Frequently asked questions – Adoption

What is the difference between adoption and fostering?
Adoption and long-term fostering can both provide loving and stable homes for children, but they are different.

Fostering can be temporary arrangement where a child may be placed with foster carers for a few days or months.  Foster carers can commit to caring for a child until the child can live independently this is known as long-term fostering. As a foster carer you take on the day to day care of a child but you do not have parental responsibility.

Adoption is a process which legally removes the rights and responsibilities of the child’s birth parent(s), and transfers them to adoptive parent(s).  When you adopt a child, you have full parental responsibility and the child becomes a permanent member of your family for life.

I’m single, can I adopt?
Yes. Single people can adopt, whatever their gender. Many single people have successfully adopted children in Northern Ireland.

Am I too old to adopt?
Adopters need to be over 21 but there is no upper age limit.  Adoption agencies will expect you to have the health and vitality to see your children through to an age of independence.  Consideration will be given to your age comparative to the age of the child you want to adopt; younger children are more likely to be placed with younger parents.

Can I adopt if I’m gay?
Yes. Whether you are heterosexual, lesbian or gay is not a factor in your right to adopt. You can adopt as a single person or as a couple – whether you are married, in a civil partnership or living together.

Can I adopt if I work full time?
When you are placed with a child you will need to be able to stay at home for an extended period – usually six months to a year depending on your child’s age and circumstances – to help him or her settle.  If you currently work, adopters are usually entitled to paid statutory adoption leave for up to 52 weeks.  This should help you manage your household finances during this time. If you adopt as a couple, one of you may take adoption leave while the other may be able to take paternity leave or shared parental leave. In addition, prospective adopters, who are expecting a child to be placed, are now entitled to time off work on five occasions (main adopter), or two occasions (secondary adopter), for adoption appointments. For more information see the NIDirect website. 

What about if I am unemployed?
Your financial circumstances and employment status will always be considered as part of an adoption assessment, but low income or being unemployed do not automatically rule you out. You can be an adoptive parent while on benefits.

Adoption agencies will want to discuss how the responsibility of caring for a child would be managed.

HSC Trusts may provide support, especially for adopters of sibling groups or of children with a disability or special need of some kind.

You will also be encouraged to look into what benefits or Tax Credits you may be entitled to. A number of other allowances are available for children with disabilities such as Disability Living Allowance and Carers Allowance.

Can I adopt if I have a criminal record?
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.  With the exception of these specified offences, a criminal record will not necessarily rule you out. The key is to be totally honest in your application.

Adoption agencies will give consideration to the type of offence, when it was committed, the extent to which it has a bearing on being a parent, whether it was revealed at the time of application and how you have reflected on your past actions.

You cannot apply to become an adoptive parent if you or anyone living in your household has a criminal conviction or has been cautioned for specified criminal offences against children and/or some sexual offences against adults.

Access NI checks will be carried out and your agency will discuss with you any convictions that are recorded against you.

Can I adopt if I already have children?
Yes. Having children of your own (of any age) will not exclude you from adopting, whether they are living at home with you or have grown up.  Any previous experience of parenting, or of regularly caring for children, could be very useful to any child placed with you for adoption. Consideration will, however, be given to the age gap between your own children and the age of the child(ren) you wish to adopt and the position of each child within the family in accordance with the child(ren)s’ needs.

Children over 10 years will be Access NI checked, as will any other adult member of your household.

There is advice and support for adoptive families after adoption for children who have more complex needs.

Can I adopt if I smoke?
Smoking will not necessarily rule you out from adopting. Consideration will be given to this and to all health and lifestyle-related issues.  Adoption agencies will want to know of any specific health risks to you or to the children who may be placed in your care.

There is no single national policy on smoking, but all adoption agencies will apply some restrictions. According to national medical advice children under five and those with particular medical conditions should not be placed in smoking households. You will usually need to be smoke-free for at least six months before adoption from these groups can be considered.

Can I adopt if I have a disability?
Being disabled should not automatically exclude anyone from becoming an adopter and it is widely recognised that disabled people can often provide a very loving home for a child.  Disability is only one of the many issues that will be considered by an adoption agency so don’t rule yourself out before you have had a conversation with your agency of choice.

Even if you believe that you might need some additional assistance to adopt a young person, social services may be able to provide this support.  It is recognised that the life experiences of disabled people can give them a unique insight into the lives of children in care, who often have a sense of themselves as ‘different’ or who may also have a disability.

An adoption agency’s Medical Adviser will assess your medical information and your assessing social worker will explore any potential impact this may have on parenting and how this would be managed.

Can I adopt a child from a different religious or ethnic background?
You can be matched with a child from a different religious or ethnic background provided you can meet the most important of the child’s identified needs. All families should be able to get support to help their adopted child to understand and appreciate the culture, religion and language of their birth community.

