Health and care services

A ‘long and painstaking’ process

Meadhbh Monahan examines Ireland’s adoption procedure which has been beset with delay, controversy and a decreasing number of foreign countries from which to adopt.

Domestic and inter-country adoptions are decreasing annually because fewer single mothers are giving their babies up for adoption and Ireland can only adopt from foreign countries which have adopted the Hague Convention on the protection of children and co-operation on inter-country adoption.

Marriage is enshrined in the Irish Constitution therefore children of married parents cannot be ratified unless the High Court rules so. A referendum on children’s rights could change the law to allow for the adoption of children who have been in state or foster care for a substantial period of time. However, the pool from which Irish people traditionally adopt is getting smaller.

In England, only 60 of the 3,600 children in care (aged under one) were adopted in 2010, despite the introduction of the 2007 Equality Act which allowed same-sex and unmarried couples to adopt as well as single men and women (whether they are lesbian, gay or heterosexual). The adoption rates in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are low at around 3 per cent. England’s 2011 adoption rate was 4.6 per cent. The average domestic adoption rate in Ireland from 2008 to 2011 was 3.2 per cent.

There were 6,160 Irish children in care in December 2011, 3,776 of whom were in foster care, 1,788 being fostered by family members, 433 in residential care and 153 in another care placement (including pre-adoptive placement).

Married couples, a married person living alone (with permission from their spouse unless they are officially separated by a court decree), a relative of the child and a widow or widower can adopt in Ireland. Foster parents cannot adopt.

Orphans and children born outside marriage can be adopted. If a single mother is to put her child up for adoption, every effort must be made to contact the birth father to hear his views (although his consent is not needed). This adds to an already lengthy and legalistic process. In exceptional cases, the High Court can authorise the adoption of children whose parents have “physically and morally” failed in their duty of care towards them.

A spokesman from the HSE told eolas that the average time for non-family adoptions is six to eight months and three to five months for family adoptions (providing the birth father is tracked down quickly).

Most domestic adoptions are ‘step-father’ cases where the birth mother jointly adopts the child with her husband or a birth father adopts with his wife. Latest figures show that there were 189 domestic adoptions in Ireland in 2010. Of these, 151 were ‘step-father’ cases, two saw a birth father adopt with his wife and one child was adopted by other family members.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald told eolas: “We probably have 1,600 children in foster care who could have been adopted and haven’t been. Many of them would have liked to have been adopted … but you know they just weren’t able to because they didn’t meet the criteria, and it’s too difficult for a marital child to be adopted in this country so I’m publishing that legislation as well.”

Agonising

Irish couples generally adopt from abroad in a process which was described by Fine Gael’s Tom Barry as “long, painstaking and often agonising”. Anecdotal evidence shows that it can cost between €8,000 and €20,000 to adopt a child from abroad.

Prospective couples must undergo an assessment by the HSE (at an average cost of €1,386.) Three private adoption agencies have been accredited by the AAI to undertake assessments (to alleviate waiting times and free up social workers) but the HSE has not referred any couples to those agencies since 2010. The Minister said decisions still have to be made on whether social workers who would have been “tied up” with those cases can be re-allocated.  She also has to decide whether to charge parents for the assessment.

For inter-country adoptions, the HSE has claimed that it now takes a maximum of 18 months (following gardaí checks, child protection clearance and medical checks) to gain a declaration of suitability to adopt from the Adoption Authority of Ireland. Couples then have to go through any procedures required by the foreign country, which can take up to three years.

adoptionTwo hundred children were adopted from abroad by Irish couples in 2011, a decrease on the high of 397 children in 2008. The Adoption Act, enacted on 1 November 2010, incorporated Ireland’s ratification of the Hague Convention which protects children and their families against the risks of “illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad.” As a result, adoptions were no longer permitted from countries that have not ratified the convention (e.g. Ethiopia, Russia and Vietnam). However, the Act also contained a provision for ‘transitional arrangements’, whereby couples who had begun the adoption process in those countries can continue until the end of October 2013.

Russia sits outside the Hague Convention and does not have a bilateral agreement with Ireland. Despite this, there were 414 adoptions from the country between 2008 and 2011. In addition, Russia insists that children adopted to other countries will retain their Russian nationality, will be presented to the Russian embassy in that country, and that parents will provide post-adoption reports to Russian authorities. This results in “constitutional difficulties”, according to Fitzgerald, because “we see adoption as a final event.” Future adoptions, including from couples who have already adopted from Russia, are now unlikely unless a bilateral agreement is brokered.

Vietnam ratified the Hague Convention on 1 February. Ireland’s bilateral agreement with Vietnam was ended in 2009 following two reports criticising that country’s adoption procedures. The head of the Vietnamese adoption agency is to visit Ireland in May.

Ethiopia was the third most popular destination for inter-country adoptions (with 167 from 2008 to 2011). The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is in contact with the AAI and the Irish embassy in Ethiopia to assess whether a bilateral agreement is possible.

Adding to the adoption problems, South Africa and India (both Hague Convention countries) stopped accepting application packs from Ireland in 2011 and are yet to inform the AAI as to why. In January, seven Mexican babies were seized from Irish couples who believed they were going through proper adoption channels but were caught up in a child smuggling ring.

The Minister concludes: “It’s a very difficult situation at the moment for parents who want to adopt and I’m very conscious of that.”

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