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According to the most recent figures, almost 2,000 children in the UK are waiting for adoption and 53% of children have been waiting for more than 18 months.
During the year ending 31 March 2021, 2,870 looked-after children (this term describes a child or young person who is currently in the care of the local authority) were adopted:
- 84% (2,410) of adopted children were White.
- 10% (280) of adopted children had a Mixed ethnic background.
- 2% (50) of adopted children were Black, African, Caribbean or Black British.
- 2% (50) of adopted children were Asian or Asian British.
- 1% (40) of adopted children were from any other ethnic group.
- 89% (2,550) of children were adopted by couples .
- 11% (310) of children were adopted by single adopters.
- 16% (470) of children were adopted by same-sex couples (either in a civil partnership, married or neither).
What is adoption?
Adoption is a legal procedure governed by the Adoption and Children Act 2002, in which all parental rights and responsibilities of a child or children are transferred to the adoptive parents. The child or children will take on your surname and become a legal member of your family for life, with all the same legal rights as a biological child. Adoption is a way of providing the security, love and permanence of a new family for children who can no longer be cared for by their birth families.
Adoption can be arranged through a local authority or an adoption agency. The main difference between a local authority and an adoption agency is that local authorities have children who are waiting to be adopted, whereas adoption agencies do not. This means that local authorities will prioritise the types of families in their local area that they need for the children in their care and may approach families registered for adoption with them first when identifying a family for a child.
Some prospective adoptive parents may participate in fostering for adoption. This is when a child in local authority care is placed with approved adopters who receive temporary approval status as foster carers. If the court agrees that the child should be adopted, and the adoption agency approves the match between the child and the adoptive family, the placement becomes an adoptive family for the child. Fostering for adoption is a child-centred approach that is based purely on the child’s holistic needs. It allows children to be potentially placed with their permanent family sometimes as early as a few days old.
Prospective adoptive parents hoping to adopt a younger child or baby, need to be aware that there are very few healthy babies placed for adoption. Relinquished babies, that is a child, usually under the age of six weeks, whose parent(s) makes the choice of adoption for the child, are rare. It does happen occasionally that a mother places the baby for adoption rather than bringing up a child herself. This might be because a mother decides that adoption offers the best future for her child because of her own circumstances. Another reason a mother relinquishes her child is when she fears that her family will not accept the child. Within some communities it is hard to accept a child who is born out of wedlock and adoption enables the child to grow up in a secure family.
However, the majority of the children waiting to be adopted are over four years old, and have often suffered significant abuse, violence or neglect in their birth families. Many have been removed from their birth families by the courts because their parents and wider families were unable to provide the care they need, and most have spent time in foster care. The children come from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds and some may have disabilities or other special needs.
Some of the reasons that birth families are unable to care for their children and have had the children removed from their care by the courts can include:
- Physical abuse – Many parents who abuse their children have had poor parenting themselves and have little idea about how to give their children good physical and emotional care. They may have poor control of their own tempers and can hit out at a child and cause injuries.
- Sexual abuse – In some families, sexual boundaries become blurred and children may have seen inappropriate sexual behaviour between adults or seen pornographic material which is hard for them to make sense of. Sexual abusers can target vulnerable families with children to meet their own needs. Some children have felt pressurised or forced to take part in sexual activity that they cannot properly consent to because of their young age and vulnerability.
- Mental health – There are parents who have ongoing mental health problems that prevent them from understanding the needs of their children because their own thinking and feelings are disturbed. Serious conditions can have an impact on how parents look after their children. If doctors and the court believe that a parent’s mental health is ongoing and will prevent good enough care of a child, it may be decided by the court that a child should grow up in an adoptive family.
- Neglect – The neglect of children is now recognised as a major contributor to emotional harm. Neglectful parents find it hard to provide a routine for their children who often live in chaotic homes without boundaries. The children can be left alone for long periods without stimulation or regular meals and there is little protection from danger as children struggle to manage alone.
- Emotional abuse – Children need sensitive care if they are to develop robust and resilient personalities. Parents who have not received nurturing care themselves as they grew up may struggle to provide such care to their children. Their children may have had a number of carers and no experience of being special to one adult. Sometimes a child can be treated differently from others in the family and humiliated for behaviour they cannot control, for example, bed-wetting. Being left without caring and regular attention can leave a child feeling worthless which is emotionally damaging.