Can I adopt if I have health problems?
If you have had treatment for a serious illness, you may want to speak to your GP first about whether they feel this could impact on your ability to adopt a child. An adoption agency will seek full information from your GP and will want to establish the impact of the illness and future prognosis.  Their Medical Adviser may want to contact your hospital consultant for further details before being able to make a recommendation. If there is a significant risk that you may not be able to care for a child throughout their dependent years, the Medical Adviser will seek further information and advise the Adoption Agency accordingly.

Can I adopt if I have pets?
Often children love animals so, in most cases, having existing pets is fine. All dogs are subject to a ‘dog assessment’ to ensure they pose no risk to the child. There are certain breeds of dog that would prevent an adoption enquiry from proceeding. Other pets are subject to a pet assessment questionnaire to help your social worker assess any potential risk to a child. 

It is a big risk to adopt a child because so many adoptions break down.
Not true. The vast majority of adoptions are successful and the experience of ordinary family life gives children the opportunity to rebuild their trust in adults.  Some adopted children have more complex needs, but the commitment of adoptive parents is remarkable in accessing support for their children. Professor Julie Selwyn, an experienced adoption researcher, found that in more than 37,000 adoptions she studied over recent years, there was a breakdown rate of only 3%.

Many of the adoptive parents in this group whose children were no longer living in the family, continued to be involved in their children’s lives, although no longer living together.

What does the adoption process involve?
The first step is to make contact with your local Health and Social Care Trust or a voluntary adoption agency.  You can request an information pack (which can also be downloaded from the Regional Adoption & Fostering website) and there may be a local information event running in your area.  If you want to find out more, a social worker will come out to your home and have a chat with you about what happens next and answer any questions you have. 

If you wish to proceed, you will be invited to complete a formal application form and attend a Preparation to Adopt training course.  A number of checks will be carried out including Access NI, medical, personal references and a health and safety check on your home. 

You will then meet regularly with a social worker over a period of months to complete your adoption assessment.  This will consider a number of key areas including your own upbringing and experience of being parented, your support network, your lifestyle and your parenting capacity.  You will have the opportunity to read your assessment and make any written comments before it is presented to an Adoption Panel.  The panel is made up of people who have experience of adoption, and they will make a recommendation, before your agency decides if you should be approved as an adopter.

How long does it take to be approved as an adopter?
Once your assessment starts, it will take about 9 months to become approved as an adopter.  It can take less or more time depending on your individual circumstances.

What happens after you are approved?
Once you are approved your agency will begin the process of ‘matching’ you to a child or children.  This will be based on discussions with your social worker during your assessment about the child/ren you hope to care for and your particular strengths, skills and experience.

Some prospective adopters are matched with a child quite quickly, but for others it may take longer.

If you are not matched to a child from your own HSC Trust area within 3 months, your details can be forwarded to the Adoption Regional Information System for Northern Ireland (ARIS).  The details of voluntary adoption agency families can be sent to ARIS as soon as they are approved.  The ARIS database holds details of all approved adopters and all children requiring adoption in Northern Ireland.  It operates a matching service for waiting children and families and also organizes twice yearly Exchange Day events where prospective adopters can find out detailed information about specific children who are currently waiting for their adoptive family.

Once a possible ‘match’ has been identified this will be presented to the child’s Adoption Panel for approval.  After this has been agreed, a series of introductory meetings will be set up where you and the child/ren can get to know each other.  These meetings are built up over time, at a pace that is right for the child and for you, leading up to them moving into your home.

What support is available for children and families after adoption?
Over the course of your family life you will need advice and support.  There are a wide range of universal, targeted and specialist post-adoption services that you can access from the moment your child is placed, until they reach adulthood. 

These can range from the support of an allocated social worker, to peer support groups, to post-adoption training, to therapeutic parenting programmes and direct work with children and families.  Ongoing financial support may also be available depending on individual circumstances.

How much information about the child will I receive?
Adopters should be given as much information about their child and their birth family as is available.  This information would potentially include their background, information about their birth parents, family circumstances of the child and any health needs.  This information is essential so that when the time is right you can help the child understand the reasons why they were unable to remain with their birth family.

Should children be told they are adopted?
Yes, all children should be told if they are adopted; but when you tell them depends on the child’s level of understanding.  It is generally advised that the earlier the child is told, the better it is.  Your social worker will give you all the information you’ll need to tell your child or children about their history.

Each adopted child will have their own life story book which will also help you explain to the child the reasons why they were adopted.

Will my adopted child continue to see their birth family?
Maintaining relationships with their birth family can help children to have a clearer understanding of their past which can improve their emotional well-being.

In most cases, adopted children will have some level of direct contact with their birth family – this may be with their birth parents, siblings or grandparents. Direct contact usually involves a social worker and will take place in a neutral venue. The level of contact will depend on the individual circumstances of the child/ren you adopt.

Adopted children can also have indirect/ letterbox contact. This usually involves the exchange of information through letters or cards and can again help the child understand their past in more detail.  As with direct contact, any ongoing level of indirect contact will be agreed prior to you adopting the child/ren.