Address by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Barry Andrews, T.D.at International Adoption Association Conference

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank Brian for the invitation to address your conference again this year. It is an understatement to say that intercountry adoption has been through a phase of great change over the last two years. I know that many in the adoption community call the journey a “rollercoaster ride” and given the highs and lows experienced I think it is a fair description of the adoption process.

The legislative framework underpinning adoption will obviously change as a result of the Adoption Bill when enacted on November 1st and it is only natural that change of this nature would lead to uncertainty and a degree of anxiety. The central guiding principle that directs me and my Office in legislating and formulating policy in this area is the best interests of the child. That is not to say that we ignore the genuine concerns and interests of Prospective Adoptive Parents. The two are not mutually exclusive and as I said last year at this conference, I absolutely believe that adoption is a legitimate and appropriate form of alternative care.

I would just like to outline very briefly some of the changes that have occurred since last October. At that stage, the Adoption Bill had passed all stages in Seanad Éireann and issues such as transitional arrangements, the “grandfather clause” and the role of organisations, such as the IAA, in the provision of information to prospective parents were all matters that had been debated on the floor of the Seanad and outside in the adoption community. If I am not mistaken, Brian handed me a letter or submission on behalf of the IAA at last year’s conference – with positions clearly set out on all the aforementioned issues.

Last October, the bill did not provide for a transitional arrangement that would assist people in the middle of the adoption process. Following constructive discussions with Brian, Shane Downer and others, I proposed that an amendment be made to the bill to enable people who were at an advanced stage to complete their adoptions from non-Hague countries. There were further discussions on what “an advanced stage” would be taken to mean and following receipt of helpful advice from the Hague Conference, it was decided that people who had obtained their declarations of eligibility and suitability to adopt by the bill’s establishment date could proceed and complete their adoptions from non-Hague countries. I think the declaration point is the fairest and most definable point that could have been chosen to base the transitional arrangement.

Though the bill passed all stages in the Oireachtas and was signed into law by the President in July, the actual process of Hague ratification has taken a further three months. In normal circumstances, a bill would be commenced a month after the President has signed the legislation. I thought it only proper that the bill should not be commenced until the full Hague ratification process was completed, which will take us up until November 1st.

I am conscious that people will always fall the wrong side of a date on a calendar and the legislation can be blind to individuals’ circumstances. However, if you consider that the Bill was first published in January 2009, we have had quite a long lead in period to the new legislative landscape that November will bring.

At various stages over the past year, there have been delays in the assessment process, vetting and the issuing of declarations. These issues were raised with me in meetings with the IAA and working with the HSE, An Garda Siochana and the Adoption Board we sought to improve existing systems to cut down on waiting times and we approved the release of extra manpower within the Adoption Board to expedite the issuing of declarations. I would like to formally thank the HSE, An Garda Siochana and the Adoption Board for working with my Office to deliver a service in a timely fashion to prospective adoptive parents. After many years of undue delay in waiting for assessments, I am pleased that at least the journey from assessment to Adoption Board approval has improved in the last year.

I know that there are some people who are still awaiting declarations and are anxious that their files be assessed before the end of the month. I know you will hear from the Chair of the Adoption Board, Geoffrey Shannon, this afternoon but I know that both he and the Garda Vetting Unit in Thurles are working to ensure that people are accommodated and decisions made before the end of the month.

It has been often stated that the purpose of the Adoption Bill is to allow for transposition of the Hague Convention in to Irish law and to establish the Adoption Authority of Ireland. It is sometimes said that the ratification of Hague will lead to the closure of sending countries and a fundamental change in relationships with non-Hague countries. It is true that post November 1st, declarations will only be issued in respect of either Hague ratified countries or countries with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement. It is the case that Irish prospective adoptive parents will navigate towards different countries in the future. The age profile of children, the number of children that are available for adoption, the time between referral and actual adoption and is some cases the children’s medical needs will likely change as a result of Hague ratification. It is important that prospective adoptive community are aware that the changes are likely.

All countries, whether they are receiving or countries of origin, have an obligation to take proactive measures in order to guarantee that the adoptions that are entered into are as safe as possible. There will always be a level of risk associated with intercountry adoption. It behoves both the sending and receiving countries to reduce that risk. The receiving country can rarely reach behind the processes and practices of the sending country to guarantee that everything is 100 percent above board. However, when information is put into the public domain concerning practice in a sending country, the receiving country is obliged to act.

Some people in this room anticipated that they would adopt from Vietnam and were hugely disappointed by the news back in January that the Irish Government was to break off negotiations with Vietnam on a new bilateral agreement until such time as both countries ratified Hague. Given the information that was available to us, I am not sure that there could have been any other decision. I know that some people will disagree with that but we cannot ignore the strides that Vietnam has taken in recent months towards Hague ratification. I am not suggesting that the Vietnamese are acting solely in response to decisions taken by the Irish Government but it is noteworthy that since the spotlight has focused on Vietnam, there has been a solid progress in preparing for Hague ratification. I am hopeful that Vietnam will ratify Hague early next year. I have heard the date of January 1st mentioned but I am not sure whether that date will be reached. What I can say is that when Vietnamratifies Hague I believe we will be able to recommence adoptions from there and we will work with Vietnamto improve standards and practice over time. I think that one of Hague’s guiding principles is that it is by working with sending countries that you improve standards. In that regard, the Adoption Board informed me last Wednesday that it intends to write to the Department of International Adoption in Hanoi to inform the Vietnamese Government that it would like to commence negotiations around an administrative agreement that could be effective when Vietnam ratifies the Hague Convention.

I would really like to stress that just because I am talking about raising standards by working with countries like Vietnam it should not be read that there is some question mark over adoptions that have already been effected. Standards in intercountry adoption should evolve and we can only respond to the information that is available at any given time. Decisions made on the basis of information in the past cannot, and should not, be picked over with the benefit of hindsight.

