I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, for which we have waited for a long time. From listening to those who have spoken on this debate, it is clear we all agree that the rights of the child must be protected above all else. The best interests of the child must be at the centre of the debate. I know this is the primary concern of everybody in the House, no matter what party they represent. However, where we disagree is on the process and the time taken to bring forward this Bill.
The purpose of the Adoption Bill 2009 is belatedly to give effect to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. The objectives of the convention are to establish safeguards to ensure that inter-country adoptions take place in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights as recognised in international law; to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, sale, or traffic in children; and to secure the recognition in contracting states of adoptions made in accordance with the convention. This convention was concluded in 1993. The Labour Party in government ratified the convention in 1996. It is 13 years since this happened and it is only now this Fianna Fáil Government has begun the process of giving legal status to this convention.
Every one of us in this House has received passionate e-mails and letters from the parents involved. While we must do it carefully and thoroughly, this process must be moved forward quickly. The major issue for many couples who have been in contact with us is the time spent waiting in limbo, not knowing how long the process will take or if they will ever get recognition.
Any legislation that strengthens the rights of children and eliminates any risks to the children within the adoption process is welcome. We have been waiting more than 20 years for significant reform of the adoption laws in this country. It behoves this House to ensure the Bill is the best possible legislation for children, prospective adoptive parents and for the State. It is also critically important that the rights of the biological parent or parents are protected. Unfortunately, the Adoption Bill 2009 as it stands is not as good as it could be. I hope the amendments put forward by the Labour Party will be accepted on Committee Stage. There should be a detailed discussion on the merits of these amendments, because it is important that we get this Bill right.
The first issue I want to address is inter-country adoption with countries that have not ratified the Hague Convention. Like everyone else in this House, I have been contacted by dozens of worried prospective parents who are concerned that the process through which some of them have been proceeding for five or more years will be cancelled. They will be back to square one, except that there will be another gap before that process can begin again. Their hopes of adopting children will be shattered. Due to age limitations and other such factors such, it imperative that this Bill moves forward quickly.
The majority of domestic adoptions are familial adoptions. Therefore, there are several hundred prospective adoptive parents who cannot adopt children here and who are obliged to look beyond the boundaries of the State. A constituent who is also an adoptive parent summed it up best when he wrote to me stating, "Intercountry adoption is not a first or even a second preference for anyone involved. Children should be raised by their birth parents or another suitable individual or couple within their own culture. However, it is far preferable for the children than life in an institution." I am sure we would all agree with that.
Deputy Noel Ahern's contribution highlighted domestic adoption procedures. He made some interesting points about our need to examine the process for domestic adoptions, and I concur with him on that point. It is a very delicate debate, but we should at least give it an airing and listen to what people have to say. It is not part of this Bill, but we should reconsider it.
Together with Russia and Ethiopia, the Republic of Vietnam has become the country from which most Irish adoptive parents try to secure an adoption. Ireland had an adoption agreement with Vietnam, but this was allowed to lapse by the Minister of State on 1 May. l acknowledge that the process was being delayed before the current Minister of State took over responsibility for it, but this protracted delay is now unacceptable and the issue must be progressed with all speed, while in no way compromising the safety, security or rights of the child, of his or her biological parents, or those of the adoptive parents. The arrangements in place with Vietnam and the lapsing of the bilateral agreement are generating huge concerns. The Minister of State now informs us that he needs to consider the MoLISA and ISS reports on adoption in Vietnam, but this was not the case at the beginning of the year.
In response to a series of parliamentary questions on 27 January, the Minster for State finished his reply by stating, "The work to prepare for and advise the Government on this issue and the implementation of the Government's decisions is being given the highest priority." We are ten months down the road and I would not like to think this delay implies the highest priority. I appreciate that it will not happen within a day or a week, but we have waited a long time and there are so many frustrated prospective parents out there that we need to move things forward quickly. It is clear that ten months later, we are no nearer to securing a new agreement with Vietnam, Russia, Ethiopia or with any other country that has not ratified the Hague Convention and on which the Minister of State now gives no commitment.
The Minister of State offered the opinion in January that the adoption agreement could not be allowed to "roll over" for an additional five years due to the changes in the Irish adoption system. It was therefore incumbent on him to secure a new inter-country adoption agreement. He would have received the same entreaties as I did from prospective parents at their wits' end. Despite this, securing a new agreement was not achieved and many prospective parents have questioned the actions of the Minister of State. I have had some angry e-mails and letters from prospective parents wondering why he has not moved this forward.
