Concern for adoption after children's referendum unfounded, says Minister


FEARS OF “forced adoptions” if the children’s amendment is carried could not be further from the truth, according to the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald.

Ms Fitzgerald told a Law Society seminar on the proposed amendment yesterday that the adoption regime contemplated by the amendment will be fundamentally different from that which operates in the UK, where children in care are eligible for adoption.

“It is very rare here for children to be adopted without the consent of their parents,” she said.

“It is already possible under our adoption law that where parental failure exists for a period the High Court can order adoption.

“The new conditions are that where there has been three years of parental failure and the child has been in the care of the prospective adopters for 18 months, and where the failure of the parents is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the High Court can make an adoption order.

“This is a very different approach to the UK. We don’t assume that if a child is in foster care they are available for adoption. There will be a huge number of safeguards.”

Ms Fitzgerald said the reference to a “proportionate” intervention in a family meant there should be early intervention and family support. “The intervention should be proportionate to the risk the child might be facing,” she said.

She pointed out that there were over 32,000 referrals relating to abuse and neglect in 2011, of which 1,500 cases of abuse and serious neglect were confirmed. She also pointed out that, according to the recent report on child deaths, some of the children died in the care of their families, but were known to State services. She said the authors, Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, had said that early intervention might have changed things for them.

Referring to the provision for the voluntary placement of the children of married parents for adoption, she said she did not expect there to be many, but this did place all children on an equal footing with regard to adoption. “Some children will have a second chance at a normal family life,” she said.

The amendment was only one aspect of improving things for children. There was a need to improve practice everywhere, to look at resources and how services were organised, she said.

Former Supreme Court judge Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness told the seminar that the Constitution did not actually say it was only talking about the marital family, that came about as a result of Supreme Court judgments. “An accretion of judgments has built up so that one lot of children is treated very differently to another lot of children. The protection of the family was only guaranteed when the family was legally married according to Irish law.”

These judgments arose from a series of cases, usually adoption cases, where the natural parents later married and changed their minds about the adoption.

Gerry Durcan SC said that a recent judgment of Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell was very significant. He had pointed out that the presumption that a child was best-off in a family of married parents was only common sense, adding that the State would only interfere “when a family is not functioning and providing the benefits to its members (and thus the benefits to society) which the Constitution contemplates”. The jurisprudence of the Supreme Court might have been very different if this focus on the benefits to society and family members had existed before, he said.

Solicitor Muriel Walls said the amendment, if passed, would strengthen the position of unmarried fathers and provide a platform for them to say they must have equal rights. She stressed the importance of parents listening to children where there were family law disputes.

Sinead Kearney, also a solicitor, said all the safeguards concerning consent to an adoption for an unmarried mother that exist in law will now apply to married parents voluntarily giving their child for adoption.