Adopting a step-child: How it works

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I’ve written before about how I started off as a single parent, you can find that here. While single parenthood was a positive experience, when I met my partner and it became clear that he was part of both our lives for long term, I knew I wanted to formalise the role he was playing as a father to my son. However, going through the process so that my partner could adopt my son was an extremely stressful and emotional time.

While I was pregnant with my second son and all the associated hormones and emotions flooded my body this grew into something I worried about and wanted done sooner rather than later. The final trigger came when we were told that my son would have to start using his legal surname for his final years at primary school, and then high school. He had used my surname since he started school and the name of his biological father, which was his name according to his birth certificate, meant nothing to him and he was quite angry and upset at this change.

The first step when starting a step-parent adoption is to speak to a social worker and give notice to your local council of your intention to adopt. This initial appointment is quite long and information-heavy. The social worker discussed with us all of the options available to us, the process, and all the checks that would happen over the next few months. She asked a lot of questions and agreed, given our reasons and circumstances, that adoption would be the best and only option. I found this appointment quite difficult and emotional; during the process you really have to be an open book with your social worker, they will (sensitively) pry and question some tricky topics. I had to recount my relationship with my son’s biological father, the details of my pregnancy, labour and our separation, along with any contact from him and his family since, all in front of my current partner. My partner had to discuss his previous significant relationships too. Nobody likes hearing about their partner’s ex’s, but to do it in front of the social worker who was effectively a stranger was quite uncomfortable.

After this appointment you have a 3 month wait, the notice period for the local council. During this time you can fill in your application, provide reference information to the social worker and contact the biological parent to tell them of your intention. Obviously, dependent on the relationship between the birth parents, contacting them and discussing such a major change is unlikely to ever be easy and it is a conversation I’ll never forget. 

Once the three months is up you can submit your application, pay the court fee (£120 non-refundable if unsuccessful) and the process notches up a little. We had a number of visits to our home from our social worker; to interview us together and separately and to interview my son, the child involved is not always interviewed, depending on their age. The social worker will seek references from a school nurse or health visitor, along with the child’s school and contact the references you have provided, along with any significant previous partners of the step-parent. We also both had to provide details of our employment history from the day we first had a job, evidence of our income, give her a tour of our house and provide all previous addresses, photographs of us and the child, copies of identification and obtain a DBS (police) check. A CAFCASS Officer (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) is also appointed to advise both biological parents what the long term consequences of the adoption will be, ideally meeting with both separately to ensure they understand and witness their formal written consent. 

It’s invasive, stressful and intense. My partner and I have a biological child together and the irony was never lost on us that we had no checks when we decided to conceive him! It also seemed crazy, that while it meant a huge amount to all of us that we were given the adoption order, it would change nothing about our daily lives. 

We had our first appointment to give notice to the court on 5th September 2018 and finally found ourselves in court on 26th April 2019. This was desperately stressful; our social worker was wonderful and throughout made a very difficult process as easy as possible, but she was also very honest. She’d explained that adoption orders rely on consent from both parents or the judge dispensing with an absent parent’s rights, which they are extremely reluctant to do. The judge needs to feel confident that the absent parent fully understands what is happening, and has had the opportunity to object, with opportunity remaining open until the point the order is awarded. If there is doubt, or objections are made, orders can be refused or hearings postponed. We did not have formal, written consent.

The 20 minutes we were in with the judge seemed like 2 hours. We were told that typically the judge would hear these cases in his chambers in quite a relaxed manner, but we were ushered into the court room, which our social worker said she’d never had happen before: nerves! It was touch and go, but fortunately our social worker and the CAFCASS Officer had worked hard to obtain communications from my son’s biological father that indicated implied consent and understanding of what the adoption meant to all involved. 

Directly afterwards we felt more relieved than anything else, I wanted to feel celebratory, but I was exhausted and emotionally drained. We drove to my son’s school to tell him the good news. We hadn’t told him that we were in court that day for fear of the outcome, and we let our families know, then carried on as normal.

When an adoption order is awarded you lose the right to claim any maintenance from the birth parent and the child loses any formal relationship with the extended family as well as the parent, but obviously that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain contact with them if you wish. 

The court offers all families the opportunity to have a celebration hearing afterwards at no extra cost, which is a really lovely way to celebrate and mark what your family have done. For us it took some months to find a date that suited us all, which allowed time for us to recover from the process, but we went along in August to enjoy a special morning. You are allowed to take children to the celebration hearing, along with some family members. The judge will dress up in their robes and wig, but it is very informal and relaxed, with the judge letting the adopted child try on the wig! We had the same judge who had awarded the order, which meant a lot, and he chatted to us all a little in the same court room. Then we had some pictures with a certificate (that is simply created for the celebration, but your child can keep it) and more photos with both our children and our new official family and extended family, who we’d invited to come. We finished off a lovely morning with a delicious pub lunch and more pictures, we hope to mark the adoption anniversary every year as a really special day for our family. 

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I am very, very glad that we went through it, It was hard, but when I see my son’s new name and how happy that has made him, plus when I see him playing with his brother and my partner I know it was worth it. I have learnt a lot about the process of adopting and fostering through the process as well, including that a mum in one of my classes is a respite foster carer, a role I previously didn’t know existed. If you are interested in fostering and adoption, do have a look here: https://www.fosterandadopt.suffolk.gov.uk/fostering/types-of-fostering/

I think a lot of people just think about fostering being constantly saying goodbye to children you’ve grown to love, but there’s so much more to it, including permanent care and parent and child fostering. 

And if you are a foster parent in Stowmarket or Felixstowe, caring for a child under school age, and would like to come along to a class, do get in touch with me at gemma@suffolkbabies.co.uk and I will find you a funded place for as many or few weeks that you can make it. 

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