Adoption measures may offer vulnerable children ‘second chance’

It is almost impossible for some to be adopted

Legislation was introduced in the 1950s which provided the legal basis to adoption for the first time. Photograph:  Getty Images/Comstock Images

Legislation was introduced in the 1950s which provided the legal basis to adoption for the first time. Photograph: Getty Images/Comstock Images

 

There are more than 6,000 children in the State care system, but adoption is rarely seen as an option. Legal obstacles mean it is not a realistic option, even for young people who have spent years in care or have no contact with their parents.

Just 18 adoption orders have been granted this year for children in foster care. The figure last year was 17, while 12 children in long-term foster care were adopted in 2012.

The obstacles to adoption owe much to our tangled and often shameful social history. Legislation was introduced in the 1950s which provided the legal basis to adoption for the first time. They brought order to the ad hoc arrangements operating until that point.

This legislative framework, however, is from another era when adoption was conceived primarily as a way of saving children from illegitimacy.

Eligible

This law was changed in the late 1980s – and even then, marital children became eligible for adoption only once they were “freed by adoption” by order of the High Court.

Today it is almost impossible for a child born to married parents to be adopted, regardless of how they may have been neglected.

For those born into unmarried parents, it is slightly easier. The court must be satisfied there has been a “total abandonment” of parental rights and duties.

Under new legislation drafted to coincide with the referendum on children’s rights, the process of adoption would become easier.

Children in long-term foster care – defined as three years or more – would become eligible for adoption. It’s estimated that about 2,000 children in foster care meet this definition. In addition, the marital status of the parents would no longer be a factor. Adoption may not be the answer in all cases. But, as the chairman of the Adoption Authority Geoffrey Shannon says, it could offer the chance of a secure family for a child with little hope of returning to its birth parents.

Research by the Irish Care Leavers’ Network reinforced the notion that while many are in favour of change, it is by no means unanimous. In a survey of almost 100 care leavers, the network found that about 60 per cent would have liked the option of adoption if it were open to them.

Family links

Wayne Dignam

“My view is that it is a good option. But it needs to be considered for each individual case and there needs to be full accountability and transparency over the process . . . most importantly, the child’s voice and best interests need to be considered.”

The experience of many young people in foster care is positive and outcomes are good in general. But there are concerns over whether enough resources are being made available to ensure it is a safe and effective service.

Last week a report by Hiqa found that up to a fifth of children in foster care in parts of Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow did not have a social worker. In addition, inspectors found a number of foster care households had not had any visits for years from professionals to check if children were safe and their needs were being addressed.

Adoption is controversial and emotional terrain with many different perspectives. Anything that touches on blood ties, heredity, religion or race stirs up deeply held views.

Parents’ rights

Adoption, after all, has the far-reaching effect of nullifying all rights and duties of the birth parents. The adoptive parents – in legal terms – take over full parental rights and duties.

But for Dr Shannon, providing for adoption from the long-term foster care system is a crucial and important option. “Adoption is not the answer in every situation, but where a child is in foster care without a realistic hope of returning home, adoption can allow the child a secure family that has legal permanence.”

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