I thank the Chairman and committee members for the invitation to attend today's meeting.
Since 1977 Barnardos has been a service provider in the area of adoption. In addition, it has advocated over many years for some of the important changes in this Bill. However, we think there are some further changes that would be helpful. Since 1997 we have offered a service to adopted people, adoptive parents and birth families with regard to information and tracing, and since 2007 we have worked in partnership with the HSE in the Dublin-Wicklow-Kildare area offering a post-adoption service for people who have adopted from overseas. We are the only agency offering such a service and the only post-adoption service for those involved in inter-country adoption. We are only available, sadly, in the Dublin-Wicklow-Kildare area, although our helpline and e-mail service is of course available nationwide. There is a need for our service. A total of 164 new adoptive parents have contacted us in 2009 alone.
In general, we welcome this Bill, but urge that it be finalised as soon as possible because, as Deputy Shatter said a moment ago, the clock is ticking and problems are building up, particularly with regard to the number of people that will need to be considered in terms of transitional arrangements. It is important to promote the rights, welfare and protection of children in the adoption process and to finally ratify the Hague convention, which Ireland so readily signed up to in 1992. We think it important that the Bill gives the proposed adoption authority the regulatory function necessary under the convention and we urge that the 1993 publication, The Implementation and Operation of the 1993 Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention: Guide to Good Practice, be adopted as a useful best-practice tool in considering the many issues that arise.
I will deal briefly with some changes we think would strengthen the current Bill. To echo previous speakers, the adoption process is a challenging and complicated one. It needs to be very rigorous because, by its nature, it takes major and final decisions for children and has a permanent effect on birth and adopted families and, in inter-country adoptions, the communities involved. We must remind ourselves that Ireland was a placing country in inter-country adoption in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those children came back to find out who they were and ask why their families and their country placed them for adoption. Our process, in terms of information and reasons provided, was found wanting. This was one of the things that attracted much attention, both nationally and internationally, in the mid-1990s.
We believe the best interest of the child must form the basic, underlying principle of the Bill. We ask the committee to consider section 19, which refers to the welfare of the child as the first and paramount consideration, and strengthen it by using the international principle of the best interest of the child. It is a stronger statement. We are passing an Adoption Bill to carry us through to 2010 and beyond and we should use that instrument.
We also ask that the voice of the child be represented independently in adoption, particularly in contested cases. This needs to be provided for on a statutory basis. We remind members of the Baby Ann case in 2006 in which the child was not represented independently. I do not make any comment on the outcome of the case, which may have occurred anyway. It probably would have occurred because of the constitutional rights of the married family. One aspect of the case that was distressing, however, is that there was nobody there to speak for the child. We would like to see this dealt with in the Bill. We are considering a constitutional amendment, with which Deputy Shatter and others here are closely involved, and this is another place in which this issue can be dealt with by making sure the voice of the child is represented.
Let us consider the wider issue of adoption in our own country. Who can be adopted? It is always of concern that the children of married parents can only be adopted in limited circumstances. In particular, we must consider the needs of children in long-term foster care, where there is no prospect of rehabilitation. These children should be freed for adoption when it is clearly in their best interests, because we absolutely agree that a permanent solution is the best thing for children, especially if it gives them the strength of a family around them. We are aware that the Joint Committee on the Constitution is considering this issue and we wonder about the wisdom of passing an Adoption Bill without waiting for the deliberations of that committee to be included. Clearly, if the Bill goes through before the committee's deliberations have been completed and we then have a constitutional amendment, the Act will need to be amended to recognise this, which can be done in subsequent legislation.
We welcome section 18 which deals with the need to consult the father. We have learned much from our experience in the area of adoption. In the past, children were placed for adoption whose fathers may have wanted to be involved in their child's life or may even have offered an alternative by allowing the child to live with them, but they were not even consulted. Thus, we welcome that section of the Bill. I reiterate that in the interests of children, we need to be clear in our application of both best practice and best law.
