Speech by Mr Brian Lenihan, TD, Minister for Children, at the launch of the adoption consultation document and proposals
I am delighted to be here today and to have an opportunity to bring the consultation process that I launched in 2003 to a conclusion.
When I came into office I decided that one of the things that needed to be done was to engage all of the parties involved in or affected by adoption in discussion to influence future developments
I personally found the experience of reading the submissions and in particular of listening to the discussions in October 2003 very enlightening. I know that it was a difficult experience for many people and I would like to express my appreciation to everyone who took part and who shared their views and experiences. I would like especially to acknowledge the hurt felt by many who feel they were failed by the system and to thank them for their courage in coming forward to help us bring about improvements for the future.
A key element of the consultation was the input by Geoffrey Shannon. Geoffrey’s work in preparing the consultation paper and then in providing us with a clear picture of the legislative and constitutional position was enormously helpful in putting the issues we discussed into context. I would like to pay tribute to the work Geoffrey has done and to his enthusiasm and expertise which has been such a significant contribution to the process over the last 18 months.
The document I am here to launch today is the conclusion of the consultation process. When I originally launched the consultation I realised that it would be important to have a conclusion. Sometimes a consultation, while valuable at the time, does not have a clear ending point and it can be difficult to see in what way, if any, the discussions impacted the proposals going forward. Particularly in the area of adoption, where there are complex constitutional issues, as well as a wide variety of views I felt that it was important that the final document set out very clearly what was discussed and what can be done going into the future. I see the document as a testament to the effort and enthusiasm of everyone involved in the all steps of the consultation.
The aim is to have a document which is clear and which sets out for each issue discussed, the legal and constitutional position, the views of different parties were and what the proposals going forward are, whether administrative or legislative. In some cases there was consensus and in some cases it was not possible to reach agreement. In some cases the constitutional or legal position limits what we can do going forward. The document attempts to set out the position in a ‘warts and all’ way, and to be realistic about the possibilities. I believe that it will form the basis of much of the work in the adoption area for the foreseeable future
I would like to thank Siobhan Kennan from my Department who has done so much work both during the consultation itself and in bringing this document to a conclusion. She has had a huge task in reflecting the discussions while at the same time keeping the final document clear and reasonably concise. I think you will agree that she has achieved her aim.
Proposals for the future
As well as launching the consultation document today, I am also setting out the proposals that emanate from it. Some of these are legislative proposals and in addition there are actions being taken by the Adoption Board. While it has not been possible to meet the wishes of everyone consulted in all aspects of legislation I hope you will see it is a very good start to the changes that need to be made. I will set out the legislative proposals first and then move on to the items being dealt with administratively.
At their last meeting in December the Cabinet approved a range of legislative proposals on adoption arising from the consultation. The next stage is that the Parliamentary Counsel will draft legislation based on the proposals. I sought and received approval for priority drafting and I would hope that that legislation might be published in autumn of this year. I will cover a few key points in each area of the proposals:-
Ratification of the Hague Convention
The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Intercountry Adoption is the international instrument that regulates intercountry adoption. Throughout the consultation there was widespread welcome for the proposals that had been published and there has been little change to them.
One issue of concern to some parents was that the original proposals did not allow for the situation where a child has been adopted from a non Hague Country prior to the legislation and the adoptive parents wish to adopt another child from the same country. The proposals now include a ‘grandfather clause’ which allows some discretion to the Adoption Authority to permit such adoptions in certain restricted circumstances where it is seen to be in the best interests of the child.
The other issue that was raised in relation to the Hague proposals is that of the imposition of an upper age limit for people who wish to be assessed for intercountry adoption. Having considered the issues, which are set out in some detail in the consultation document, I have decided to impose a maximum age of 50. This age limit will apply to individuals and to the younger of a couple at the time they apply to be assessed. It is clear that overall it is in the best interest so children to have younger parents and this provision reflects that situation.
The proposals to establish the Adoption Authority were also widely welcomed. The Authority will act as the central authority under the Hague Convention and will oversee the provision of adoption services, setting down guidelines and monitoring performance against those guidelines. The board of the Authority will include adopted people, natural parents and natural parents as well as people with appropriate expertise. It will undertake research to inform best practice and will ensure that standards are maintained.