- Substance misuse – Drug or alcohol dependency can have serious consequences for how parents manage their lives. If the need for drugs or alcohol becomes the parents’ main focus then children can be neglected and suffer significant harm. If a parent is dependent on drugs or alcohol during pregnancy there is concern about the potential damage to the unborn child such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). These disorders include a wide range of physical, behavioural and learning difficulties of varying degrees.
Adopters will normally be given as much information about their child and their birth family as is available. This may include information about background, birth parents, family circumstances, and any relevant health needs.
The outcomes for adopted children are far better than for those who stay in care, as adoption gives children a second chance of stability, permanence, and the love and nurture that all children need.
What is the purpose of adoption?
Every parent will have their own personal reasons for adopting, and many adoptive parents choose adoption as a practical means to start their family. This is particularly true if, for whatever reason, the parents are unable to have biological children. For couples struggling with infertility, adoption is a guaranteed way to add a child or children to their family, without the emotional and financial risk involved in IVF treatments.
Adoption allows heterosexual and same-sex couples, and single adults, whether they are heterosexual or LGBTQ+, to share their life with a child or children and enjoy the unique experience of parenthood. Adoption gives hopeful parents the opportunity to raise a child they would not have otherwise, and provides loving, stable homes to children who need them.
Adoption is generally used to transfer legal parental rights and responsibilities when a baby has been born through surrogacy. Surrogacy is when a person carries and gives birth to a child for somebody else; that is, the intended parent(s). A child born by surrogacy is legally the birth parents’ child when they are born, but they can be adopted using either a parental order, if the child is genetically the intended parent’s/parents’ child, or an adoption order if they are not. If you apply for an adoption order for a surrogacy birth within 6 months of the child’s birth, you will have many of the same rights as a parent going through the usual adoption process.
Sometimes step-parents want to adopt the children from the previous relationship of their new partner. If this happens, the child’s legal rights with their absent birth parent and wider family will be broken. Step-parent adoption involves becoming a legal parent of the child and this involves making a lifelong commitment to the child. If the adopting step-parent and birth parent separate or divorce after an adoption order is granted, both partners will still have equal rights to the child whilst the child’s absent birth parents will still have none.
Who can adopt?
There are very few things that automatically bar a person from becoming an adoptive parent. Adoption is open to people with a whole range of backgrounds and life experiences, who are able to reflect and support the needs of the children waiting for adoption.
The adoptive parent(s) can be single, married or in a long-term “live in” relationship. There is nothing unusual about single parenting, as around a quarter of households in the UK with dependent children are headed by a single parent.
Disabilities and health conditions do not automatically rule you out from adopting; in fact, experience of disability can sometimes be an advantage. If you are having or have had treatment for a serious illness, you may want to speak to your GP first about whether they feel this could impact your ability to adopt a child. The most important thing is that you are able to be patient, flexible and resilient and can provide a child with love, time and commitment.
Adopters can be from any ethnic or religious background. According to the adoption guidelines, children should be placed with adoptive families that share an ethnic and religious background wherever possible.
Parents who have their own children or who have stepchildren can adopt. Ideally, there should be an age gap of at least two years between the youngest child in the family and the child being adopted.
Parents wishing to adopt don’t need to be “well off”, but they will need to show that they can support a child financially. Neither do they need to own their own home to adopt. They may rent privately, be in a property provided by a housing association / the local authority or they may own their own home, and it does not matter what type of accommodation they live in either. It might be a house, bungalow, flat or other types of accommodation, as long as there is enough space to accommodate a child/children, as in most cases, the adopted child would need to have their own bedroom.
What are the stages of adoption?
The first step in adoption is to contact an adoption agency – this may be part of the local authority, or a voluntary adoption agency – to find out about their particular adoption process. The agency will meet the prospective adoptive parent(s) and this will lead to the formal adoption application.
Once a formal adoption application has been received by an agency, the agency will normally invite the prospective adoptive parent(s) to a series of classes that provide advice about adoption and the effects it can have on you.
The next step is a series of visits by a social worker who will assess the suitability of the adoptive parent(s), which is followed by a police check. Three referees will then need to provide personal references (only one of these can be provided by a relative) and, finally, the prospective parent(s) must undergo a full medical examination.
