Hanafin announces new draft legislation on adoption information
The Government this week approved a draft scheme of a bill on adoption information and post adoption contact. “This is a major piece of social legislation. I am conscious of the sensitivities of a number of people involved, and anxious that the drafting process will respect the rights of all parties” said Ms. Mary Hanafin, TD, Minister for Children, who brought the proposals to Government.
Traditionally, adoption was surrounded by secrecy. Adopted persons have only limited access to information about themselves, and no information about their birth family. In recent years, there has been considerable pressure from adopted people to have access to such information, which they see as a basic human right. There is also a group of birth mothers who gave up children for adoption, but would like to have access to information about how those children and about their health and well-being.
“Because of pressures from society, many mothers gave up babies for adoption without having an opportunity to consider other alternatives and these mothers wish to find out about their children. However, there are also birth mothers who gave up children for adoption, who have carried this secret for many years and would not wish to divulge it. Some adult adopted people do not wish to be traced, and tracing birth parents can also be a sensitive issue for adoptive parents. This is an extremely complex area of human relationships, and it is essential to strike the right balance between the wishes and expectations of adopted people who wish to have access to their birth records and perhaps trace their birth parents, and the wishes of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption in strict secrecy.”
The present situation is that access to information and any attempts at tracing and reunion take place in an unstructured and unregulated way. The proposed legislation provides for a structured system, with the Adoption board having a major role in regulating and monitoring services provided in this extremely sensitive area.
During 1999, there was an extensive consultation process including all parties involved in adoption and also those working in the area of adoption, particularly in tracing and reunion. The consultation showed that while there is general agreement that the present situation is unsatisfactory, there are different and sometimes conflicting views on how the issues should be addressed. The proposals aim to address the concerns of all parties insofar as possible.
Situation in other countries
In the UK, adopted people have information rights from the age of 18. However, birth parents´ rights are not addressed. Birth parents cannot get access to adoption certificates, despite strenuous lobbying of successive Governments to have their rights recognised. While there are a large number of voluntary organisations providing tracing services, it is on a fee-paying basis only, and there is no state provision of tracing and reunion services. Tracing can only be initiated by the adopted person who must be at least 25 years of age.
Across Europe information is generally available to adopted persons when they reach the age of majority – 16 or 18 depending on the country. In most cases this has been the case for some years, so access to information is not as issue. However, in many countries, birth parents have no rights.
New South Wales, Australia
In New South Wales, both the adopted person and the birth parent have a right to certificates and to prescribed information from files. There is a Contact Veto Register and a Voluntary Contact Register. Research indicates that this system, which is the most progressive currently available, is very successful and that the Contact Veto Register operates successfully in that contact is not made with those who have placed a Veto. There is State provision of assistance with tracing and reunion.
The right of an adopted person to his/her birth certificate is subject to the agreement of the birth mother and the birth certificate is issued to a counsellor, who mediates with the adopted person. A birth mother can get the adopted name of the adopted person, but not the adoption certificate. Again this right is subject to a veto by the adopted person.
British Columbia, Canada
In British Columbia an adopted person has the right to the birth certificate from the age of 19, but a birth parent´s right to the adoption certificate is subject to the consent of the adopted person and identifying information regarding the adoptive parents is not available. There is a Proactive Reunion and a state state funded reunion registry.
For anyone adopted since the Adoption Act, 1952 the proposals provide for Information
- Adopted person gets rights to birth certificate – Personal information from file
- Birth parent – Adoption Certificate – Personal Information from file – Contact
- A Voluntary Contact Register, which will be operated by the Adoption Board. Any party seeking contact with another can place his/her name on the contact register and they will be assisted with reunion
- A Contact Veto Register so that people who do not want to be contacted can register that wish. “I am anxious that the very understandable fears and concerns of some people are addressed from the very start. I hope that the fact that they can if they wish place a veto on being contacted will reassure them that these proposals will not constitute a threat.”
- Counselling will be available to both adopted people and birth parents, if they wish. Experience shows that this can be a very difficult process, and that support from appropriately trained staff can smooth out problems.
- A State funded tracing and reunion service, which will be available to adopted people and birth parents. This service will be provided both by the Health boards and by agencies many of whom already have expertise in this area.
- A National Search Service, operated by the Adoption Board, which will help to speed up tracing queries, which are slow and time consuming at present.
- A National Files Index, managed by the Adoption Board which will ensure that there is speedy access to personal information
Adoptions taking place after the legislation is enacted.
In the case of all adoptions which take place after the legislation is enacted, the adopted person will from the age of 18 have a right to
Personal information from files
Relevant information about birth parents.
The birth parent will have a right to
While the child is under18:
When the child reaches 18:
The adoptive parent will while the child is under 18 have a right to
Where an adoption takes place after the enactment of the legislation, all parties to the adoption will be aware of these rights from the beginning. The problems which have arisen in the past because of the atmosphere of secrecy which surrounded adoptions will not be an issue in these circumstances.
Extension of rights to people raised in care
“I am happy to announce that the Government has decided to extend information rights to all of those raised in care. This is a major step forward in an area of extreme sensitivity and difficulty.”
The needs of those raised in institutions is a matter of concern to the Government. In May, 1999, the Taoiseach in his general apology to victims of abuse indicated that the Government intended to take a number of actions to address the needs of such persons. It has become clear that one of the needs is that of access to personal information.
People who were raised in State institutions, or whose records are held by State bodies, such as Health Boards and Government Departments have for some years now had access to personal information through the Freedom of Information Act. However, the Government recognises that the system developed for FOI is not necessarily appropriate for the needs of people raised in care. Some specific difficulties which have arisen are :
- Some people were raised for all or part of the period in care in institutions or under arrangements which are not covered by the FOI Act;
- Many people moved from one institution or home to another, which may mean they have to make multiple applications to access their records;
- There is no provision within the FOI system for counselling or support, or for assistance with training.
These proposals address the problems of two groups;
- People who were raised in care, but have no access to their records which are held by voluntary bodies not covered by FOI;
- People who were raised in industrial and reformatory schools, who have access to records under FOI, but for whom this process is not satisfactory
The Commission to Investigate Child Abuse has stated that it has a concern about the inability of individuals who were once raised in institutions to access their personal records and contact their families.
In view of these problems, the Government has decided that the proposed legislation should be extended to include all of those raised in care. Provision will be made for
- A National Records Index which will allow speedier access to records
- Voluntary Contact Register, to speed up contact where possible
- Access to counselling, where required
- State funded mediation and support for tracing and reunion
- Access to the National Search Service to help with tracing
“This proposal will address the concerns of a large and in many cases very vulnerable group of people who have not up to now been able to get the information they sought about their families and background” said Minister Hanafin.