Comment: Brenda Power: A throwaway society's disposable child

Date: 2005-04-17

Tristan Dowse is an Irish citizen of just three years of age. Like most of us, his first language is English and he holds an Irish passport. But last year, his parents decided they didn’t want him any more. So, having adopted him three years earlier, they abandoned Tristan at an orphanage in Indonesia.
Joe and Lala Dowse clearly think there’s nothing wrong with dumping their son of three years. His Irish father, by way of explanation, said simply: “It did not work out.” The couple had had trouble conceiving while living in Jakarta, so they sourced a local boy. Two years later Mrs Dowse got pregnant and the couple decided to leave the country. Little Tristan had become surplus to requirements.

Happily for the parents, the Indonesian orphanage operates a consumer-friendly returns policy, but should that be allowed? The Indonesian authorities are investigating the legality of his adoption from their end, but under our laws it was legitimate and Tristan is Irish. Despite this fact and that he is said to be quiet and withdrawn, the Department of Foreign Affairs is not considering sending a social worker to look into his fate.

Arguably, the agency that ought to be intervening most urgently is not foreign affairs. We shouldn’t, in the first instance, be dispatching social workers to check up on poor little Tristan. Perhaps, Interpol ought to be engaged to track down the little boy’s parents, and a team of gardai should be on their way to Azerbaijan, where the couple now live to investigate.

Unless, of course, it is not a crime to take your Irish child to a foreign country, dump him in an orphanage there, and promptly move house. In which case foreign affairs may get around to the business of figuring out what to do about a little child, dropped back to his orphanage as if he were a faulty toaster. At least in a shop they might ask you what was wrong with the toaster, how it failed to live up to expectations. You might just have to explain how the relationship with the toaster soured, before they agreed to take it off your hands.

All the Dowses offered by way of justification for dumping Tristan was that the adoption “did not work out”. He was three years old, raised by them from the age of two months. He had hardly had enough time to develop any dysfunctional or challenging attitudes during his eight weeks in the orphanage, much less to exhibit them in his short time with the Dowses.

So what does “not working out” mean? Was he stealing cars, taking heroin, trashing the house? Or was he just in the way? One of the rueful jokes most parents make, when chatting to friends who are thinking of starting a family, is, “you can’t hand them back, you know”. Obviously nobody pointed this out to the Dowses, and now there is genuine cause for concern for Tristan, languishing in his Indonesian orphanage with his Irish passport in safekeeping.

One of the perceived luxuries that the Celtic tiger has brought us over the past decade or so was the indulgence of disposability. Your toaster is acting up, charring your wholegrain instead of turning it a nice golden brown — don’t bother chasing around looking for a local repair shop. Just chuck it in the neighbours’ skip and pick up a new one in a giant electrical superstore. Don’t like your car? Scrap it and trade up with the help of a cheap loan. Not content with the size of your income, the size of your garden, the size of your bum? Don’t you know you are entitled to perfect happiness, so treat yourself — don’t settle for second best.

The British experience seems to suggest that once divorce takes root in a society’s psyche, this same principle extends to relationships. The chances of a marriage lasting a lifetime in Britain are now less than 50/50 and, though we haven’t reached that level just yet, the example offered by youngsters’ celebrity idols certainly appears to normalise that expectation. There was something slightly heartening in the news that Brian McFadden and his new girlfriend were booed at

a recent awards ceremony here, given that he had so recently dumped his wife and small children.

Disposable relationships and 24-hour marriages are almost inevitably destined to be viewed as an accessory to a successful lifestyle — you may not be able to afford Britney’s car but, like her, you can acquire a top-of-the-range mobile phone and an ex-husband by the age of 23.

Certain commentators have long warned that the age of instant gratification — in which neither adults nor children are prepared to deprive themselves of anything or save for anything — could only lead to hardship and heartbreak when life didn’t always deliver on our expectations. Perhaps one sinister manifestation of this extreme disappointment, this feeling that everybody else is having a much better time in a society where we are frequently reassured that the perfect body, the perfect life, the perfect partner, is perfectly attainable, is the level of domestic violence in this country.

Colin Whelan, it now appears, plotted from before his marriage to murder his wife for money.

He stood to gain €500,000 from her accidental death, a fortune which he evidently planned to enjoy with an unsuspecting lady he was wooing by e-mail. And yet he had a great wife, a warm and popular and much-loved woman who adored him. What more did he want, with his new woman and his ill-gotten fortune? And what on earth encouraged him to believe that he should have it? In the past six months two young mothers have been murdered in their homes, in both cases it seems by people they knew. What expectations did they fail to fulfil? Who did they anger so gravely? How were they perceived as meriting summary disposal? So now, it seems, our entitlement to perfect happiness justifies the casual discarding of that which displeases or disappoints or just plain bores us, whether it is a wonky toaster, a crooked nose, an inconvenient wife or a three-year-old boy. There is a lot to be said for clever kitchen gadgets, and affordable plastic surgery has been a godsend to many, but we are in trouble when we start including wives and children among our consumer durables with their money-back guarantees and their planned obsolescence.

Tristan Dowse is an Irish citizen, and his rights do not depend upon the whims of his parents, for that is the status of the relationship under Irish law, which makes no distinction between adoptive and natural offspring. Though Tristan has never lived here, he should be repatriated to the country of which he is a citizen, and promptly adopted by one of thousands of couples who would happily take him into their loving families. And his parents should be called to answer a charge of abandonment the next time they set foot in this country


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