Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Ceisteanna (100, 102)

Shane Ross

Ceist:

100. Deputy Shane Ross asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the reason he has not yet addressed the anomaly with respect to adoption by step-parents, including the requirement, as part of step-parent adoption, for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. [21149/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Shane Ross

Ceist:

102. Deputy Shane Ross asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when he will take action with regard to addressing the issue of step-parent adoption (details supplied). [21150/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I wish to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs why he has not yet addressed the anomaly with respect to adoption by step-parents, including the requirement, as part of step-parent adoption, for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. I realise he has not really had time to do it yet-----

The Deputy could be surprised.

-----but I would like to tease out his intentions in this regard because of the commitment given by his predecessor.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 100 and 102 together.

I thank the Deputy for his questions and I know this is a matter upon which he has engaged on previous occasions with the previous Minister and in the course of other debates.

Under our adoption legislation, as the Deputy will be aware, when a child is registered on the register of adoption the child is deemed to be the legal child of the adoptive parent or couple, having exactly the same legal status as any biological child of the couple born to them within their marriage. In effect, once an adoption takes place, all previous links to the birth family are severed and the adopted person is considered part of the adopted family. In the case of step-parent adoptions, it is therefore necessary for the birth mother to adopt her child as part of the adoption process.

I am aware of the anomalies with respect to adoption by step-parents and I know the Deputy has made this point previously. These provisions first originated in the 1952 Adoption Act and were further consolidated in the Adoption Act 2010. My Department is undertaking a review of adoption policy and the operation of the Adoption Act 2010. As part of this review I will examine how to address the anomalies in relation to step-parent adoption, including the requirement for a natural parent to adopt their own child and the creation of a new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent. I accept that this is an issue that is causing anxiety, upset and trauma for many parents and people.

It is more than three years since the commencement of the Adoption Act 2010 and I am conscious that in this time several issues, including those in regard to step-parent adoptions, have arisen in relation to the operation of that Act. There are a number of general policy questions around the nature of our adoption regime and I consider it timely to undertake a review of adoption. Given the range and complexity of the many domestic and international legal aspects to adoption, the scoping of this review will involve prioritisation of the areas to be dealt with and the order within which they will be addressed. These anomalies, and in particular the anomaly referred to by the Deputy, are issues that will gain priority on my agenda. I give the Deputy an assurance that this specific issue will be prioritised. It is important that the issues are examined in the overall context of adoption law reform in order to identify potential knock-on implications or interactions with other aspects under contemplation.

When my predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, addressed this matter with the Deputy in October 2013, she referred to work under way in the Department of Justice and Equality in the area of guardianship, which is of potential relevance to some of the family situations where step-parent adoption is among the options being considered. This work led in January this year to the publication by the then Minister for Justice and Equality of the general scheme of the child and family relationship Bill. This scheme outlines the legal provisions by which a non-marital father will automatically be a guardian of his child where he has cohabited with the child's mother for at least a year before the birth of the child.

Other people will also be able to obtain guardianship by agreement and others by court order, such as step-parents. My Department is continuing to liaise with the Department of Justice and Equality on the work under way and to further develop the child and family relationship Bill, which is at draft stage.

While I understand that the Minister is reading himself into his brief, the response he has given me is lukewarm and less firm in its commitment than that of his predecessor, who said:

As the Deputy indicated, those anomalies include the requirement - as part of step-parent adoption - for a natural parent to adopt his or her own child, including compliance with the requirements associated with the adoption process. In other words and as the Deputy highlighted, such parents must undergo the adoption procedure as if the child were a stranger to them. It is almost like starting out afresh. A further anomaly relates to the creation of a wholly new birth certificate recognising the newly-adoptive parents and possibly removing the recognition of a birth parent, very often the father.

Nobody could have put it better. That is absolutely unacceptable, and I hope the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, will endorse her further comments:

I am of the view that the law must be changed in order that birth parents will no longer be obliged to adopt their own children in order to facilitate adoption by step-parents. It is not appropriate that we continue to subject birth parents to outdated legal conventions when it comes to step-parent adoption.

She went on to say that this would happen towards the end of 2013 or in the parentage Bill to be introduced early in 2014. It is not enough for those parents who are waiting in limbo to be told that this will happen at some stage under what the Minister calls a review. I ask him to give us some sort of guarantee that this will be done within a timeframe that will give relief to those parents - mothers in particular - who feel utterly humiliated at the procedure that requires them going through an absurdity of adopting their own children.

I assure the Deputy that there is no cooling off as far as I am concerned over how this issue is listed or prioritised. I am unable to give a definite timeframe, but I fully agree with the Deputy that this is an anomaly that must be addressed. I agree that it is a most sensitive and personal issue, visiting trauma and upset on all those involved. However, it would not be appropriate to deal with the issue in isolation.

Since the issue was first raised by the Deputy, some other anomalies and apparent injustices have arisen. These are issues that should and will be addressed in the context of a review that will give rise to new legislation. I am including the issue of step-parent adoption, the rights of birth mothers and also birth fathers. There are issues relating to the rights to an assessment; the age limit of prospective adoptive parents; the tenure of declarations of eligibility and suitability; the habitual residence of applicants; the possibility of introducing open adoption; and various operational matters, including the composition of the adoption authority.

I would not like the Deputy to take the view that there has been some change or what he describes as a "lukewarm response". I agree with his assertion that this is unjust.

When we hear the word "review", it makes my hair and the Minister's, or whatever we have left between us, stand on end because it means delay. I accept the Minister's statement that new issues have arisen around the age of the adoptive parents and issues like that, but this one is wrong. I was delighted to hear the Minister say it is unjust. There is an injustice here. If there is an injustice here, as acknowledged by the Minister and his predecessor, it is no good to those parents suffering under this injustice to say there are other issues which we will have to include in a Bill, that they will have to wait and that the intrusion on their private lives and on their relationship with their children will continue until we sort out these other problems. This problem is solvable today and it would take the deletion of approximately two lines from legislation to sort it out. Why does the Minister not sort this out and not produce some sort of red herrings, which give him a reason to delay this. I am not saying he is using it as an excuse. It is an injustice and the Minister should put it right now.

I do not accept what the Deputy said that this is a recipe for delay. I am committed to having this review at the earliest opportunity. The chair of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, has been asked by my Department to carry out a review of the Act. There is a number of issues which he quite rightly referred to as being important in the context of change.

As the Deputy well knows, this is not something that can be changed at the stroke of a pen. Legislation does not work like that. The Deputy has been in this House and has served in the Seanad for a long time and he know right well that this is not something that can be done immediately.

Of course, it can.

There are issues which have raised significant legal and policy questions that need to be resolved. I accept they need to be resolved but they need to be resolved in the broader framework of family law relating to parentage and guardianship. It is a complex and technical issue and it will be done.