This National Adoption Week, we share insights into step-parent adoption during the pandemic from Stowe family lawyer, and adoption specialist, Shanika Varga-Haynes:
It is difficult to find any official statistics on the number of step-parents adoptions taking place in the UK with the figures focusing on the number of children being adopted out of the care system.
However, as a family solicitor and adoption specialist, I have noticed an increase in this area, through both enquiries, and my caseload.
Adoption is a varied and broad area of family law, and all cases bring great reward and challenges. However, Covid-19 and the multiple lockdowns have brought an extra layer of complexity to these already complicated cases.
What is step-parent adoption?
Step-parent adoptions arise when the partner of one of the biological parents wants to adopt the child. The consequence of step-parent adoption is the other biological parent loses their parental responsibility.
These applications are usually made where there is an absent biological parent who has little to no involvement in the child’s life for some time. The other biological parent is in a new relationship, and their partner has taken on the parenting role.
There can be a reluctance to issue the application as it may result in the other biological parent seeking contact, which they otherwise would not have done.
Where the non-resident parent has relatively regular contact with a child, the court tends to be slow to make the adoption order given the serious consequence of the loss of parental responsibility.
There are exceptions to this, for example, if the non-resident parent supports the adoption; however, even then, the court will give the decision as to whether to grant the adoption order the weight it deserves.
Who is involved in step-parent adoption?
An application for a step-parent adoption involves numerous parties: the step-parent wishing to adopt is the applicant, their partner is the first respondent, the child’s other biological parent is the second respondent, and a guardian can be appointed to represent the child.
Other professionals involved in the case will be the judge, legal representation, the local authority who will produce the initial report and often a reporting officer.
Race for time
In the early stages of the pandemic, getting applications for step-parent adoptions issued became difficult as the family court was (and still is) prioritising work, and they were not at the top of the list.
This delay directly impacted one of my cases where due to a number of reasons, the application for adoption was processed the day before the child’s 18th birthday.
Adoption applications can only be made if the child has not reached 18. Provided the application is made before the child’s 18th birthday, then it can proceed. If the child turns 19 during the proceedings, an adoption order cannot be made.
This meant that we had to make sure the application was dealt with before the child turned 19. Usually, that wouldn’t be too much of a concern as there are time frames the court follows to ensure cases involving children are dealt with as quickly as practicably possible.
However, the family courts were stretched before Covid-19, and the delays have noticeably worsened over the past year.
The impact of delays
In this case, several factors caused delays. At the beginning of the adoption case, the local authority provides a detailed report to the court about the parties and the child.
This report takes several months to complete as it can include interviews with friends and family, details about previous relationships, health, finances and the views of all involved in the case, including the child. The report ends with a recommendation being made to the court.
Further delays can be caused by the collation of medical evidence. In cases where the applicant is the partner of a parent of the child, in accordance with FPR rule 14.12(c), it is not necessary for medical reports to be obtained. However, if the adopter is another family member such as an aunt, waiting for the medical evidence could add further delays.
At the same time, as the report is produced, safeguarding checks are carried out. Unfortunately, in this case, the local authority failed to do these checks. We were notified of this just before the first hearing, meaning a delay of several months whilst they were carried out.
Due to their complex nature, adoption cases are dealt with by higher-level judges. There is also a preference to have judicial continuity, quite rightly, but this can cause delays due to judicial availability.
The first hearing on this matter was adjourned four times, once due to the local authority and three times due to the judge’s availability.
Again, with a typical case, this wouldn’t be too concerning, but we only had a 12-month window to ensure the order was made. The application was issued in early summer, but by January the following year, we still hadn’t had the first hearing which gave little time for the next steps.
Usually, the Annex A report prepared by the local authority is filed at court but not released to the parties immediately, although a request can be made for it to be released before the first hearing to speed the process up where time is sensitive.
In this particular case, we obtained permission from the Judge to have the report released in advance of the first hearing, so the contents could be considered and the matter progressed without the need for a further hearing. If this request hadn’t been granted we would have been at risk of matters not being finalised before the child turned 19.
Opposite ends of the world
This case also involved international elements as although both the biological father and mother consented to the adoption order being made, they lived abroad in separate countries with the applicant step-parent and the child living in England.
This was a complicated setup, and one of our challenges was to show the court and the local authority that the applicant and first respondent met the condition of being a married couple. They were a family unit but lived separately for various reasons, visiting each other every 6 weeks where possible. Although COVID-19 had meant this wasn’t possible over the past 12 months.
They met the criteria of the child having lived with the applicant for six continuous months prior to the application, but more detail than usual had to be provided regarding the intricacies of the relationship between the applicant step-parent and first respondent.
The Judge also decided they wanted a guardian to report on the international element as there were three parties living in three different countries. This was required despite everyone consenting to the application and the Local Authority supporting it.
The guardian’s role was to report on the living arrangements and assist the court with taking the necessary consents from the parties.
The guardian confirmed they were satisfied the order should be made. The parties had confirmed their agreement on numerous occasions however it’s imperative that consents are executed and recorded properly.
Obtaining proper consent in a global pandemic
During the pandemic giving consent via video call has been permitted. However, due to the fact the first and second respondent lived outside of the jurisdiction this was not possible as FPR rule 14.10 (6) states:
(6) Any form of consent executed outside the United Kingdom must be witnessed by –
(a) any person for the time being authorised by law in the place where the document is executed to administer an oath for any judicial or other legal purpose;
(b) a British Consular officer;
(c) a notary public; or
(d) if the person executing the document is serving in any of the regular armed forces of the Crown, an officer holding a commission in any of those forces.
At this point, every country had different rules regarding COVID-19. Therefore, there were concerns as to whether the first and second respondent would be able to ensure their consent was executed properly as we were unsure as to whether they would have access to someone who met the criteria above.
Thankfully the consents were executed and sent to the court and the adoption order was made two months before the child’s 19th birthday.
Managing adoption hearings during Covid-19
Another issue I have experienced over the past year, and expect to in the futur, is the practicalities of a court hearing.
There are numerous parties and professionals involved in an adoption case and family courtrooms are not particularly large, especially when accommodating social distancing.
Last October, one of my adoption hearings required nine people to attend. The hearing proceeded as a hybrid hearing with the local authority joining via video link and due to the fact we were in a Nightingale Court (large hotel conference room) there was thankfully enough space for the hearing to proceed safely.
I suspect if we hadn’t had the use of the Nightingale Court we would have had to limit who attended the hearing which could have resulted in complaints about fairness.
Adoption in the future
Whilst the pandemic has certainly brought challenges to the adoption process, I am hopeful that we will eventually return to normal, although I expect it won’t be as quick as we all hope.
It’s hard to see how the adoption process could be made easier, adoption has huge legal implications and therefore there must be a stringent process. I would like to see cases dealt with more quickly but balancing speed and the need to ensure the right decision is being made for a child is difficult.
Adoption cases are extremely rewarding and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to help build a family and transform a child’s life and future
Get in touch
If you would like any advice on step-parent adoption, adoption, or other family law issues, please contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist lawyers.
Stowe’s Adoption Services