One of the final parts of our adoption journey – the legal part anyway – is applying for the adoption order. This makes your children officially yours; although, if you’re anything like me, your child was yours from the moment you fell in love with them and their official status be damned.
Let me first say what can happen. You’re allowed to apply for the adoption order after ten weeks; that allows social workers to visit regularly and assess the new family dynamic. A formal Review Meeting – with an independent social worker chairing it – should also happen as good practice, so that there’s more evidence to add to the application for an AO.
This is an odd time in many ways. You find yourself in limbo; considered – if things go well – by your child as their parent, you and they are investing in each other. But you are not legally their parent; my son’s social worker insisted on calling me his “carer” during this period, which I bristled at. I had to interject one day when he called me “dad” in front of her and she retorted, “Not yet.” Without hesitating, I snapped, “Yes, I am. I’m his dad.” I was angry, I don’t mind admitting; my son was placed with me with the express intention of being adopted and, unless something absolutely catastrophic happened, that was precisely what was going to occur. It was a very weird half-way house to be in, not made any better by a social worker un-empathic to our emotional needs.
For that time, I was – technically – his carer, according to the terms of the Placement Order that had been issued by the court. But I was also going to be his dad, and already was according to my son (as well as in my own opinion), so that vague sense of oddness was there in the back of my head.
In reality, it’s not always precisely ten weeks when you make the application for the Adoption Order. There are often logistical hurdles to get over first; having the aforementioned Review Meeting (sometimes two), ensuring the right number of visits have been done, being confident that the reports have been written by the social workers, and so on. There will always be hurdles, depending on the views of the social worker, the diaries of the Reviewing Officers, and a hundred and one other decisions that can slow things down.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll watch the days slip gently away past the minimum ten-week deadline and feel like you’re losing the will to live. All I wanted was for the process to be complete, once everyone was satisfied that my son was safe and well and happy, and for my son and I to have a “normal” family life; normal, of course, is a pejorative term, but the opportunity for us to just be us was attractive and just visible.
I was able to navigate the murky waters of waiting and get permission to apply for the AO two or three weeks past the legal minimum. I have got sadly used to delays all through this process; sadly, some Local Authorities are not aware at an emotional level how these things feel to those of us living and breathing it every day. My son was very eager for the process to finish, and couldn’t entirely understand why it was lasting so long; neither could I, truth be told, and I had to balance being entirely truthful with him versus telling what he as an eight-year-old needed to know. He understood, I hope, that it was out of my control, as frustrating as that was for both of us.
The form was (inevitably) complex and mind-numbing. Fortunately, my own social worker was adept at completing these forms, and we went through it together one sunny afternoon; I will remain forever grateful to her. The form had to be posted off, because the courts haven’t quite caught up with the idea of electronic signatures and online applications, with a cheque of £170. Fortunately for me, the Local Authority where my son came from refunded me the cost of the application, although it would be quite a number of weeks before I saw the money in my account.
And then the waiting continues. The court in this case was admirably quick, it has to be said; they were very efficient in pointing out the two small errors I’d made in the application, one after the other – yes, they sent it back twice with one error highlighted each time. The delights of such a bureaucracy are highlighted when you receive a multi-page document back in the post with a covering letter telling you that you have forgotten to tick a box. I found myself wondering; “Couldn’t you have just rung me to check?” A two-minute conversation became a ten-day turn-around on each occasion because of the byzantine system.
Still, we eventually got there and had a date for the court hearing. I was relieved to see that it was only five weeks from the date of the letter; I’d been braced for a wait of two or three months. I debated how to talk to my son about this; did I tell him the whole truth and try to help him sit with that information for the entire five weeks?
It’s possible he could have handled it well; in fact, given everything else he had to deal with in his life, that wait would possible have been the least of his worries. But it didn’t feel right; he was eight, and does any eight year old need to have that huge event looming over them for five entire weeks? I was nervous enough; did he deserve to be as well?
