Topical Issues Debate – Inter Country Adoptions – Wednesday, 18th January 2012.

January 18th, 2012 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to raise the important issue of intercountry adoptions. I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the excellent job she has done since taking over her portfolio. She has rightly placed the welfare of our children at the heart of Government. With intercountry adoptions, she inherited the previous Government’s decision in January 2010 to suspend indefinitely our bilateral adoption agreement with Vietnam, which left hundreds of families in limbo. Little if any effort was expended on rectifying this situation before she assumed office. I know from working with a number of families in County Clare and elsewhere that they are appreciative of her efforts and the speed with which she has acted.
As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade I take a great interest in intercountry adoptions. I am in regular contact with a number of families and I believe that the renewed diplomatic efforts undertaken by this Government have influenced the decision by the Vietnamese Government to ratify the Hague Convention, which will come into effect on 1 February.

In September I visited Vietnam in my role as Chairman of the committee and I met Vietnam’s Justice Minister at the request of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy O’Sullivan, has since met the Vietnamese Minister and the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has just returned from a visit to Vietnam. I found the Justice Minister and the Vietnamese Government very supportive and anxious to renew our bilateral arrangements. I was not surprised when they lodged their documentation for ratification with the Hague Convention on 1 November.

I am aware that a number of technical issues remain to be addressed but significant progress has been made. I ask the Minister to update me on her visit to Vietnam and what she now expects in terms of a final agreement. A number of families are anxious to know when they might expect to be able to recommence their adoption proceedings.
Following my visit to Vietnam a number of families contacted me regarding the possibility of negotiating a bilateral intercountry adoption agreement with Ethiopia. When I raised the matter with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, in Addis Ababa he assured me that he would bring my concerns to the attention of his relevant Cabinet colleges. I understand the Minister has given authorisation to the chairman of the Adoption Authority, Geoffrey Shannon, to open discussions with officials in Ethiopia with a view to entering into a bilateral arrangement. I welcome this initiative and I would be grateful if she could update me on those discussions.

We read in Sunday’s newspapers the disturbing news about illegal adoptions in Mexico. I realise the Minister may be constrained from speaking in detail on this matter due to possible proceedings. I understand three Mexican women have been arrested and seven babies have been taken into state care. It has been suggested that a number of Irish couples may be involved. Reports suggest that children were bought from cash strapped mothers and then handed over to foreign couples who were looking to adopt.

It is an appalling situation. The Adoption Authority has warned parents against entering into private arrangements with agencies or individuals in Mexico and it has been working to formalise procedures between our countries. It is very important that we put in place formal bilateral arrangements which guarantee protection for the adopted child, who must come first. I ask the Minister to comment on this issue, if she is able to do so, and to indicate the progress made on formal arrangements between Mexico and Ireland.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald):
I thank Deputy Breen for raising this matter, which is of great interest to many Members of this House. I commend him on the important work he has done as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade on behalf of my Department during his recent visit to Vietnam.

The Hague Convention on lntercountry Adoption will enter into force in Vietnam on 1 February 2012. This is a significant milestone in seeking to promote a secure basis for intercountry adoption between our two countries, which was effectively in suspension for the past two years.
I have just returned from a useful visit to Vietnam that focused on intercountry adoption. My recent visit to Hanoi provided an opportunity for direct, personal engagement with relevant Vietnamese officials. I have engaged at a political and diplomatic level and my trip coincided with a visit by a delegation from the Adoption Authority of Ireland led by Mr. Geoffrey Shannon. While I was in Hanoi I was briefed on the programme of work that the Vietnamese Government has undertaken to complete the ratification process and improve its systems of adoption. It introduced new adoption legislation and there is a greater motivation to ensure all adoptions are processed centrally. It also wants to improve its systems of child protection and adoption, particularly domestic adoptions.

I met the Vietnamese Justice Minister, Mr. Ha Hung Cuong, who specifically asked me to inform Irish families that Vietnam is ready to implement the Hague Convention and that it is the Vietnamese Government’s desire to co-operate with Ireland in respect of intercountry adoption of children for whom suitable families cannot be found in Vietnam. I particularly raised the issue of the 19 families who were caught just at the time when adoptions stopped two years ago and the 200 families who have been assessed. There is major sensitivity towards these families and they will be prioritised.
There are a number of key steps which must be undertaken next. We need to have an administrative agreement with Vietnam; that is the way to ensure best practice. This was the subject of separate discussions by the Adoption Authority of Ireland, AAI, with the relevant body in Vietnam. The authority is continuing its work on the accreditation of agencies, which is essential. We need an agency or agencies that will assist adoptive couples in Vietnam, and I am assured that this will be done by 1 February, which will lead to a further opening of inter-country adoption between the two countries. I have also invited the Vietnamese Minister for justice to visit Ireland. I am hopeful that, pending the developments I have mentioned, we will see inter-country adoptions beginning again between Ireland and Vietnam in the coming weeks or months. However, it is a changed situation, as the focus will be on domestic adoption first.
With regard to Ethiopia, some adoptions are currently being effected under transitional arrangements. They go ahead. However, I must inform the House that Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention and, therefore, following the lapse of the transitional arrangements that currently exist, if we intend to continue adoptions from Ethiopia, a bilateral agreement will be necessary. Under section 73 of the Adoption Act, if I give the authority to the AAI to begin discussions with a non-contracting state to the Hague Convention, that can happen. We would need, if we were to do that, to analyse the current situation in Ethiopia and consider the compatibility of the laws between the two countries and the plans Ethiopia has to sign the Hague Convention. I gave approval very recently to commence the process of examining the feasibility of a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia, and the AAI has confirmed that it has commenced this process. I am conscious of the many families that have adopted from Ethiopia already and that they would like to see adoptions beginning again, but I must emphasise that as Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, this would require the negotiation of a bilateral agreement covering the key issues of consent and the circumstances that might apply if there were to be further adoptions.

