The Adoption Authority of Ireland, lone-parent organisations and legal practitioners have called for changes to legislation requiring mothers to adopt their own children when their new partners apply to adopt them.
Under current legislation, if a husband wishes to adopt his wife’s child from a previous relationship, the woman must give up her legal rights and adopt her own child as part of what is known as the “step-family” process.
The child’s birth certificate is replaced with an adoption certificate on which the natural mother is shown as the child’s adoptive mother.
The Adoption Authority has said the process can be completed in as little as six months in uncomplicated cases, although those working in the area say it normally takes between two and six years.
According to figures released to The Irish Times by the authority, of 116 domestic adoptions last year, 86 were step-family adoptions, meaning 86 natural mothers became adoptive mothers to their own children.
The process involves the mother and her husband being assessed for suitability and eligibility for adoption by the Child and Family Agency.
A social worker carries out the assessment and visits the family home.
Along with her husband, the mother must be Garda vetted and there must also be social-protection clearance from other countries she has lived in.
Under current legislation, only a married couple or a single person can apply to adopt a child.
Natural fathers must be notified of adoptions unless notification is impossible, in which case the authority must apply to the High Court to dispense with the requirement, as happened in four cases earlier this week.
A natural father is permitted to withhold his permission for the adoption if he is a legally appointed guardian of his child.
The authority has made repeated calls for the law to be changed so that mothers will not be required to adopt their own children.
A spokesman said the situation in Ireland was unique in Europe: that a woman would technically have to give up her legal rights to her child in order to have joint legal rights with her husband.
“There should be a legal means other than adoption to be explored in step-family and extended-family situations to establish the rights and responsibilities of adoptive parents without changing the status of the child’s mother to that of an adoptive parent,” he said.
Margaret Dromey, chief executive of Treoir, the national federation advising unmarried parents and their children, said when adoption legislation was passed in 1952, it was designed to allow babies of single women to be placed with married couples.
“For years mothers would say to us, here in Treoir, ‘this is inappropriate. I shouldn’t be becoming an adoptive mother’,” she said.
“Mothers absolutely resent it. It means when a child produces a certificate, it is an adoption certificate and no longer a birth certificate, and that is an issue that can be difficult for people.”
She said there is currently no other legal way for a husband to become a legal guardian of a step-child.
The organisation has been lobbying for change, she said, and the Child and Family Relationships Bill, at consultation phase, includes an element to allow a man or woman to become a guardian of his or her partner’s child without having to adopt.
However, there are additional legal advantages to adoption, including succession rights and the acquisition of a family name.
“There should be legal protection; guardianship is a good way to go and adoption should be another option without a mother having to adopt her own child,” Ms Dromey said.
Karen Kiernan, chief executive of charity One Family, said it is not satisfactory that a mother has to adopt her own child.
She said allowing guardianship in the new bill is a good first step. “There are lots of different types of families and we need to support them,” she said.
Family law solicitor Geraldine Keehan, of Augustus Cullen Law, said she believes a change in the situation would require an amendment to the Constitution.
“In my view, such a change would be in the best interests of children,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs said it was reviewing adoption policy and legislation including “how to address the anomalies” in step-parent adoption “including the requirement for a natural parent to ‘adopt’ their own child”.