There are one or two dates in your life that you only later realise had life-changing significance. For me it was November 1st, 2010. That day the Republic finally enacted the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement to help ensure that adoptions from abroad take place in the best interests of the children involved.
In the simplest of terms, it now meant that anyone in the State who was trying to adopt a child from abroad, and whose legal permission to adopt was granted after that date, could now do so only from a country that complied with the Hague convention. It wasn’t until a year later that I fully realised the devastating impact of that date on my life and on my lifelong hopes of being a parent.
There is very little domestic adoption here now. People hoping to adopt have to go outside the State, to arrange an “intercountry adoption”. I have been in this system for more than eight years. Adoption in the Republic has become a Kafkaesque process that is almost impossible to explain or to understand. Little ever seems to happen to move it forwards.
The timeline of my adoption process is this: in 2006 I went to a mandatory HSE information meeting; I did paperwork; I waited years to be called for mandatory HSE group preparation classes; I did more paperwork; I was called for weekly preparation classes; I did more paperwork; I waited again. In 2010 I was assigned a social worker, with whom I had several one-to-one assessment sessions; I did more paperwork; I waited months for the HSE to send my file on to the local adoption committee; I waited months for the committee to send my file on to the Adoption Authority of Ireland; I waited months for the authority to issue a declaration of eligibility and suitability. In September 2011 I finally received my declaration, which is the legal document that allows you to adopt a child.
Then I began to understand the consequences, for me and for every other potential adoptive parent, of the Republic’s ratification of the 1993 convention. Despite the astonishing 17 years the Republic took to enact what had been agreed at The Hague, the State seemed to have neglected to plan for what was to happen now.
Before November 2010, government agreements meant the principal countries from which Irish people could adopt children were Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam – known, in bureaucratic jargon, as the Republic's "sending countries". Russia and Ethiopia do not comply with the convention, so they are no longer options for anyone with a declaration issued after November 2010, a "post-Hague declaration". Those countries are also now closed to people who adopted from them with pre-Hague declarations and had hoped to return to adopt another child. Lobby groups have been established for both Russia and Ethiopia, seeking bilateral agreements with the Republic, but so far they have had no success.
Bulgaria complies with the convention, and a number of Irish people have sent their applications there, but since 2010 just one Bulgarian child has been adopted from Ireland by parents with a post-Hague declaration. Nobody could call that an encouraging statistic.
What would seem obvious is that authorities here needed to build relationships with new compliant countries before ratifying the convention (and there are scores of them). But that did not happen, and it is not because there are no longer any children in desperate need of homes.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter recently promised legislation to allow same-sex couples in civil partnerships to adopt, and this is welcome. But nobody appears to have noticed that adoption is nearly impossible for anyone now, whether gay or straight.
There have been other intercountry adoptions here since the enactment of the Hague convention. They continued until last year for people whose declarations were issued before November 2010, as the declarations were valid for three years. There were 446 such adoptions between 2011 and 2013.
But there has been a stark change since the convention was ratified. Only 11 children have been adopted by people with post-Hague declarations: two in 2011, six in 2012, three in 2013. There have been no post-Hague adoptions so far this year. It is hard not to conclude that intercountry adoption has all but stopped here.
Two of the 11 children came from Britain, which is not one of the Republic’s “sending countries”. The Adoption Authority of Ireland says that in the case of Britain “there is usually a pre-existing familial relationship between the adoptive parents and the child, or the recognition of adoptions which have been carried out in the United Kingdom, sometimes stretching back many years”.
Who was responsible for policy in preparation for the ratification of the Hague convention? According to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, "planning for this legislative change and the supporting policies was developed in the department [then of health and children] over a number of years in advance of the presentation of the Bill, in consultation with relevant stakeholders with the approval of Government."
But what did that planning amount to, “over a number of years”, given that the post-Hague adoption figures are so astonishingly low?
Five hundred and thirty-seven declaration of eligibility and suitability, all post-Hague, are still valid here. As most were issued to couples, about 1,000 people have been affected. A declaration is initially valid for two years, at which point it can be extended by a year. After that you must apply again, and be reassessed, if you want to remain in the process. My declaration will expire in September, and I am no closer to being a parent than I was eight years ago, when I started. I have already begun applying for a second declaration.
The Adoption Authority of Ireland was established the day the Republic enacted the Hague convention, taking over from the disbanded Adoption Board. The authority's members are appointed by the Government. The chairman is Geoffrey Shannon, and he has six fellow members. There are also seven staff. The Irish Times made several attempts to contact Shannon, and was referred to the authority's acting chief executive, Kiernan Gildea.
The organisation has already had two chief executives, Elizabeth Canavan and Pat Bennett. The post, which has been vacant since September, has just been advertised again. The turnover might suggest a difficulty of continuity of leadership. The authority says that “while the changes in CEO have been challenging, the executive and the board have worked closely to prevent any continuity issues arising. As such, the authority does not perceive any difficulty in the continuity of leadership within the organisation.”
