Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Irish Times – Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Adoption provides an opportunity for children to experience the love and security of a permanent family.

OPINION: The Oireachtas is debating adoption: can we please keep sight of what this is all really about, writes SHANE DOWNER 

IT’S ABOUT children. Adoption is about children. It involves a lifelong journey, and it is a private and individual story. It provides loving and secure homes for children, and enables family formation. 

Imagine your son or daughter, in a cot with one or two other babies. Imagine that cot in a room with, say 15 other cots, similarly occupied. All day, every day. What might it sound like? 

Adoption is a challenging, lengthy and ultimately very important practice. It provides opportunities for some children, who otherwise might never experience the love and security of a permanent family, instead residing in institutions throughout their childhood.

We know from Irish and international research that these children recover, and gain the opportunity to reach their own potential. They thrive with love and attention, which can only be fully given within a permanent, loving and secure family environment. 

Ireland has important history in terms of adoption, originally as a sending country and now a receiving country for children. We have learnt about adoption through the experience of over 40,000 adoptions of Irish children, and more recently by welcoming nearly 5,000 children into Ireland from 45 countries. 

Currently there are about 500 applications awaiting a referral, which will hopefully lead to a foreign adoption. There are nearly four times that many being assessed, or waiting up to three years to start an assessment process, which can take another 18 months to successfully complete. Only then can they actually apply abroad to adopt a child, and then wait up to 18 months or more for a referral. 

The intercountry adoption community in Ireland has grown considerably and there are now few people in Ireland who do not have a connection to an adoptive family. There are children adopted into most cities and towns, and their presence is growing more apparent. 

To date, many in our community have been reluctant to talk about intercountry adoption, before they adopt, and even afterwards. Our community has learnt to be afraid. All power rests with the public system, and sometimes with the media. 

We have been silent when scandals have broken and we cringe when a celebrity adoption makes news. “We are not like that,” we whisper, and we worry what strangers may say to our children. Innuendo, hearsay and focus are easy to confuse with truth, reality and honest context. 

However, our children are tough; they are coping, and we are learning to as well. We accept and support a robust assessment process. Not everyone is suitable to be an adoptive parent, and the system needs to be able to identify and decline applicants who are not suitable. However, the days of tolerating prejudice or fear need to end. 

Let’s be clear. The vast majority of social workers are great. They are interested, and they are important. They clearly have the best interest of each child at heart. 

Unfortunately, sometimes the system in which they work is skewed. Local rules may apply age limits, where none exist, or determine that someone who has already beaten cancer must be up to 10 years in remission. And that includes their spouse. In some cases applicants are required to attend a parenting course, or advised which colour child will fit into their neighbourhood, before concluding their assessment. 

Intercountry adoption into Ireland will change, when we finally ratify the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children, and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. We signed up to Hague in 1996, and now we finally have an adoption Bill that potentially, could allow us to ratify it. 

Hague is a unique convention. Like the UN Convention on the Rights of The Child, with which it is closely linked, it sets key aims geared towards protecting children. Unlike other conventions, however, it also provides guidelines on how to get there. While it sets minimum standards for the operation of intercountry adoption, more importantly it encourages member states to work together to achieve those standards, and to continually improve their respective systems and processes. 

Bilateral agreements are one such mechanism through which countries can work together to raise collective standards. Such was our experience with Vietnam, until Minister of State for Children Barry Andrews presided over the closure of intercountry adoptions from Vietnam into Ireland. 

That bilateral agreement was the model for how the Irish Government wanted intercountry adoption to work. It met the Hague standards, according to Brian Lenihan, as a previous minister of state for children, and the adoption board. 

It set clear responsibilities for each country. Vietnam was responsible for making sure that children were eligible and available for adoptions, and Ireland was responsible for assessing prospective adoptive parents to make sure they were eligible, suitable and prepared to parent an intercountry adopted child throughout his or her childhood. Currently, as a result of the expiry of that state-to-state agreement, there are over 1,000 Irish families denied the opportunity to provide a loving and secure home to a child from Vietnam. 

This includes over 270 applications already approved by the adoption board, effectively licensing applicants to become adoptive parents, after a robust and invasive assessment. 

Those files are with the State’s only Adoption Mediation Agency, an Irish not-for-profit organisation, which only works with Vietnam, and now can’t. 

At the same time, some adoptions from Russia have stalled, due to a failure on the Irish side to complete and file post-placement reports.

 Coincidentally, the Vietnam programme recently received an award for its post-placement report system. 

Returning to our starting question – what does it sound like, to have up to 45 young children in a room, sharing cots? Silence is the answer. 

It is shocking to realise that children as young as three or four- months-old can learn institutionalised responses. Dedicated carers who work very, very hard cannot possibly provide the attention and stimulation each child needs. 

These are bright babies – they learn fast. They don’t cry because crying doesn’t bring any attention. 

Intercountry adoption provides an option for some of these children. We often find ourselves debating the practice, and questioning the assurance of adoption processes. The first element is continually and rightly evolving; the second is a function of fear and uncertainty. Establishment and other voices articulate the need for caution, and the soft, deliberate tread of regulation. 

Such an approach has validity, but there comes a time, when leadership and decisions are required. No one condones poor or inappropriate practice. We all unreservedly condemn trafficking and the oppression of any individual rights. However, in our pursuit of pristine processes, we are in danger of crushing the rights of a generation of children. 

As one adoptive parent put it: “I have no doubts about my daughter. I have no doubts or concerns about her adoption. If intercountry adoption did not permit her adoption into our family she might still be in an orphanage. She might never know the security of having a mom and dad. She might not even have life.”

The Vietnamese love their children, as do the Russians, and indeed every country from which Irish applicants adopt. They want them to be loved and welcomed into secure and safe environments. We want the same thing. This is also the aim of the Hague Convention.

Please Minister, repair this situation, before more children learn the silent lesson.

Shane Downer is the chief executive of the International Adoption Association, which provides support to families engaged in intercountry adoption