I know that many of you are aware that the Adoption Board has a new CEO and management team and that with these additional resources it has already made significant changes over the past year. The Board’s Corporate plan set out the plans the Board has to move to its new role, and I have been happy to see the involvement of many of those affected by adoption in the work of the Board. I would like to thank Judge Jim O’Sullivan and the board members as well as John Collins the CEO and his team for all of their work and support since my appointment.
Tracing and Reunion
This is the area about which there was most disagreement before and during the consultation process. The draft legislative proposals that were published during the consultation represented an attempt to have legislation that balanced different rights, as is required by the Constitution. The difficulty is that in the end this meant that no one was wholly satisfied with the proposals. During the consultation it became clear also that many of the very grave concerns related to service provision and that whatever the legislative framework steps needed to be taken to address delays, and to have a properly structured service that would meet people’s needs promptly and effectively. I will set out proposals on this later.
The legislative changes in this area are limited to those practical changes that were welcomed by everybody and that will help improve and speed up tracing. These include provision for a Contact Preference Register, for the National Records Index and for access by staff within the Authority to State databases of names and addresses. The proposals also include provision for the Adoption Authority to have much stronger powers in relation to records, which I know many of you sought.
Other adoption issues
During the consultation various specific issues were raised and we have included as many of the recommendations as possible. One issue which I had already been aware of is the wish by some young people to be adopted by their foster family where they have lived with that family for most of their lives. This is not always possible while they are still children, but I am providing for such young people to be allowed to be adopted after they have reached 18, so that as adults they can if they wish opt to become a legal member of their foster family.
An issue for many natural mothers has been the requirement that where a mother marries a man who is not the father of the child and the step parent wishes to adopt the child, the natural mother must also adopt her own child. The proposals include a provision to allow step parents to adopt without the mother having to adopt again. I know this will be very welcome to many people, as it has been an anomaly for many years. This provision also applies where a widowed or divorced parent marries again.
A third provision that I believe will be widely welcomed is that the Adoption Authority will be able attach conditions to an adoption order allowing a child to have continuing contact with its natural family. While this will facilitate the growth of open adoptions I see it as particularly useful in allowing natural fathers and their families to maintain links with a child after adoption and as being extremely beneficial in the context of step parent adoptions where it may be in the best interests of a child to maintain such links while allowing a step parent to have parental rights
During the consultation there was very widespread agreement that guardianship should be an option more widely available. In addition it is clear that to comply fully with our international obligations we should be providing a wider spectrum of care options for children who grow up apart from their families. Therefore, although this is not specifically an adoption issue, the proposals include allowing for guardianship for step parents and for children in long term foster care. This provides a degree of permanence to children in their homes without breaking links with their natural families. I know that these proposals will be extremely welcome.
Tracing and reunion
As I indicated earlier it became clear during the consultation process that many of the problems faced by people wanting to find out about their natural families were related to the service provision rather than the legislation. I t seemed clear that our emphasis here should be on significant improvement of the service as a matter of urgency.
Towards the end of the consultation process, and informed by some of the feedback from that as well as by their own consultations, the Adoption Board set up an Advisory Group to make recommendations of setting up a National Information and Tracing Service. I have secured €1milion in the Estimates for 2005 to start the process of implementing these recommendations. The recommendations include the establishment of the National Records Index and the setting up of the National Voluntary Contact Preference Register. Work on computerizing the Adoption Board’s records and those in some of the heath boards has begun and will form the basis of the index. I will be launching the Contact Preference register later this Spring following a public information campaign.
An ongoing difficulty in the area of intercountry adoption is the growing delays in time before prospective parents can be assessed. This is due primarily to the difficulty in recruiting social workers. It is exacerbated by the fact that social workers are also badly needed to look after vulnerable children in Ireland. . I have secured an extra resource in 2005 and I have asked the Adoption Board to look at identifying options to address the problem.
Throughout the consultation a source of concern was the absence of any Irish based research in relation to adoption. One of the new roles the Adoption Authority will have is to undertake and commission research. In a number of parts of the consultation document you will see that before a decision can be made we need more information. The Board has already taken on this research role and has initiated a review of outcomes of intercountry adoption in Ireland. I know that this will be the first of many studies that will help to inform practice and legislation in the future.
Finally, I want to reiterate how pleased I am to be in a position to publish this document and announce the proposals that arise out of it. It has been a very rewarding experience for me to learn from so many people about their experiences of adoption and I appreciate the time, effort and enthusiasm that so many of you put into the process.
Adoption legislation: 2003 consultation and proposals for change