The authority is an agency of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, but Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald seems not to be kept informed of at least some of the authority’s decisions. In January, for example, she publicly blocked the authority’s proposed recommendation to cap at 42 the age of people who want to adopt from abroad. “An age limit of 42 years would discriminate against many prospective parents who would otherwise provide a child with a loving home in compliance with Hague convention standards,” she said.
For its part, the authority says it “ensures that the Minister is advised of matters concerning its operations, as required”.
Then there is the money. Arc Adoption was among Ireland’s first Hague-accredited agencies. One of the countries it is permitted to work with is Bulgaria; the fee to adopt from Bulgaria through Arc is €16,650.
Since June 2012 Arc has also been accredited to work with the United States. Shane Downer, Arc's chief executive, says the agency sent nine letters to the Adoption Authority of Ireland, seeking clarification about how to proceed. More than 21 months after being accredited, it says it is still waiting for this information, so it has not yet sent any applications to the US. (When asked to confirm this, the Adoption Authority of Ireland said that it cannot comment on its interactions with individual accredited bodies.)
Arc’s core fee to adopt from the United States will be between €10,000 and €12,000. US agency fees, associated expenses and travel costs currently add up to an additional €40,000 or so. If this is even one example of the costs involved from now on, anybody who wants to adopt will need to have €50,000 or more available.
That automatically excludes anyone on a low income, although wanting to adopt is not confined to middle-class people. The desire to be a parent is surely the most classless one imaginable – except, it seems, for people in Ireland who want to adopt from abroad. How can that be right?
Meanwhile, people are getting older, as we keep waiting and the years pass. And as almost everyone I’ve met in the process along the way is, like me, currently childless either for medical reasons or because of personal circumstances, our emotional investment in the process is extremely high.
Being assessed for your suitability to adopt a child is a lengthy, exhausting and often extremely invasive process. Nobody likes it, but everyone understands the need for such thoroughness, because it is all in the best interests of the child. Adoption is always a service for children, not for adults.
Deeply arduous as the process sometimes was, my social worker could not have been more professional in all her many meetings with me and with my referees and prospective guardians. Just as importantly, she was also unfailingly kind, and kindness matters a lot when you’re undergoing such forensic assessment in order to become a parent, one of the most important of life experiences.
In hard practical terms, however, at least 150 hours must have been spent on my case. Unless I can adopt a child, that considerable investment of HSE and other State resources in my assessment, and in those of many others, will have been a waste of taxpayers’ money. How can that be appropriate in a strained public-health system in which every euro is supposed to be carefully spent?
Many social workers around the country work exclusively in intercountry adoption, and an entire team works in Dublin, in a designated building. What of the hundreds of people who are thinking about adoption or are already in the assessment process? Are they told how low their chances are of ever adopting once they come out the other end of a gruelling assessment process that is costing the State money it cannot afford?
We asked the Adoption Authority of Ireland what it would say to the hundreds of people who hold, or will soon hold, post-Hague declarations. “The purpose of adoption is to provide a family for children where that is in their best interests. In the case of intercountry adoption, it is to provide a family for children in circumstances where adoption is not happening within their country of origin. The success of the authority’s work is not measured by the number of adoptions which it processes, but rather by the quality and propriety of those adoptions.”
Over the many years I have been in the system I have experienced many emotions. At the beginning I was hopeful, joyful and elated. As time went on I became, variously, anxious, distressed, bewildered, impatient, angry and incredulous. These days I mostly feel powerless. It’s a long time since I have felt any hope, joy or elation about the intercountry adoption process.
One line regularly quoted to us potential adoptive parents is that “everyone has a right to be assessed, but nobody has the right to be a parent”. I agree, but since November 1st, 2010, my chance of ever becoming a parent, and that of the hundreds of other people holding declarations, is virtually nil because of what seems to be mystifying State incompetence.
I never considered I had a right to be a parent, but I had always believed I had a right for a chance to try. As only 11 children have been adopted in the past three years by parents with declarations issued after the Adoption Act of 2010, that chance to be a parent has become so infinitesimally small that I now despair of it ever happening.
Bureaucrat's guide to adoption: A glossary
Adoption Authority of Ireland: the organisation through which all intercountry adoptions must be approved and then registered.
Declaration of eligibility and suitability: the legal document the authority gives a potential parent who has successfully completed a mandatory HSE assessment. It is initially valid for two years, at which point it can be extended for an extra year. After that, to remain in the process, potential parents have to be reassessed.
Referral: the process of matching a child with a potential parent. This is done by the agency in the "sending country". If the Adoption Authority of Ireland approves the match, it contacts the parent and allows the process to move on.
Hague convention: the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is an international agreement to ensure that adoptions from abroad take place in the best interests of the children. Ireland ratified the convention on July 28th, 2010, and enacted it on November 1st that year.
Sending country: countries that comply with the convention and have children in need of adoption. The convention refers to them as countries of origin.