Dáil Éireann - Volume 498 - 16 December, 1998

Adjournment Debate. - Birth Records.

Ms O'Sullivan: I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. In regard to adoption procedures I welcome the Minister's recent initiative to establish a committee of experts to look at the differences of approach to the assessment procedures by all health boards, with a view to standardising them. While I subscribe to the view that nothing short of a full and rigorous assessment of applicants is acceptable in this area, for the most part this is a difficult but vital role which professional social workers must fulfil. I am concerned at the apparent varying practices of the health boards. I hope this team will find a way of assisting the introduction of the best assessment procedures possible.

The Labour Party fully supports strict compliance with the Hague Convention on intercountry adoptions which should exclude non-convention adoptions and the privatisation of adoption services. Adoption is a service for children and as such it must not be privatised.

In raising the matter of access to birth records I recognise the history surrounding the treatment of fostered, adopted and institutionalised children which continues into their adult lives. Decisions affecting their childhood are made on their behalf and continue to be made long after they cease to be children. It is a case of the “does he take sugar” syndrome where decisions are made for people without asking them what they want. It is [1286] symptomatic that the person with responsibility for studying post-adoption services legislation is the Minister of State with special responsibility for children. I am talking about the treatment of adopted people over the age of 18 years, their natural mothers and their adoptive families, whenever these adults seek information from State records concerning their origins and family relationships. We need to put a system in place which works for everyone involved. When adopted people seek this information why can they not receive it in a direct way? A better way can surely be found to deal with post-adoption issues which recognises that adopted and fostered children and children raised in institutions have, as adults, the same rights as all other autonomous and responsible individuals in their dealings with the State. I understand legislation on this issue is being drafted by the child care unit in the Department of Health and Children. This is following through on a commitment given in the Health Strategy by my colleague the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Brendan Howlin, in his capacity as Minister for Health. A lengthy supreme court case prevented the introduction of this legislation until recently.

I thank the Minister for making the introduction of this vital legislation a priority in his Department. I understand the officials charged with the responsibility of drafting this legislation are extremely diligent and are making good progress in their preparation. For some, this legislation cannot come quickly enough.

In recent months I have met and corresponded with various voluntary groups representing all the parties to adoption. With regard to the legislation concerning access to birth records for adopted people, it is necessary for the Minister and his officials to bear in mind when drafting the legislation that the rights of the child must come first. We need a post-adoption service board which would safeguard the right to privacy of those few people, whether natural parents, adopted persons, adopting people or others who have no wish to make contact. The needs of those affected by adoption and fostering go well beyond the contact register. The new board will be responsible for maintaining a central register of all adoption, fostering and child institution files, including copies of all adoption agency files. It would provide practical non-judgmental advice on all relevant matters and ensure counselling is available to those who need it. In no way should counselling be a pre-condition to obtaining information. The board would also involve itself in ongoing research. It is essential that adequate funding and personnel resources should be provided. These proposals are modest and deserve consideration.

People who have been affected by adoption should be treated properly in accordance with their basic human rights. At present we are saying to more than 40,000 adopted people in Ireland that because they are so special they are excluded from the provisions of the Ombudsman Act, the Status of Children Act, the Data Protection Act [1287] and the Freedom of Information Act. It is a sad and sorry state of affairs that our Constitution which pledges to treat all children equally has failed so miserably when the facts show that such a large number of people can be systematically discriminated against on the sole basis of being adopted. This is unacceptable.

The Government should live up to its responsibilities as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that a child should be registered immediately after birth, should have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents. The issue is not as complex as some may suggest. It has been resolved successfully in many other jurisdictions. The people affected are in a legal quagmire. They can attempt to conduct their own research, sometimes with the help of paid private detective agencies but at best this is a hit and miss affair.

The Labour Party believes that the restrictions in the current legislation will continue to cause unnecessary suffering. I call on the Minister to ensure that people's right to know who they are, which is a fundamental human right, will be reflected in the forthcoming legislation. That legislation should be introduced as soon as possible.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Fahey.

As Deputy O'Sullivan is aware, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the case earlier this year which addressed a number of constitutional and legal matters surrounding post-adoption contact. Specific staff in the newly established child care legislation unit of the Department of Health and Children have been assigned to the preparation of legislation in this area. These staff have been familiarising themselves with the issues involved in this complex area and have met with the Office of the Attorney General in the matter. The advice of the Office of the Attorney General is being awaited and once it is received and examined, the child care legislation unit will be in a position to enter into an extensive consultation process with all parties as early as possible in 1999. The aim of the consultation process, which will follow the format of the recently concluded consultation process on the ratification of the Hague Convention is to facilitate an inclusive and well informed approach to the preparation of legislation in this area.

Many of the interest groups who recently met with the representatives of the child care legislation unit in the Department of Health and Children during the consultation process on the ratification of the Hague Convention will also be involved in the consultation process on post-adoption contact. These interest groups are aware [1288] of the approach being taken in this area and of the priority which the Department of Health and Children attaches to the overall introduction of legislation on adoption and associated issues. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, will listen carefully to all views before finalising his proposals so that this issue can be dealt with in a coherent, integrated and sensitive manner.