Earlier this year, the Government announced its intention to follow through on Averil’s bill to give all adoptees a right to their birth certs and published the outline of an Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill. This Government Bill is largely the same as Averil’s, except for a number of restrictions. It was discussed at the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children today, where Averil and other members questioned the Minister for Children and called for these restrictions to be removed. An extract from Averil’s remarks isÂ below.
Senator Averil Power: “I welcome the fact that the Minister is before the committee to discuss the heads of the Bill. We have come a long way since he was in the Seanad with us earlier in 2015 to discuss the Bill Senator van Turnhout and I brought forward last year. He expressed a desire to do something but also a concern that he might not be able to introduce a retrospective system. I acknowledge that we have come a long way in the interim. I appreciate the work that the Minister has put into this so far.
I have two concerns about the Bill. They are the same concerns that have been raised by the Adoption Rights Alliance, Irish First Mothers and others – of which the Minister is aware – about both the compelling reasons and the statutory declaration. It is important to distinguish between information and contact. I accept that the birth parents’ contact details – or the adopted persons’ details, when it is the other way around – should not be given out without their consent. However, as was quite clearly pointed out to us this morning by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, an adopted person has a right to his or her identity. There are two separate issues. A person cannot be forced to have a relationship if he or she does not wish to but the adopted person’s right to is or her identity is a different issue. While there are valid reasons for withholding someone’s current contact details there are no valid reasons for denying an adopted person a right to his or her birth certificate. However, I understand that there are concerns.
In our discussion with Tusla, one of its representatives cited situations in which it might cause distress to the birth parent to know that the birth certificate is being released. I suspect that the cause of any possible distress, in the minority of situations in which that might occur, is a fear of unwanted contact. It is not about the information; it is about unwanted contact. Current contact details are not being released. There are processes to ensure that this does not happen. By creating an intermediary in the way that we are here, the risk of unwanted contact is lessened. An adopted person can do his or her own tracing using public records to find out who is his or her birth parent. It is an exhausting and difficult process but the only way to find out if the birth parent wants contact is to reach out and ask. There is greater risk of unwanted contacted in the current arrangements. The arrangements that the Minister is putting in place lessen the risk of unwanted contact and that should be sufficient to allay any concerns. The compelling reasons criteria are unnecessary.
Dr. Conor O’Mahony, who has not been in with us yet, has sent us a copy of his submission. He argues quite strongly, from a legal point of view, that there should be no exceptions. He is concerned that the definition may be construed as non-exhaustive and could open the door to other reasons being used to deny access to a birth certificate. Barnardos makes the point that while the Bill provides for compelling reasons to deny an adopted person the right to his or her information, there may be compelling reasons why the adopted person needs that information. It seems that we are looking at only one side of the equation here. I urge the Minister to reconsider the matter. There are better ways of getting around it. Barnardos argue that, instead of the statutory declaration and the exclusion in some circumstances for compelling reasons, a better way to deal with the sensitivities when a person does not wish to have contact is to provide the adopted person with access to an individual or group preparation session. It has recommended a system similar to what we had provided for in our Bill, which is that before the birth certificate is released, the adopted person will have a meeting with a counsellor and discuss the birth parents’ contact wishes. A conversation would be had about the contact wishes so that consideration would be given to the needs of the birth parents. Dr. Fergus Ryan is quite strongly of the view that this would meet the constitutional requirement. I accept that there are measures needed to ensure that the Bill is constitutional but there are better ways to do it.
It is essential that Tusla is given the resources it needs to run an efficient service. I question whether social workers need to be involved in this process. For many birth parents, even the idea of going back to a social worker is a difficult for them because social workers were involved in their being separated from their children. Instead of requiring people to wait for appointments with social workers, it would be preferable to allow them to consult a counsellor of their own choice, as we had in the earlier proposed legislation. There would still be that conversation and that professional support but instead of forcing them to use somebody who they are not happy with they could use a professional of their own choice.
Tusla raised the issue earlier about access to the records of other authorities. That is absolutely essential. We have to use every means available to the State to get the information – the Department of Social Protection, PPS numbers and any other records. We need to look at the data protection laws to make sure that there are no impediments.
I stress the importance of this legislation getting through the Oireachtas and becoming law before the election. It is great that we are finally at the point where we have a Government that will legislate for this area. It has developed a huge head of steam since I first started to push for it a few years ago. I request that the Minister begin drafting the Bill now before he receives the committee’s report. The legislation can be changed to take on board our suggestions on compelling reasons, the statutory declaration and any other changes recommended by the committee. It is complex legislation. It will be helpful to begin the drafting to ensure that we can get the Bill through as soon as possible.”