Stepping Into The Role Of Parent
Blended families and step parents are an increasingly common aspect of modern family life. In some families, a step parent can be the only psychological or “real” parent a child has ever known. Even though they may have no biological or legal relationship to the child, step parents and step children often form stable, continuous and caring relationships which all contributes to a child’s healthy development.
Such an individual is, of course, not recognised as the child’s legal parent. Indeed, there is little recognition of the role of a step parent in law. This creates a number of potential issues, not only in relation to day to day parenting, but also regarding inheritance, succession and nationality. While some of the difficulties can be sidestepped through various legal mechanisms (for example, by way of a parental responsibility agreement), for some families legal adoption is the appropriate solution. When a step parent adopts their partner’s child it ends the legal relationship between that child and their other natural parent. This article is going to take a broad look at the process of step parent adoption and some early considerations.
The step parent must be over 21 and the court must be satisfied they are the partner of a parent of the child. If they are not married, it ought to be clear they are in an enduring relationship. The application can be made by the step parent as a sole applicant and their partner will be treated as a respondent, although it would be unusual for there to be any objection. The child must also have lived with the applicant at all times during the six month period preceding the application or leave of the court will be required.
Notice must be given by the step parent to the relevant local authority of their intention to make an application for an adoption order. This must be given at least three months before the application is made but not more than two years before. This will trigger the local authority to make enquiries, visits and speak to the relevant individuals involved.
If there are any grounds to objecting to the other biological parent being made aware of the application, these concerns ought to be drawn to the attention of the local authority at this early stage to minimise the risk of them being spoken to during the period prior to making the application.
Once three months have elapsed, Form A58 can be submitted to the court. A certified copy birth certificate for the child should be attached and, if relevant, a certified copy marriage certificate.
Every person with parental responsibility for the child will be an automatic respondent as will any individuals named in any child arrangements order. An adoption order can only be made with the consent of every parent with parental responsibility or if consent has been dispensed with. When issuing the application, the court should be made aware whether an application is being made to dispense with consent. If so, a statement of facts must also be provided alongside the application. An application for an adoption order dispensing with consent is unlikely to be successful if the other biological parent plays an active role in the child’s life and there is no risk of harm.
If, however, the application concerns an absent or dangerous biological father, it is worth investigating at an early stage whether they have parental responsibility for the child. If they do, it may be appropriate to make an application to dispense with service. Due to the draconian nature of adoption orders, cases where such an application will be successful are rare. If the parent does not have parental responsibility, they are not automatically a respondent to the application so there is no need for the court to dispense with service or to dispense with consent although the court is likely to want to consider at an early stage whether that person ought to be joined as a respondent. Again, it will be difficult but, in the author’s experience, not impossible to convince a court such an approach is appropriate.
In either scenario, care should be taken to ensure that any details which need to be kept confidential are omitted from documents which could end up being served on a respondent. Sensitive information relevant to the application might be included within in a covering letter instead. Consideration should be given to whether Form C8 should be filed to keep the parties’ details confidential or whether any material filed in the proceedings would require editing prior to being served on a respondent.
The court will list a first directions appointment and make such directions as it sees fit to move the case towards a final hearing, in light of the positions adopted by the parties. This will include the preparation of an Annex A report by the local authority which will make recommendations and address the matters set out in the welfare checklist. The court can only make an adoption order where it considers that doing so is better for the child than not doing so and it must consider all alternative orders available under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and the Children Act 1989.
If the adoption application is successful, a copy of the adoption order should be sent by the court to the Adopted Children Register and the applicant can then apply for a new adopted birth certificate. A celebration visit is also usually listed which is far less formal than the hearings leading up to this.
While the format differs between courts, the judge will often dress in their wig and gown, provide a certificate and have photographs with the family, giving them an opportunity to attend at court to celebrate the legal recognition of their relationship with their child and the start of their new life together.