Alternatives to adoption

Families can often change following a relationship breakdown or divorce. Often, new partners become part of the larger blended family. These new partners can become a parent figure and take responsibility for a (step)child. Yet, many step-parents do not have parental responsibility for the children they care for in these new blended families.

Parental responsibility or child arrangement orders

There are alternatives to step-parent adoption which are sometimes more appropriate and a simpler way to give the step-parent legal status in respect of the child without ending the child’s legal relationship with the absent parent. You might want to consider a parental responsibility order (PRO) or a child arrangement order (CAO).

  • PRO (or agreement) – to obtain one of these you need the formal agreement with all those who hold Parental Responsibility, you need that agreement to enable you acquiring parental responsibility or a Court Order. A Parental Responsibility Agreement will have the effect of giving the step-parent parental responsibility for the child so that they have the rights and responsibilities for the child as outlined above without automatically removing those rights from others.
  • CAO – these orders state that a step-parent who lives with a child would have the same legal rights as parental responsibility for as long as that order remained in place, which could be until the child is 18 years of age. This order used to be known as a residence or contact order. As a step-parent you would require the court’s permission to issue this application in the first place.
  • Change your name by deed poll – you can change the name of a child under 18 years old (sometimes called a “minor”) by “enrolling” their new name at the Royal Courts of Justice. If you are 16 or 17 years old, you can choose to make your own deed poll instead.

Special guardianship orders (SGO)

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 introduced a new legal status for non-parents who are caring for, or wish to care for, children in a long-term, secure placement, while preserving the legal link with the child’s natural birth parents. A SGO is an order of the court under the Children Act 1989 which grants the holder(s) parental responsibility over a child until they reach the age of 18 years. This enables the special guardian(s) to make day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child, for example in relation to their education.

There are some things that special guardians cannot do or decide without the permissions of the parents/others with parental responsibility or the court, such as:

  • changing the child’s surname
  • placing the child for adoption
  • taking the child abroad for more than three months
  • granting parental responsibility to a father or step-parent
  • granting the child permission to marry.

In practice, this means that the child is no longer our responsibility, and the special guardian will have more clear responsibility for all day-to-day decisions about caring for the child or young person and for taking important decisions about their upbringing, for example their education. More importantly, although birth parents retain their legal parental responsibility, the special guardian only has to consult with them about these decisions in exceptional circumstances.

A SGO also means that contact can be maintained between the birth family and child, as long as it is in the child’s best interest. How this contact happens, and how often it takes place, is dependent on the individual case and can be decided by court.

Step-parent adoption

If you are a step-parent, you may wish to discuss applying for an adoption order for a child you live with and wish to adopt. If you meet the criteria for this and are successful in the application, a new birth certificate will be issued for the child and all legal ties with the non-resident birth parent will be cut.

An adoption order is permanent and cannot be revoked. These are not made lightly by the courts that are increasingly cautious about granting step-parent adoption orders where there are other less extreme orders that will suffice.

Advantages of a step-parent adoption order

  • Your family is recognised by law.
  • All members have the same surname.
  • The child shares rights of inheritance with other children in the family.
  • Legal links with the previous family are cut. 

Disadvantages of a step-parent adoption order

  • If stepchildren are adopted, the law no longer recognises the other birth parent or any members of their birth family as having any legal link with the child. This could cause a child to feel confused or distressed and therefore any decision to proceed with a Step-Parent Adoption needs careful consideration. While legal ties will be cut, it may be important to the child to maintain some link with their other birth parent or their family.
  • An adopted child loses any rights to maintenance an inheritance from the other birth parent or that parent’s family. This may not seem important at the time of the adoption, but could matter a great deal if your family has financial problems later, or if both of you were to die while your child was still a dependant.

Step-parent adoption criteria

  • You must be 21 years old or over and either married to or living with the resident birth parent in “an enduring family relationship.” The Isle of Wight Adoption Service takes this to mean relationships of three years or more.
  • You must also have been living in the British Isles or have been habitually resident for at least one year. You must have lived continually with the child for at least three years.
  • We believe it is important that the child is able to express their opinion about what happens to them. Where appropriate, the child will be interviewed as part of the assessment process.
  • Anyone with parental responsibility has to be in agreement.

All step-parent adoption orders involve an in-depth assessment by a social worker from the local authority. If you live on the Isle of Wight, a social worker from our Adoption team will need to assess your family's full circumstances and prepare a report for court. Court fees are paid by the applicant.