and the policy of the law has been to avoid such a distinction.
Section 3 of the Bill proposes to allow the Board, at its discretion, to extend by up to two years the time for making an application for an adoption order. Under existing law, the application must be made before the child has reached the age of seven: the amendment will permit that limit to be raised to nine, but only where the child has been in the family since before its seventh birthday. The object of the amendment is to cater for the occasional case where, perhaps through an oversight, an application for an adoption order is deferred too long or in which an adoption society have not quite satisfied themselves as to the suitability of a prospective adopter.
The Board recommended that, provided the child was with the family before its seventh birthday, the law should allow its legal adoption at any time up to the age of 21. Having considered the matter carefully, however, and having had the benefit of advice from persons with long practical experience of adoption work, I came to the conclusion that an extension of two years would meet practically all, if not all, cases of the kind the Board had in mind, and that, on the other hand, it would avoid the difficulties that arise where prospective adopters delay indefinitely a decision whether or not to apply for an adoption order, with the result that the sense of security, which is one of the main benefits which legal adoption can bring with it, is lost.
I should like to stress that the Board do not recommend any change in the law in so far as it requires that the child be placed with the family before it reaches the age of seven. I am aware that there have been suggestions from time to time that this is too rigid, and that adoption of older children should be allowed even though—as is acknowledged by all who have any experience in this field—the prospects that an older child would ever be completely integrated in an adoptive family are so remote as to be negligible.
Those who advocate provision for legal adoption of older children say that it would be advantageous even if it did not lead to complete integration. No doubt it would be, in some cases, though the advantages, when one gets down to analyse them, can easily be exaggerated. The possible advantages, however, are only one side of the story. The other side is the acknowledged fact that, when it comes to adopting the older child, the risk that adoption will turn out to be a failure increases sharply with the age of the child, and it would need but a few failures of that kind to cast a shadow over the whole system.
The Government's attitude—and I believe that the Board agrees with this —is that we should not risk jeopardising the whole structure because of possible benefits in isolated cases, and I may say, at this point, that the same principle applies as regards other suggestions that have been brought to my notice from time to time, such as that we should permit adoption by spinsters or widowers.
The next point of any significance is in Section 5. The present minimum age limit for adopters, apart from relatives, is 30 years. The Bill proposes to reduce the limit to 25 years where a couple have been married for at least three years. This was recommended by the Board. I should, perhaps, make clear that there is no implication here that a couple who have not a child of their own after three years of marriage are regarded as permanently childless. In many cases, such a period would be too short to enable such a conclusion to be drawn while, in others, it might be known from the outset that there could be no children of the marriage. The period of three years has nothing to do with the question of childlessness and is chosen as one sufficient to enable the couple to have adjusted themselves to married life, and to have had practical experience of the economics of running a house and so on, so that they will be able to form a considered judgment as to whether they wish to take on the responsibility of adopting a child.
Section 5 also proposes to drop the present requirement that an applicant for an adoption order must— unless he has resided here for five years—be an Irish citizen. As a safeguard against unsuitable adoption, this serves no purpose nowadays, especially since the scope of our citizenship laws was widened considerably by the passing of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. On the other hand, it operates as an arbitrary barrier to some quite suitable adoptions.
Section 6 of the Bill relates to religion. Under existing law—Section 12 of the 1952 Act—the general rule is that an adoption order may not be made unless the applicant, or applicants, the child and the child's mother are all of the same religion. The Board may, however, having regard to the special circumstances of a particular case, make an adoption order although all these persons are not of the same religion, provided each of them belongs to one of the following religions: the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, the Baptist Union of Ireland and the Brethren, commonly known as the Plymouth Brethren.
This special provision relating to members of specified religious was inserted in the 1952 Act at the joint request of the authorised representatives of those religions. These representatives and the representatives of the Salvation Army have now jointly requested that the Salvation Army be added to the list. I think the House will agree that such a request should be met, and Section 6 proposes accordingly.
Section 7 and 8 are really only drafting amendments and call for no comment.
Section 9 is explained in detail in paragraphs 14 to 18 of the explanatory memorandum and I need not repeat the explanation here. I should like to say, however, that it is an important section in that it proposes to remove an obstacle to legal adoption that was imposed, quite unwittingly I am certain, by the Oireachtas when passing the Children (Amendment) Act, 1957. The relevant provision of the 1957 Act was introduced by way of amendment in response to some suggestions that were made in the course of the debate, and it is quite clear that the House was not thinking at all in terms of the effects on children placed with a family with a view to legal adoption. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that, in its present form, Section 2 of the 1957 Act, if consistently enforced by local authorities, would have gone a long way towards bringing the work of legal adoption to a halt.
It would have meant, not only that prospective adopters would have been subjected to two quite distinct systems of inspection and supervision, one by the local authority and one by the Board, not to mention supervision by an adoption society as well, but that prospective adopters would have been obliged by law to ascertain and pass on to local authorities particulars which in several cases they did not know themselves, that they did not want to know, and that could, if known to them, be a source of constant anxiety. Of course, in any event, the mere fact of subjecting prospective adopters to two independent systems of official inspection is clearly indefensible and, as I have suggested, I am certain that the House would not have passed such a proposal in 1957 had its implications been realised.
I am not overlooking the fact that, in other countries, local child welfare authorities carry out inspection of placements that are made with a view to legal adoption but, in these cases, that is the system of inspection that is used, whereas we in this country have a Board—not a court—with its own staff and its own specialised inspection system.
The essence of the amendment in Section 9 is that if the placement of a child is subject to inspection by the Board, it will not at the same time be subject to inspection by the local authority.
I think I have covered most of the significant points in the Bill. As I said at the beginning, the amendments it proposes to make in the 1952 Act are not radical but they will bring some advantages and I think they are worthwhile.On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.