The area of consent and how it is obtained, and the need for a full understanding of both the short-term and long-term consequences, is controversial but very important. Practice has sometimes been tardy in this country. The birth mother in the Baby Ann case asked for her child back when the child was nine months old. The child was two by the time the case finally came before the Supreme Court. Time delays are not in anyone's best interest, but this is especially the case for children. We would like to see the HSE being in a position to make an application to dispense with consent. It is not good that it is always up to adoptive parents to go to court and fight for the consent of a birth parent to be dispensed with. We need to remember that children grow up. They need full explanations of everything that happened with regard to their adoption. It is not good practice to set two sets of parents in opposition in this way when we can avoid it.
We would welcome some restriction on the time limits for withdrawing consent, but insist that if this is provided for, independent counselling must be available for birth parents. With all due respect to my colleagues in the statutory agencies and adoption agencies — I am not casting aspersions on their practice — it is difficult to straddle two sides of the same fence. To be the person who has placed the child with adoptive parents and also the person who is trying to listen to what the birth family are saying and take their consent in a meaningful way is a difficult position to be in.
We would also like to see statutory provision for open or semi-open adoption placements. I was surprised not to see such a provision in the Bill. We now have a small number of stranger adoptions in Ireland. The practice is that many adoptive families organise contact with the birth families. We do not understand why an attempt has not been made to provide for that good practice in our law. In a step-parent adoption, a birth parent — father or mother — must give up his or her own constitutional rights to the child. We wonder why the idea of special guardianship has not been considered in such cases.
On the issue of inter-country adoption, when the Bill is passed, the Hague Convention will become our standard. I do not say our gold standard because standards must be agreed with many countries and often what is reached is not a gold standard but a standard acceptable to most. No new bilateral arrangements should be entered into and those in place should afford children the same protection as the convention. We do not say other states cannot do this, but it is up to Ireland — the country receiving the children — to be absolutely sure that is the case. Where states do not comply with international standards, the integrity of inter-country adoption is threatened and it causes everyone, including adoptive parents, to wonder whether the best interests of their children are being considered. It behoves us to make sure the arrangements we enter into are of the highest standard.
There is a need for ministerial regulations arising from the Bill and they need to cover everything. I refer to measures to promote transparency in placement, itemised and limited fee structures, and accountability in all matters. These are serious issues and Barnardos argues that we need monitoring and inspection of assessment, placing decisions and intermediary and post-placement work. We are not part of the adoption system, except on a non-statutory basis. We have no objection to becoming part of it on a statutory basis in respect of our post-placement work and would welcome this.
With regard to post-adoption services, in our work since 1977 we have seen first hand the challenges faced by families. However, the fact that we are saying adoption brings challenges does not mean we think adoption is bad or that families looking for support are not doing the very best for their children. In fact, they are making positive parenting decisions. There is nothing in the Bill which would provide an absolute statutory right to tracing and information for adopted persons. I had the honour of being appointed by the Government to sit on the Ryan commission and in that forum I listened to many people who had lost contact with their families. They spoke about the damage and hurt caused when records were not available. I concur. We acknowledge the work of the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, but it has no statutory basis. We ask that birth certificate and relevant documentation be available to adopted persons. Such a system has worked satisfactorily in the United Kingdom since the 1970s. No earthquakes have been caused by it, as has often been said to me when I have advocated such a system which is long overdue in Ireland.
The Hague Convention must now be the standard. There is a need for transitional arrangements. We are faced by a problem of our own making because this is the last country to ratify the convention. Time is ticking and we are building up the problem. My preference and that of Barnardos would be for the Hague convention and any bilateral agreements we have; however, we recognise that potential adoptive parents who are at the declaration stage have a difficulty, as does Ireland. We considered chapter 8 of the good practice guide, the consultation paper of the Law Reform Commission and the actions taken by other countries and think the declaration stage is the best cut-off point. We would not agree that the process should return to the start and include everyone who has ever put his or her name on an application. We understand there are some 450 or 500 couples at this stage. The principle on which we base that decision is that of safeguarding the status of the child and making sure we do not leave children without status. The Adoption Authority of Ireland must issue guidance notes to all such families. It must vet the documentation from placing countries to ensure any child placed for adoption is properly available for adoption.
I would welcome questions from members.