Child and Family Relationships Bill 2015

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her introduction of this Bill, which is complex but rational and workable legislation, and for being so progressive in carrying on the type of reforming work commenced by her predecessor, rather than leaving things as they are and taking the “cute” political option.

Like Deputy Ó Caoláin, I come from a part of the country where people tend to look at issues with a certain amount of pragmatism and rationale. We pride ourselves on that. I would like to dispel a few of the myths and distortions around this Bill. Many people do not appear to understand what is at issue, which has led to many popular myths around the legislation. It is known to many but not to all that 36% of children are born outside the traditional family model, 352,000 children are currently cared for by lone parents and only 233 children are currently being reared by same-sex couples. Let us be proportionate about this. It is also worth mentioning that these 233 children are being reared by same-sex couples irrespective of the effects of this legislation.

Adoption is a very complex and difficult process, and our provisions must fit with the Hague Convention. To obtain an assessment for a declaration of eligibility, an applicant must apply in the first instance to the HSE, which is a complex and rigorous process that lasts as long as seven years and includes interviews, group sessions and one-to-one sessions. To put this in perspective, between January and September 2014 only 83 children were adopted in this country. Because of other progressive legislation, the number of children available for adoption has radically decreased. Also, foreign adoptions must comply with Irish criteria for eligibility. Foreign adoption is an expensive process that is often fraught with delays. It is important to put that background information on the record.

We now have blended families in Ireland, including one-parent families, children living with cohabiting parents or same-sex parents, and children living with grandparents or other members of their extended families. The composition of the traditional Irish family is ever-changing and it is important that we as legislators ensure that our laws respond effectively and comprehensively to reflect these changes. Every child living in this country is entitled to legal clarity, security and stability. This Bill seeks to ensure that.

Part 4 of the Bill, which amends the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, will enable the court to appoint the step-parent, civil partner, cohabiting parent or guardian with custody of the child to nominate a temporary guardian for that child. This will be particularly important for anyone who is a foster parent in that it allows them a legal right to access and custody. This is an important aspect of the Bill.
The inclusion of this part is also important in instances in which a parent with sole custody of a child falls ill and is unable to physically care for the child. Under this provision, such parents can now nominate a temporary guardian for the child. That is a simple but important reform that will be welcomed in the real world.

Section 40, which is very important, inserts a new subsection (4A) which seeks to make it more straightforward for unmarried fathers to obtain guardianship rights for their children. We have received major complaints in that regard for years. The process will be made more simple. When a relationship breaks down for whatever reason, many fathers feel their rights of access to their children are unprotected under current family law. I welcome the inclusion of section 40. Grandparents can also apply directly to the court for access, which is very important. Often, access to a child by one set of grandparents is removed in an acrimonious family breakdown. That is a very important reform.
Given the time constraints, I will move quickly through the important points I wish to make. Typically, in court proceedings involving children, there are individuals and parties present who claim to represent the voice of the child in question. Children are now to be provided with an option for their voice to be heard. That is an important provision. Traditionally, it was assumed that X and Y knew what was best for a child. Now, if a child is capable of making a representation of his or her view of what is right for him or her, that will be taken into account. An interesting and worthy provision is to be introduced for children under two years of age in allowing for an expert view to be taken into account in a decision. Such provisions are all important.

The crucial section relating to same-sex partnerships in this very complex and major legislation has inevitably garnered all of the publicity surrounding the Bill. In the case of same-sex partnerships, where one or neither member of a couple is the biological parent of a child they wish to adopt, the legislation will ensure that the child in question gains a legally recognised parent. It rightly gives the child legal recognition, rights of succession and other such rights. Last year, GLEN made a submission to the Department of Justice and Equality based on its findings that a substantial number of same-sex partners were forming families and parenting children. That reality exists outside of the gates of Leinster House. It is shocking to think that such families currently exist without the protection of a secure legal framework. That is essentially what the Bill is doing – creating a legal framework for the protection of a child in such a situation.

I made the point at a meeting last night that any same-sex couple will go through the extraordinarily rigorous process – rightly so – of adoption and that all of the rigours of the law apply in that regard. The popular mythology that it will be easy for a family unit that might not be capable of rearing a child to adopt one has no validity. The tragedy for many eligible and wonderful people seeking to adopt children currently is that they cannot access children because of other progressive developments in society. Cohabiting couples must have been living together for more than three years to become eligible to begin a process that could last for another seven to ten years and might never be completed. Those are important, practical aspects of the legislation.

We must legislate for all of the human realities and myriad complex family structures that exist outside the Chamber. In all instances, the paramount responsibility on us is to ensure that the child’s rights are looked after and that the child is central to the process. That is the reason for the rigorous adoption process. We wish to ensure that children will have rights of succession, good care and all the other rights of a child, including intervention by social services where the rights of the child are not sustained. The more one legitimises, legalises and formalises the home situation in which children live, and the more one embraces them in law and brings them into the country’s legal processes, the more likely one is to achieve the optimum outcome for the child. It is proper that children achieve the best outcomes within legal structures. In that sense, the voiceless one at the centre of the process is the infant child. That is where we must ensure the best possible protection. My submission is that the legislation recognises the variety of situations into which a child can be born today, legitimises those complex situations and brings them under the remit of proper processes and practice. That is a reasonable thing to do and it is what should happen. To shirk this duty would be to discriminate against children both born and unborn.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website