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How to adopt a child: the adoption process in England

Choosing to adopt a child is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make and you may well feel overwhelmed and daunted at the start of the process. If you live in England and are planning to adopt, here's what you need to know.

By Laura Westerman | Last updated Jul 15, 2021

Adopting a child

To provide you with all the information you need when it comes to the adoption process, we've written this step-by-step guide with the help of Sue Armstrong Brown, an adopter and Chief Executive of Adoption UK, a charity that speaks out for adoptive families.

While this guide focuses on adopting a child in England, for those who live in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, more information specific to your location can be found on the Adoption UK website.

Short on time? Watch our short video below – all about England's adoption process.

Am I eligible to adopt?

In order to become an adopter, you need to:

  • Be at least 21 years of age
  • Be a UK resident or have lived legally in the UK for at least 12 months
  • Not have any convictions, cautions or sexual offences/offences against children

If you meet all the above requirements, you'll be able to register to adopt – whether you're married, single, a same-sex adopter or a heterosexual adopter.

Why do some children need to be adopted?

First4Adoption states that there are over 2000 children in England who need to be adopted. Most children who have an adoption plan have had a very difficult start in life, removed from families who were unable to look after them.

In particular, potential adopters are most needed for children who wait the longest in care. Those are children in sibling groups, children who are slightly older (aged five and above) and children from minority ethnic groups.

Does it cost to adopt a child?

While a UK adoption agency can't charge you a fee for adopting, you may be required to pay for court fees, criminal checks and travel. Your agency will be able to advise on the kinds of costs that may be incurred during the adoption process.

The financial responsibility of caring for your adoptive child will also lie with you once the adoption process is complete.

It was a long road to get here but I wouldn't change a thing now.

Getting started – how do I apply to adopt?

Think adopting is for you? The first thing you'll need to do is choose an adoption agency, after which you'll get registered, apply to adopt and undergo background checks.

You can adopt in two ways:

1. Through a voluntary adoption agency, which is also an independent agency

2. Through a local authority – these are gradually moving into what are called regional adoption agencies, so you may see them being referred to by this name as well

How long does it take to adopt?

Once you've found your agency, you'll start a two-stage approval process towards being approved as an adopter. The overall process should take around six months.

Related: Read our adoption and fostering web guide for more information on service  and support. 

1. First stage of the approval process – initial checks and registration

In stage one, which takes about two months, the agency staff will work with you to explore your family and your background, do a medical assessment to make sure that you're fit to parent and also undertake a criminal records check.

The agency will work with you to explore which kinds of children you could provide a home for, and any limitations on your part or preferences that you may have. You'll also need to provide three referees who can vouch for you – two of which cannot be relatives.

Some prospective adopters do find this to be a very intrusive process and that's because it is. But it's worth bearing in mind that all these checks are done with the safety and well-being of your future child in mind.

Once they have reviewed all your information, your agency will make a decision on whether you should be put through to stage two.

Surround yourself with that all-important and supportive network of friends and family, and keep talking to one other.

2. Second stage of approval - training, group learning and home assessment

Stage two takes about four months and, during this stage, you will undergo training and assessment in more detail so that you develop your understanding of the children who need to be adopted and of what your job as an adoptive parent will be.

You'll work in groups with other prospective adopters on training and preparation courses.

You'll also have a series of visits from social workers who will come into your home, spend more time talking to you to understand your approach to adoption, and assess your home and your family.

At the end of stage two, all your information will be compiled into a Prospective Adopters Report. This is the report that goes through to the agency's independent Adoption Panel who will review the report and make a decision on whether you should be approved to become an adopter.

It's worth saying that you can choose to leave or pause the process at any stage if you need to, and it's also worth knowing that at every stage it might be possible (albeit unlikely) that you no longer meet the criteria that the agency is looking for.

Want to speak to people in a similar situation? Join the discussion on our adoption forum, a space for people who are in various stages of adopting a child. 

Adopting a Child

3. Third stage of approval - the matching process

Being approved to become an adopter is a red-letter day in the lives of most prospective adopters. Once you pass stage two, you can move on to the process of matching with your future child.

