Speech by John Browne TD, Fianna Fáil Adoption Bill, Dáil Éireann:
I commend my party colleague Deputy McConalogue on presenting this Bill to the House, as it affords us the opportunity to highlight the importance of adoption and the continuing need to make progress on the wider issue of children’s rights.
Last year, adoption was very much to the forefront in respect of the concerns of prospective parents wishing to adopt from Vietnam. I had many discussions with the then Minister responsible, Barry Andrews, because a significant number of families in Wexford were affected by the suspension of inter-country adoptions from Vietnam. This Bill focuses primarily on Irish children, many of whom are in long-term foster care. While the two avenues of adoption are distinct, there are inherent linkages.
Ireland has one of the highest rates of inter-country adoption in Europe. With our troubled history of sending children abroad for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s, it seems odd that prospective Irish adoptive parents now look to abroad to adopt. In many cases, they do so because there are so few Irish children available for domestic adoption. This in itself is a good development because Irish parents are now caring for their children rather than placing them for adoption. In the past, the stigma attached to unwanted pregnancies meant that children were born in secret and placed for adoption in very distressing circumstances. Only this week, the HSE crisis pregnancy programme, formerly the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, claimed one third of pregnancies were crisis pregnancies. Thankfully, few of these babies will end up being placed for adoption.
There is a cohort of Irish children, however, who would be eligible for adoption in other jurisdictions. Those are children in long-term foster care who, because of the legislative and constitutional threshold, cannot enjoy the security of a second family. Due to the constitutional position of the family, it is nigh impossible for children of married parents to be placed for adoption, regardless of obvious failings in their duty of care for the child. At a Legal Aid Board conference in Dublin last week, a leading expert in infant mental health, Mr. Robin Balbernie, clinical head of infant mental health services in Britain, stated vulnerable children should be taken into care in the first six months of life if the best outcome is to be achieved. Neglect of infants rather than physical abuse, he claimed, was more likely to lead them to be dysfunctional and violent adults. In Ireland, however, when these children are taken into care, they are often denied the opportunity to be adopted. Instead, they may face a childhood of long-term foster care.
Ireland is unique in this regard. In other jurisdictions, children do not spend years in long-term foster care. In the UK, for example, children are eligible for adoption after they have spent 12 months in care. Many believe this is too short a time. We suggest children should be placed with a foster family for five years before they could be considered eligible for adoption. A bizarre situation currently exists in which some children are only being placed for adoption at the age of 17 or 17 and a half years. Children should not have to spend 17 years in care or wait until six months before they reach 18 before an application for adoption is made. The reason behind this is that both birth parents must fail in their duty to the child until the child reaches the age of 18. For some, the only way this test can be passed is to make the application on the verge of the 18th birthday. Some foster parents will adopt the child, even at this late stage, to confer inheritance and other rights on the child. In some cases, it is so the child can use the foster parents’ surname for the rest of their lives. This Bill provides that these children can be adopted as children, not as young people on the verge of adulthood.
Fianna Fáil has brought forward this Private Members’ Bill to run a constitutional referendum on adoption alongside the forthcoming presidential election. The Bill will allow for the adoption of hundreds of children currently in long-term care and who cannot be adopted because of rules arising from the current position of the family in the Constitution. Fianna Fáil has taken the step of introducing this referendum Bill in response to the U-turn by the new Government on its commitment to run the proposed children’s rights referendum alongside the presidential election. Will the Minister indicate when the Government intends to have this referendum? This Fianna Fáil Bill could be accepted by the Government without any compromise of any party’s principles.
The Twenty-Ninth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill 2011 deals with the adoption of children in cases of parental failure and adoption of children of marriage. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure the best interests of a child should be the primary consideration to be weighed against the rights of marital parents and the provisions of Article 42.5, thus allowing some children the opportunity of a stable and secure family life, currently not available to them. It states:
Provision may be made by law for the adoption of a child where the parents have failed for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law in their responsibility towards the child, and where the best interests of the child so require. Provision may also be made by law for the voluntary placement for adoption, and the adoption, of any child.
Adoption is dealt with by law and not referred to in the Constitution. The 1952 Adoption Act was intended to deal with adoption of children born outside marriage. Several situations have emerged over the years where it could be in the best interests of children of marriage to be adopted. This amendment to the Constitution will empower the Oireachtas to bring in legislation to allow for the adoption of children in long-term care if it is in the child’s best interests. It affirms the right of all children to be adopted regardless of the marital status of their parents. Most importantly, it does so without interfering with the primacy of the family under the Constitution.
As Deputy Charlie McConalogue pointed out earlier, more than 6,000 children are in care, 5,500 of whom are in foster care and one third in long-term foster care. In some cases, children are taken into care at birth, raised by foster parents and may only have sporadic contact from their parents. The possibility of adoption would represent a chance for a stable and secure family life, something that every child deserves. The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice John Murray, has stated, “Adoption into a family, where circumstances so warrant, has always been considered superior to other options such as care in State institutions.” This Bill has been brought forward because the Government parties have reneged on the commitments made in Opposition to proceed immediately with a referendum on children’s rights if elected to office.
In January 2010 when negotiations with Vietnam on a new bilateral agreement were suspended in light of various concerns raised by international reports, the then Opposition parties called for a resumption of adoptions with Vietnam. It was always intended that adoptions would resume with Vietnam once both countries had ratified the Hague Convention. Ireland has done so by way of the Adoption Act 2010. Vietnam is expected to do so later this year.
A delegation from the Adoption Authority recently visited Vietnam and submitted a report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on progress being made there. She, however, still has not briefed the House on the contents of that report, although she outlined some of its facts on “Today with Pat Kenny” recently. Will she give a more up-to-date outline of the report to the House?
I know several families in County Wexford who were hoping to adopt Vietnamese children because they saw how successful other Vietnamese adoptions were. Many of these adopted Vietnamese children have adapted well to their new homes in Wexford, even playing football and hurling locally. They may even improve the quality of Wexford hurling in the future. We must encourage the Vietnamese authorities to sign up to the Hague Convention as soon as possible.