The assessment will then be sent to an independent adoption panel. The panel may ask further questions before submitting a recommendation to the agency, which will then decide on the suitability of the adoptive parent(s).
The approval process normally takes about six to eight months overall. If the adoption agency refuses the application, the prospective adoptive parent(s) can challenge them in writing, or by applying to the Independent Review Mechanism, for England and Wales, or the Care Inspectorate, for Scotland, or they can apply again to a different agency.
In England and Wales, after the adoption has taken place, and the child has lived with their adoptive parent(s) for at least 10 weeks, an application for an adoption court order should be made to a Family Court using Form A58. This will confer parental rights and responsibilities upon the adoptive parent(s), provide them with an adoption certificate, and make the adoption fully legal and permanent.
In Scotland, after the adoption has taken place, and the child has lived with their adoptive parent(s) for at least 13 weeks, an application for an adoption court order should be made to a Sheriff Court using Form 1. This will confer parental rights and responsibilities upon the adoptive parent(s), provide them with an adoption certificate, and make the adoption fully legal and permanent.
Before such an application can be granted, the child must be at least 19 weeks old and if the child is over the age of 12 years, their formal consent to the adoption is required.
What are the criteria for adoption in the UK?
The criteria for adoption in the UK can vary slightly depending upon the adoption agency; however, there are some generic criteria that are applied by all adoption agencies. To adopt, you must be over 21 years (however, there is no upper age limit) and you must be legally resident in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, and have been so for at least 12 months.
Adopting in the UK is not restricted to British citizens, but the prospective adoptive parent, or their partner, if a couple, must have a fixed and permanent home in the UK, and must have lived in the UK for at least one year before applying for adoption.
Children over 18 living with prospective adoptive parents will usually be DBS checked, as will any other adult member of your household. If you have a criminal caution or conviction for offences against children or certain sexual offences against adults then you will not be able to adopt.
Adoptive parents will be required to take ideally six months off work when the child comes to live with them. For couples, the main carer will need to take this time off, or they can take shared adoption leave. This is because adoptive parents will need to be around to support their child during the initial adoption period.
Criteria for adopting a child from overseas
You can adopt a child from overseas if:
- They cannot be cared for in a safe environment in their own country.
- The adoption would be in their best interests.
- The adopter has been assessed as eligible and suitable to adopt from overseas by an adoption agency in the UK.
The UK has restricted adoption from the following countries:
The adoption process is similar to a UK adoption and will be done by a UK adoption agency that may charge a fee. The Department for Education (DfE) charges a non-refundable fee of £1,975 for processing an application to adopt a child from overseas.
Why are people turned down for adoption?
If you or a member of your household have a criminal conviction or caution for offences against children or for serious sexual offences, you will not be able to adopt. Those are the only automatic exclusions from adoption. There are, however, many other factors that will come into consideration when you are being assessed for suitability to adopt, but none of them automatically exclude you.
If you have experienced or are currently experiencing a mental health problem you would not automatically be ruled out as an adopter. An agency would need to carefully consider all the factors around the condition before making a decision. For example, if you have suffered from depression in the past, it would be advisable to talk to your GP before making an adoption application to find out their views and whether they would support your application. The adoption agency will want to understand the circumstances that led to depression and be reassured that you will be sufficiently fit to cope with the inevitable stresses of adopting a child.
Although you may not be automatically excluded from adopting, most agencies will strongly encourage you to give up smoking because of the known medical risks of passive smoking for young children. If you hope to adopt a child aged 0–5 years, it is likely that you will be asked to give up smoking at least six months before the home study phase of the process starts because of the medically recognised associated health risks to children.
Adoption agencies need to be sure that any pets that you own do not pose a threat to children’s health or safety. Also, some children may suffer from allergies which would prevent placement with owners of some pets.
Some potential adopters may be turned down because of their accommodation. Most adoption agencies prefer that prospective adopters have a spare bedroom for a child placed for adoption, although there is flexibility; for example, the adopted child sharing with another child in the family or the adopters being able to convert existing accommodation to create an extra bedroom.
Thousands of children across the UK are waiting for a stable permanent home. For anyone considering adoption and looking for advice, information and support, the Consortium of Adoption Support Agencies (CASA), a national forum representing registered Adoption Support Agencies (ASAs) in the UK, provides a directory of its members who are registered under the Adoption and Children Act 2002.