It was my social worker who in the end came up with the perfect solution. She suggested that I put it openly on the calendar and mention that his social worker was due to have a chat with the judge that day, to see how everything was going. That felt reasonable; his social worker was indeed going to be there, to present the case to the district judge as well as the report that both she and my social worker were required to write. I liked that idea, and it seemed to work well; my son was so inoculated to endless meetings and discussions that another one just became background noise, and he seemed – outwardly, at least – to be entirely unfazed by it. I couldn’t dig too deeply, otherwise he would have perhaps realised that it was a bit more serious than I was letting on – why would I be so worried about how was he feeling about just another meeting?
Time can tick by very slowly when you’re eagerly anticipating something, can’t it? That no-man’s land of time between receiving the letter and reaching the date is frustrating, especially when you’re holding some information from your child (you do learn to compartmentalise as a parent); the child’s social worker and the parent’s social worker are both required to write reports on everything that been happening – their views on the relationship that’s been building over the past few months.
It’s difficult to be so … unable to do anything, and to have your family’s fate so comprehensively in another person’s hands. Or, as in this case, three people; our two social workers and the judge.
Something important to note; the birth parents have a right to attend the hearing when it happens. You sometimes get a clear indication of whether or not this is likely to happen; some birth parents have fully accepted the situation and don’t fight the application. But some do fight it; they want to make use of the opportunity before them to try and prove that their circumstances have changed, that they can now look after the children. This doesn’t happen very often, and I don’t know how often it does, but adoption is taken very seriously; it’s considered to be the last resort, and only done when all other avenues have been considered. It’s what is in the child’s best interests, and is very rarely served – it’s believed – by the children returning to the birth parents.
But still, it’s a tense time; in my situation, I didn’t know if my son’s birth mother would contest the adoption in court. She had made some noises about it, and had said that she would be attending, but that’s no guarantee. Although I was confident in my son’s best placement being with me, I was still worried about the potential delay any appeal by her would cause.
The applicant – the parent – doesn’t have to attend the hearing; the child’s social worker represents them and you during the hearing. I suppose you could attend if you particularly wanted to, but be sensitive to the fact that the birth parents might have decided to come. Personally, I didn’t have any desire to go; partly because there was a long distance involved, and partly because I didn’t want to be that person, staring desperately at the judge whilst waiting for the decision. It would have been made whether or not I was there, and the social worker would have told me about it afterwards in any case.
In many cases, the judge who considers the adoption order will be the one who signed the original placement order. He or she will have considered the legal arguments right from the very beginning, and will know the case pretty well. This is helpful, as you can be confident that they more fully appreciate the nuances of the case and have watched the children develop from their start in their birth home and along this road.
And then the moment of decision arrives. The judge has to make their decision based on so many different factors – factors I can’t even begin to imagine. They have to consider the social worker reports (and the quality of those reports can influence whether or not the decision is made there and then or delayed), the legal situation, and – most importantly – the welfare of the child or children. That is their overriding concern; that the children be kept safe, secure, and happy.
The decision isn’t always made on the same day; if the social worker’s report has missed some vital component, or if the birth parents want to appeal (and they have the rare, valid point), then the judge will defer the decision to another day.
But the decision can be made on the same day, and I can’t begin to describe the sense of joy when the social worker calls you and tells you the good news. It is a brilliant piece of news, and you get the privilege of telling your child; I couldn’t get to the school quick enough. I considered telling him at the gates, but wanted it to be more private than that – so, instead, I forced myself to wait until we had got home, and I’d fixed him a drink and some food (because it had been at least an hour since he had last eaten something). Then he needed the loo … and then wanted to change his clothes. I lost the will to live at that point and just asked him to sit down. That moment was a wonderful one, seared forever on my mind – and, I hope, on his too.
A sense of joy settled on me almost immediately; I was thrilled to know that all the bureaucratic nonsense had finally been settled. The endurance race had been won, and I had the prize; a beautiful, gorgeous prize who has completed our family in an instant.