Your social worker will discuss possible children with you as well as send your details to social workers of potential children, but be aware that this stage may take a while.

During the matching process, the child needs to be protected from all the uncertainties that a potential move might bring and therefore you are very unlikely to meet your prospective child at this stage.

What's more likely is that you'll see a video, some photographs and the child's report during the exploratory phase to help you understand more about their background, their temperament and the reasons why they're being placed for adoption.

You have the right to decline any match that doesn't feel right to you and, of course, that is always what you should do if ever there is any doubt.

But once everyone has agreed that a match has been found, your adoption agency along with the child’s agency will write an Adoption Placement Report, a proposal that will go to a Matching Panel run by your agency.

The Matching Panel will make the final decision on whether the child should be placed with you as their parent. They will examine your Prospective Adopters Report, the Child’s Performance Report and the Adoption Placement Report.

Once the adoption has been approved, an adoption placement is prepared.

We adopted our little boy. It's the best thing we've ever done, but I also know we've been very fortunate. We don't know what the future may hold, but we take it a day at a time.

Types of adoption

There are two ways of being matched with a child:

1. Foster to Adopt

This is where a child who is likely to need to be adopted in the future (often a baby or a very young child) is initially placed with you as a foster carer.

You will look after the child while they go through the final stage of their adoption plan. Once the child has a plan, your placement becomes an adoptive placement.

In a Foster to Adopt placement, the advantage is that the child has fewer moves, and less disruption and trauma.

2. Direct adoption

This is when you are matched with a child who already has an adoption plan.

Once the child has their adoption plan in place, you'll become their adoptive parent.

Adoptive Family

4. Fourth stage of approval - placement plan, moving in and Adoption Order

An approved match is an even bigger red-letter day as this heralds the new stage of introductions and moving in.

The process for meeting your child and moving them in will be agreed with your social worker and the child's social worker. In general, you won't just meet them and take them home. You'll undergo a process of getting to know them and them getting to know you which will also involve working with the child's foster carer. All of this will be outlined in the Adoption Placement Plan.

With a younger child or baby, you might give them a blanket that you've slept with or a cuddly toy to keep in their bed to familiarise them with your smell.

With an older child, you might provide them with a photo album or a video introducing them to you, your family and your home.

You'll visit them in their foster placement and get to know them. Reciprocal visits may be arranged, building up to an overnight stay. Then, after a series of visits and a final meeting with your social worker, the child's foster parents and anyone else with significant involvement in your child's case, they finally move into your home as your child.

What is an Adoption Order?

Even though the child is now living with you, the adoption process isn't yet complete. After a minimum of 10 weeks, you'll need to apply for an Adoption Order through the courts with the help of your social worker. An Adoption Order order gives adopters full parental responsibility for a child.

The judge will review the child's placement history and make a decision on whether to approve you, finally, as that child's parent. At that point, you will receive an adoption certificate, which will replace the child's original birth certificate, and all parental responsibility passes to you – at this point you are legally no different to the child's birth parents.

Am I entitled to adoption leave or an adoption allowance? advise that if you take time off to adopt a child or have a child through surrogacy, you may be eligible for Statutory Adoption Leave or Statutory Adoption Pay.

When it comes to adoption allowance, your local authority may offer this when it comes to securing a home for a child who might not otherwise be adopted. However, the amount offered could vary depending on the circumstances.

Post-adoptive support is something that is vital for both children and parents.

What difficulties do adoptive parents face?

Many adopters will tell you that parenting an adopted child is different to parenting a birth child. These are children who have gone through trauma and you are, at least, their second family.

These types of parents often look into therapeutic parenting and often need to learn how to parent their child according to the child's own particular needs.

It's a rich and rewarding journey, but it's not without its struggles. Get to know your child, look into therapeutic parenting, understand what your child needs and follow your instincts.

In need of support? Adoption UK have a support team in place to help you if you need advice or help for the unique challenges adoption can bring.