The Deputy also asked about the events in Mexico recently which have received extensive coverage. The chairman of the AAI has commented publicly on the recent events. I must point out that comprehensive and clear guidelines about adoptions in Mexico have been on the AAI website for the past 15 months. I asked the AAI to visit Mexico and it did so earlier last year. I commend the authority on the work it has been doing with a whole range of countries. It had, I believe, seven advisories on its website to inform couples of how they should proceed if Mexico was their country of choice for adoption. I reiterate that the Mexican authority has stated there is no provision for private adoptions in the context of inter-country adoption between Ireland and Mexico. On that basis, prospective adoptive parents are and have been advised by the AAI not to enter into any private arrangements with individuals or private agencies in order to effect an adoption in Mexico, which is a signatory to the Hague Convention. That is very clear. Anyone considering Mexico as a country of origin should consult the AAI website for the latest advisory. Those who have already adopted from that jurisdiction or who are in the process of doing so should also refer to the authority’s advice, which was issued on 16 January, and there will be further advisories.

The unfortunate developments we have seen in recent weeks underline the vital role of the authority in overseeing the implementation of the Hague Convention and the standards that apply between countries – the standards that must apply if we are to have the protection of children at the centre of our priorities. We want to promote the very best interests of children in our adoption policy nationally and internationally, and that is what is behind the information that is given to people by the AAI. If we do that, it will lead to high-quality decision making with regard to inter-country adoption, and the right decisions being made for children and indeed for parents.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I thought it was important to raise this issue on the record, because there are many concerned couples out there. As the Minister said, there are 19 couples that were almost on the point of adoption before the agreement was broken. I am delighted to hear the Minister say that any difficulties with the agencies will be sorted out before 1 February. That is important. As I said, I have been contacted by couples not only in my own constituency, but also outside my constituency. Much work has been done in this regard by the Minister in a very short period. Bilateral relations with Vietnam, not just in the area of adoptions, have also improved substantially as a result of the Minister’s visit and those of the former Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, and myself as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. I look forward to more progress in this regard.

I know the Minister probably cannot give a timescale for the resumption of adoptions, but that is what every couple wants to know, particularly with regard to Vietnam. When does she think adoptions could proceed again? It is a difficult question as there are still some hurdles to jump, but I know she and her officials in the Department will be working closely with the Vietnamese officials to ensure that any concerns are resolved quickly and that the couples who want to adopt a Vietnamese child can do so as quickly as possible. I believe there are about 800 adopted Vietnamese children already in the country, and when they grow up they will want to know about their culture and heritage. I have visited some of the parents and seen how the children are cherished and loved. However, I also understand the point of view of the Vietnamese Government, which wants to deal with the area of domestic adoptions. I thank the Minister again for her reply.
Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Since taking office, I have been trying to bring clarity to the area of inter-country adoption. That applies to Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia – whichever countries we are talking about. For adoptions to take place between two countries, ideally both countries will have signed the Hague Convention; if not, there should be a bilateral agreement. Many Irish parents have already adopted from a range of countries, some of which do not have a bilateral agreement with us. Often, they are anxious to adopt again from the same country. However, the absence of bilateral agreements does make for some difficulties. What I wanted to ensure was that there was no drift and that parents would remain informed. This is why I have, in recent weeks, asked the AAI to send representatives to Florida, Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam to try to achieve clarity with regard to those countries. We can comment on other countries another time.

With regard to the timescale, two issues must be dealt with before the adoption process can reopen: Vietnam must sign the Hague Convention, which it will do on 1 February, and Ireland needs to have accredited agencies to work there with the couples. My understanding is that both of those issues will be dealt with by 1 February. The contents of the administrative agreement have been agreed. There are some technical difficulties outstanding, but we believe they can be resolved in a number of weeks. The chairman of the AAI is confident they can be resolved fairly quickly.

Inter-country adoption between Ireland and Vietnam will begin to open up again, but I emphasise that because of our new Adoption Act, the standards that apply in the Hague Convention and the new procedures in Vietnam for domestic adoption, it is a different situation.
When a child is available for adoption, the Vietnamese authorities must first check whether there are people in Vietnam who wish to adopt him or her, and that will be a priority. Children with special needs will not be in that position, however. The authorities inform me that families will be asked whether they would like to adopt a child with special needs directly, without the need for a domestic adoption procedure. The work there will relate mainly to intercountry adoption.
It is a changed situation. We will put more information up on the websites of both the Adoption Authority and the Department so parents will be as fully informed as possible. That is the best information I can give the Deputy at this point.