Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage Tuesday, 24 January 2017

25 January 2017

Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to the House. I wish her, her colleagues and all Members present a happy new year, if it is not too late in January to do so. Like others, I very much welcome the Bill as the changes it introduces are very welcome. It will bring some aspects of Irish adoption law into the 21st century and will modernise the law in a very welcome way. Others have spoken very eloquently about the very positive changes the Bill will bring about, particularly in two respects in terms of allowing step-parents to adopt and ending the bizarre anomaly where the birth mother had to give up her child for adoption and re-adopt in order to adopt her own child. It is very welcome to see step-parent adoption becoming simplified and updated in that way.

I commend Senator Boyhan for his extremely moving personal testimony. Like others, I was really moved by what he said. That, in itself, speaks for the necessity of ensuring that it becomes easier for children to be adopted out of long-term foster care. I must declare some interest as a professional who has represented children and guardians ad litem before the child care courts, or the HSE courts as they were typically known. I have seen at close hand the terrible heartbreak that arises when children are in long-term care with no real prospect of finding a resolution of their status even where they very much desire to be adopted by foster carers who may have been caring for them over a long period. It is very welcome to see those provisions in the Bill. Barnardos and others have strongly welcomed those aspects of the Bill.

As Senator Warfield said, in a very welcome development, the Bill also updates the language of adoption and recognises the diversity of family life in this country. It reflects in particular the changes we saw come about through the Child and Family Relationships Act and the changes brought about by the marriage equality referendum. The Bill is very much about bringing into law the changes brought about by the children's rights referendum - that other referendum Senator Noone and others mentioned in November 2012. It is very welcome to see the best interests of the child and the voice of the child brought to the fore in this Bill.

I commend the Minister on her comments, particularly in respect of section 9. She indicated that she brought forward an amendment in the Dáil to amend section 19 of the 2010 Act to reflect more strongly the need to ensure the voice of the child is heard. I am pleased she said she will enter into consultation with children prior to drafting the necessary regulations under section 9. Again, that is very welcome. When she was Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan conducted a very worthwhile set of consultations directly with children. That is a good model and I know there are others also. Those are all very welcome aspects of the Bill.

I wish to turn to an issue raised by my colleagues, Deputies Burton and Jan O’Sullivan, namely, the absence of provision for the other glaring anomaly in adoption law - the need to ensure legislation on information and tracing. I know the Minister has moved in that regard. In November the Minister published the heads of a Bill and there was a hearing before an Oireachtas committee. However, the issue is long overdue to be tackled. I dug out from my own records a speech I made in November 2014. The Minister will recall it because she was in the Seanad at the time. Our then colleagues, Averil Power, Jillian van Turnhout and Fidelma Healy Eames, brought forward a very commendable and robust information and tracing Bill in November 2014. It was accepted on Second Stage by the Government. We all spoke on it. Many colleagues at the time spoke eloquently about their own personal experiences. Averil Power spoke about her experience as an adopted person and Fidelma Healy Eames as an adoptive parent. They spoke so strongly about the need to ensure that adopted children have the right to an identity.

It is something I saw at second hand as a representative of survivors of abuse before the Residential Institutions Redress Board. We saw adults who had been utterly abandoned as children, failed by the State and horribly abused in institutions. However, for them, alongside the dreadful physical and emotional abuse they suffered, something that really resonated with them all was their lack of knowledge about their origins and the need to know their identity and where they came from. That was something Averil Power in particular spoke so eloquently about and Deputy Burton has spoken in the Dáil about her experience as an adopted person. The right to know one’s origin has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights yet it is currently absent from our law. While the Bill is extremely welcome and introduces very welcome and overdue aspects to adoption law, we see still a failure to address the issue of information and tracing. It is an issue the Minister spoke about eloquently when she was a Senator.

There is a problem with our law in terms of this sort of piecemeal reform. We are bringing adoption law into the 21st century, but only partially in this Bill. Until we have robust information and tracing legislation we will not have sufficiently or adequately modernised the system. I accept the point has been made by others here and it has been made in the Dáil but it deserves to be emphasised again. My colleagues in the Dáil introduced some amendments to seek to introduce into this Bill a scheme that would provide for information and tracing. In the Minister's Committee Stage response in the Dáil which I read, she said her own Bill is at an advanced stage and she hopes to bring it forward. However, that is very similar to the response given by the then Minister in November 2014 to the Bill introduced by the then Senators Power, van Turnhout and Healy Eames. It is important that we keep pressing this issue. There is a justifiable concern that given the difficulties now under new politics of bringing forward Government legislation – the Government Chief Whip, Deputy Regina Doherty, has spoken about that in the Dáil – there is a concern that we will not get to see the information and tracing Bill and that in fact this Bill, which is now at an advanced stage, might well be an appropriate place to introduce the relevant measures.

I understand the difficulty with the drafting of the Bill but many of the difficulties have now been overcome. People have raised issues about the penal nature of the provisions around people who look for information where there is no consent from the birth mother. Like other speakers I have had numerous contacts with individuals, both adults who were adopted as children and birth mothers. One birth mother spoke to me of the anguish and absolute heartbreak of the mothers who gifted their children to adoption – an anguish that might be a shock for many who still do not realise that this was such an appalling heartbreak for so many women at the time. Women were often coerced or felt utterly pressured into giving children up for adoption at a time in society when, shamefully, single parents and children born outside marriage were maltreated. Senator Warfield addressed the issue. It must be said that this country has a shameful history both in terms of the development of our adoption law and of the treatment of women and children. The Minister has spoken eloquently and done so much in her own work to address the issue but, again, it is the context in which we bring forward the Bill and in which the debate is held. It emphasises the need to ensure that we have some provision in the law to provide for information and tracing rights, as a matter of urgency. We must also be very conscious that there have been much fewer intra-country adoptions that are non-familial in this State since the very welcome introduction of the single parent allowance. In reality, there is only a small number of people of, it must be said, increasing age who this is likely to affect, namely, mothers who gave children up for adoption at a time when they did not wish information about their identities to be disclosed. Their adult children are now also of advanced age. Some of the concerns around sensitivities and so on might now be more easily addressed given the simple lapse of time and the changed context in which adoptions are now taking place. Much more frequently, we are seeing international adoptions from outside the jurisdiction or intra-family adoptions such as step-parent adoptions which will be facilitated by this Bill. That is long way to say I hope very much that the Minister will feel able to take the information and tracing amendments I will put forward on Committee Stage. If she cannot, I hope very much that she will introduce her own Bill as a matter of urgency. I would like us to debate it here first in the Seanad. Let us introduce it here in the Seanad where we have less difficulty, albeit the deputy Leader may correct me, in getting Government legislation through than the current Dáil does. Certainly, there are many Bills which have lately been started in the Seanad and it would be very helpful to enable us to have a debate here.

I welcome the Bill and quote Tanya Ward from the Children's Rights Alliance who said: "The Bill does bring adoption law in Ireland into the 21st century." In some very welcome respects that is true but we still need to see the other legislation brought forward as a matter of urgency.