Many will wish to know what progress is being made in respect of Hague countries and administrative arrangements. I would just premise my remarks on the issue by saying that sending countries, including Hague countries, open and close. The Adoption Board has commenced the process of engaging with Hague countries to explore the putting in place of administrative arrangements. Geoffrey Shannon mentioned some of these countries at a recent IAA seminar and they include: the Philippines, the U.S.A., South Africa, Bulgaria and Thailand. The Adoption Board has also written to Kazakhstan and Brazil to enquire about possible arrangements with those countries. A response received from Bulgaria this week is positive – stating that Bulgaria wishes to engage with Ireland and this will be followed up on next week.

The South African Central Authority recently responded to say that they are not in a position to work with us this year and I realise this caused a lot of disappointment when the Adoption Board placed a notice to this effect on its website a couple of weeks ago. Both I and the Adoption Board wish to be as open as possible with you. We want to share the information that we have in relation to updates on countries that we are in contact with. However, part of this process involves uncertainty and we cannot put pressure on sending countries to enter into arrangements with us if there are not children available for intercountry adoption. All of the advice available to Governments warns against competing with each other for adoptable children. Given the length of time it took Ireland to ratify Hague, it must be said that many Hague sending countries already have arrangements in place with receiving Hague countries and we are joining the club late in the day. I say this not to as an attempt to try to discourage or disappoint but simply to be honest and present an accurate picture of the current landscape.

The Adoption Act specifically provides for the negotiation of bilateral agreements and many will be keen to know whether the Government intends to pursue bilaterals with non-Hague countries such as Russia and Ethiopia. I will be honest and say that I would like to be briefing you on more progress in relation to bilaterals than is the case. The primary focus of my Office in the past year has been the passage of the legislation and preparation for Hague ratification. However, it is the express wish of the Oireachtas that where Hague standard bilaterals can be negotiated and concluded. The current position whereby various regions in Ireland are appearing and then disappearing from the Russian Ministry of Education’s blacklist is unsatisfactory and causing great unease. The Russian Government has made it clear that if adoptions are to continue, they wish to see bilaterals put in place. I am aware that the US and New Zealand are currently negotiating bilaterals with Russia. I spoke to the Irish Ambassador in Moscow yesterday and told him that I intend to pursue the matter of a bilateral with the Russian Ambassador in Dublin in the coming weeks and establish whether it is possible to put in place a bilateral agreement with Russia that provides safety around the issues of consent and the financial costs of effecting an adoption. As you know, there is a legal complication surrounding the provision of post placement reports but this matter can be explored in the context of diplomatic talks.

The progress with Ethiopia may be slower. My Office has limited resources and simply cannot conduct two sets of bilateral negotiations, which of themselves are extremely complex, at the same time. Information provided by our Embassy in Addis Ababa over the summer suggests that the Ethiopian Government is moving towards Hague ratification but there can be no timeframe put on the passage of legislation. Before a bilateral could be pursued, it is probable that an Irish mediation agency would have to be operational in the country and the allocation of funds would have to be fully transparent and accountable.

It is vitally important that we put in place an administrative framework that supports Hague membership and best practice. The establishment of the Adoption Authority will be central to the administration of adoption, domestic and intercountry, for many years to come. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Adoption Board for its work, commitment and dedication to children and families in Ireland stretching back to 1953.

The Adoption Act provides for the establishment of accredited bodies, which are intended to support the adoption process. Though not mandatory under the Hague Convention, it is widely accepted that mediation agencies strengthen protections around adoption. I know that there is interest in establishing new mediation agencies and am hopeful that this can be done as soon as possible. To this end, advertisements will appear in next week’s newspapers calling for expressions of interest to operate mediation agencies. Obviously, the new Authority will have to license these agencies and register them when approved.

I said many months ago that the Bill provides for the HSEto engage accredited bodies to carry out assessments and other adoption services. As far as I am concerned, I would like to see the HSEdiverting social work resources away from assessments for intercountry adoption and into child protection and family support work. Though this will not happen over night, and new accredited bodies will have to build capacity and establish a track record in carrying out assessments, I am convinced that this is the right way to go and have made my views known to the HSEon the issue.

The availability of timely and accurate information is an integral part of the adoption process. I fully recognise that my Office, the HSEand the new Adoption Authority need to improve the way in which we share information with the adoption community. Sometimes, I and my officials cannot because of confidentiality reasons share information with you. However, speculation and at times misinformation flourish in an information vacuum. A new Adoption Authority website will be launched over the coming weeks to coincide with the enactment of the new legislation and the aim is to create a portal that hosts all the relevant information in respect of adoption and a site on which all new information can be made available.

To conclude, the adoption process has undergone huge change in the last couple of years. The process is incredibly legalistic because it involves the severing of links between a child and a parent and establishing them with another parent or set of parents. It is a tremendously emotional journey and yet legal rigour must be applied. The various bodies charged with operating the adoption process can, as a result, appear at times rigid and forbidding. This period of change is going to continue for a while to come. Membership of Hague is intended to improve standards in intercountry adoption. However, the desire to further improve should not end with Hague ratification. I firmly believe we should work with both Hague sending and receiving countries to promote the highest standards in intercountry adoption. Perseverance and deep personal commitment is required to complete an intercountry adoption. I think we need to be very open about the challenges involved in the process. There are few certainties or guarantees and on occasion Governments, whether they be sending or receiving States, will make decisions to open or close and prospective adoptive parents are left not knowing which way to turn. It is my hope that new administrative agreements can be put in place with Hague countries. Furthermore, I would like to explore in detail the prospects of negotiating a bilateral agreement with Russia.

I thank you for your attention.