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Olivia O'Leary: Legal limbo we created denied thousands the right to a family

We're a compassionate people, we Irish. We give generously to charities. We side with the underdog. We have a capacity to put ourselves in other people's shoes, to say: "There but for the grace of God. . ." And yet, for all our compassion, we have for years maintained a constitutional position which has effectively blighted the lives of thousands and thousands of children.

I came across it first as a young reporter, writing a series on adoption for The Irish Times. I rang a nun, an admirable woman, who was in charge of an orphanage for girls in Dublin. She told me how sometimes in the middle of the night, a youngster would wake and cry out for her mother. Within minutes, she said, the whole dormitory would be awake, all crying out for mothers they could have had little or no memory of.

It is an image that has always haunted me, children crying out in the night for their dream of a mother, a mother they would never have -- some because their parents were dead, some because they were at an age when adoption was now unlikely to happen, but many more because they were the children of legally married parents and could not be adopted.

It seemed extraordinary to me then that we should create a legal limbo in which children whose parents could not look after them because of drink, or drugs, or mental illness, should be forever denied a family. It seems extraordinary to me that that limbo still exists. Why? Because our Constitution protects the rights of legally married parents but makes no reference to the individual rights of a child. It is a perverse stunting of lives.

In all my career as a journalist, I never got such a reaction as I did to that adoption series. People wrote to me from all over the country. When I went down to the stone where the paper was laid out in those old hot metal days -- and women rarely ventured down there because it was an all-male stronghold -- men, tough men, would come across to tell me of their own experiences of adopting children, of how it had changed their lives, of how much joy it had brought them. It seemed such a waste not to be able to join up all that love and generosity on the part of adoptive parents, with the crying need of those children whose legal parents would perhaps never be able to look after them.

Why should the children of legally married parents have fewer rights to adoption than other children? Why should more than 1,600 children in Ireland live in institutions or have only foster parents, no matter how good, because the adoption laws here, taking their lead from the Constitution, say so. The laws say that the child of married parents can only be placed for adoption where it is shown to the court that exceptional circumstances exist and their parents have failed in their duties towards them and will continue to fail until the child reaches 18 years. As a result, it is almost impossible for them to be adopted. I don't know of any other country in the European Union where this is the case.

At last, with the proposed amendment to the Constitution, we have a chance to put that right for the next generation of children. The specific reference to their rights in the Constitution will make children visible. It will mean that when decisions are taken affecting them, their rights will have to be taken into account. It does not mean that parents will no longer have rights. It will simply mean that both sets of rights will have to be looked at.

Putting children's rights specifically into the Constitution will also mean that in those rare enough cases where children are being abused or neglected within their families, the State can step in more quickly to protect them.

It will mean that where the State neglects its duty towards a child, it too can be brought to book. And surely that is what we want. We want a safety net through which no child can slip, not one which is conveniently full of holes.

We have seen in recent years horrific reports of institutional abuse of children, or abuse of children within families where social workers felt helpless to intervene. We were all shocked and asked ourselves what we could do to stop it happening again.

Well, we can start on November 10 by giving children specific rights, by giving them a voice, by trying to ensure that somebody will now be listening when they cry out in the night.

Sunday Independent