The plight of some of these people is all too real and heartbreaking in many cases. I have received dozens of e-mails, a sample of which goes as follows:
We are asking for you to help us with a situation that is breaking our hearts, and those of hundreds of other prospective adoptive parents from around the country...our hearts are broken thinking of our baby in an orphanage every minute of the day. We are pleading with you all to help us and the 250 plus couples that have been approved for adoption...unless people are personally affected by Vietnam then they have no idea of the heartache of the not knowing what is going on. Over the last seven years, we have had two failed IVFs and countless surgical procedures and were told that it would not be possible to conceive a child naturally... adoption is our very last chance of becoming parents.
The pain these families are going through is real. All of them want a chance to bring a child up in a loving situation. In the case of inter-country adoption, they are able to offer the child opportunities that children in Ireland take for granted and which they would be unlikely to have in their own country, particularly as it is likely they would end up in orphanages.
I want to quote another prospective adoptive parent who wrote to me. She stated:
We obviously fully support Ireland ratifying the Hague convention and strongly believe that strict controls need to be in place regarding inter-country adoptions. However, we believe that the Minister's approach to the introduction of this Bill will lead to havoc in inter-country adoption over the next few years.
These are strong and passionate statements coming from those who are truly concerned about the impact this delay is having on their opportunities and prospects for adoption.
At the recent inter-country adoption conference, an expert speaker stated that most countries which passed the legislation did not automatically stop working with non-Hague countries, as the Minister of State is intent on doing, it would appear. There is no argument about the need for the highest, most rigorous standards in the adoption process. However, from the very many parents who have been in touch with me in recent months, it is clear that they have been put through the most demanding and challenging process. Not one of them is questioning the need for a rigorous process and they are all happy to engage in it. Nonetheless, they are irritated by the fact that it takes so long and because they must jump through so many hoops in order to get to the other end of the process. Having been through the gruelling process and having waited in hope for a child that they truly want to cherish and provide a good home for, their disappointment defies description.
It is right that Ireland must protect the rights of a child and ensure that inter-country adoption is of the highest standards. Where we have an issue with the Government is that there are so many families in the inter-country adoption process for whom the opportunity has been closed off. They have gone through so much, they have responded to the intense investigations and consultations with social workers, they have gone before the Adoption Board and many have travelled to countries in other continents — I am thinking particularly of Vietnam — only to be told now, years into the process, that the Government can no longer sanction such inter-country adoptions.
I want to quote from another parent, because parents are at the cutting edge of this debate:
Our primary concern is the proposal not to introduce a transitional arrangement for this Bill. Adoptive parents are at various stages in the adoption process. It is just not practical or humane to suggest that as soon as the Adoption Bill comes into law that no further adoptions can take place from non-Hague countries. Some parents are on waiting lists, may have received referrals for children from non-Hague countries or may have met and bonded with these children. They cannot be told just to relinquish these children. Those parents will probably return to Ireland with their children and will rely on the High Court to sort out the situation.
That is another angle from a parent with a slightly different concern.
Three main areas that have been outlined by my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, where amendments are proposed. I urge the Minister to accept these amendments on Committee Stage. First, there is the need to put transitional arrangements in place for families that are in the process of adopting a child from a country that has not yet ratified the convention. This has been debated and referred to by all speakers. Those transitional arrangements are extremely important, I would suggest, for the sanity of parents who are waiting and wondering what will happen in the intervening period. Second, there is a need to provide for a bilateral arrangements to be put in place, in certain circumstances, with specific countries that are not in a position to ratify the convention, for example, Ethiopia. Third, there is a need to introduce a "grandfather clause" which would facilitate families who have already adopted a child from a particular country and who wish to adopt another child with a similar cultural background. This issue should be looked on sensitively. If such adoptive parents have already been through a process and gone through all the interviews with the social workers and the Adoption Board, and they are aware of a child from the same country from which they have already adopted a child, surely it makes sense that they would be already accredited as being suitable, that the process would move forward quickly and efficiently, and that a facility would be allowed for this grandfather clause. These are three key issues that must be addressed to restore confidence to prospective adoptive parents.
Just as important is the need to move this legislation quickly, albeit thoroughly, so that prospective parents are not left in limbo any longer. It is unfair to the prospective parents as well as to the child who might be benefiting from the security of a caring home and family, and who might otherwise be in an orphanage with little of the comforts of a family environment and little hope for the future. We know the process here can take anything up to four or five years. However, depending on where one lives in the country, the process can be very quick or much slower. This situation needs to be addressed. We must examine the question of the resources that are needed and available, and how they are put in place and distributed in an even fashion throughout the country. Just because one happens to live in area A, one becomes victimised in terms of the length of time it takes to get through the process. We must consider this and find how it can be co-ordinated and moved forward so there is not this differentiation just because one is, let us say, geographically compromised.
In summary, the three key points we would like to see are the transitional arrangements, the bilateral arrangements and the grandfather clause. I urge that the legislation be taken quickly. I am certain we will have a number of additional amendments on Committee Stage, where there will be an opportunity to look in much greater detail at the specific implications of this legislation.