Plan to extend adoption threshold misplaced


OPINION:THE PROPOSAL to extend the threshold for the adoption of children in care is misplaced, notwithstanding the view expressed by Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan, (“Amendment can advance children’s position in State”, September 13th).

The object of the suggested constitutional change is to provide for such children to be eligible for adoption without their married parents’ consent.

Most parents whose children are in care retain a positive emotional attachment to them, which is reciprocated. Those parents whose inadequacies result in the State intervening may go to great lengths to maintain contact with children.

Nevertheless, they might well be susceptible to suggestions that their children would be better off adopted. Instead of this approach, parents and their children’s dual rights should be supported. These are a parent’s right and responsibility to care for their children together with their children’s right to their identity.

It is already the case in respect of adoptions that many children seek out their identity as they get older. Difficulties in so doing can cause severe emotional trauma.

For children in care that right is reflected by legislation which, in Ireland, directs the Health Service Executive to provide for regular contact between children in care and their parents.

The problem of stability for children in care will not be resolved by extending the availability of adoption. Instead, the solution lies in accurate identification of children’s needs and supporting them and their carers in meeting the challenges which that poses. The HSE has extensive powers of intervention. If there is a problem affecting the stability of children in care, it is that those powers are applied inconsistently and sometimes to an inadequate standard.

Resolving that problem within the framework of existing legislation should be the priority. Thus, when children are removed from their parents, the object should be to identify in a timely manner the best option likely to promote stability in their lives.

Comprehensive assessments identifying children’s needs which this presupposes are often lacking. These should outline a plan to address children’s identified needs – including arrangements to promote and maintain contact with their natural family.

Too often, “assessments” simply list behaviours that may have followed abuse, family breakdown, rejection or multiple care placements. They may not present an understanding of children’s background, experiences and emotional wellbeing focused on addressing their existing needs.

If a child is to be placed in care, an assessment will provide a foundation for establishing the most suitable placement. This will minimise likelihood of placement breakdown. Addressing this is not a resource issue. It can be resolved by implementing a process for which there is training, guidance and monitoring to ensure its quality and consistency.

The present legal position under the Adoption Act 1988 allows the adoption of children without the consent of married parents when a court determines they have been abandoned. The test for abandonment is high and rightly so. If it cannot be established, then parental contact exists and the focus should be on promoting rather than extinguishing it. This balances both parents’ and their children’s rights to know and have a relationship with each other.

There is no evidence that adoption provides greater stability for children who have suffered adversity. Widening the threshold for adoption may simply reduce the cost of providing for children in care while doing nothing to meet their needs.

Eric Plunkett is a retired childcare manager with the HSE, with 35 years’ experience as a social worker in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Republic

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