Q&A with Gemma Gordon-Johnson, head of service for First4Adoption

Gemma Gordon-JohnsonGemma Gordon-Johnson is Head of Service for First4Adoption, a new information service for anyone interested in finding out more about adopting a child in England. 

Over 4,000 children are waiting to be adopted in England. Recent research shows that one in seven people would consider adopting, but are held back by a lack of information and myths about who can adopt. First4Adoption is run by the charities Coram Children's Legal Centre, Coram and Adoption UK, and funded and supported by the Department for Education (DfE).

To find out more about adopting or for information about adoption agencies in your area, call their friendly trained advisors on 0300 222 0022 or visit www.first4adoption.org.uk.

Age of children | Work and finances | Criteria for prospective adopters | Families with biological children | Ethnicity | Support | Other questions


Age of children

Q. OceanBeach: Is the average age of a child for adoption four, and how common is it to be able to adopt an under 18 month old?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: There are currently younger children among the 4,000-plus children waiting for adoptive families in England and the Government is keen to encourage people interested in adopting to come forward. There are some children aged under two years old and great efforts are being made to prevent delay in placing them with adoptive families.

Q. Notsoyummymummy1: Are most children waiting to be adopted older than toddler age? Are there many babies waiting to be adopted? Do many suffer with health problems due to their natural parents' lifestyles?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: The majority of children waiting for adoption are under six years old with many younger children between one and three years of age. There are very few tiny babies placed for adoption. All adopted children will have suffered some loss and separation, even when adopted shortly after birth. Some may have specific medical problems or a learning disability, and some children may have experienced neglect or abuse.

During the assessment and matching process, social workers will help adopters to consider their parenting capabilities and adopters will be given as much information as possible about the child and their needs so they can make an informed decision about making them a part of their family. All these children will have had unsettled lives and need parents who can offer them love and reliable care to help them rebuild their trust in adults.


Work and finances

Q. GotMyGoat: I've got the feeling that to adopt you need to be able to own your own home and have a lot of money, especially if someone needs to stay at home full time. Are families who receive any amount of housing benefit/tax credits allowed to adopt? How much income would you need to be considered a good enough family?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: The financial circumstances and employment status of prospective adopters will always be considered as part of an adoption assessment, but low income, being unemployed or employed do not automatically rule you out. You can be an adoptive parent while on benefits. Home owners or those in rented accommodation can adopt, as well as those on housing benefit and tax credits.

When a young child is placed in an adoptive family it is expected that one parent will be at home for between six and 12 months to enable a child to settle and make good attachments. There is statutory adoption pay to support the partner who is taking adoption leave from work.

Additional financial support may be available, but this would depend on the child's needs and particular circumstances. This would need careful discussion with the adoption agency.

If you need to return to work after that, it is important to consider different types of childcare to find the best one for a child who has may well have already experienced considerable disruption before joining their adoptive family.

Q. chrissyjay: Can self-employed people receive adoption pay?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: A self-employed person is not entitled to Statutory Adoption Pay, so self-employed people need to plan ahead and prepare financially. Once adopters have been matched with a child there is a period of getting to know the child when it is not easy to work and a family may need to depend on savings. This means that planning ahead for the time when a child first joins the family is important for anyone who is self-employed and therefore unable to take Statutory Adoption Leave or Statutory Adoption Pay.


Criteria for prospective adopters

Q. ukbristol: I'm 44 and my husband is 48 - we are young minded and physically young for our age, married for 10 years, living without children of our own and financially solvent. Would we be welcomed as adoptive parents?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: It's great to have a question from someone in their 40s because we know there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around adoption out there. First of all, there is no upper age limit to adopting a child. Agencies will expect you to have the health and vitality to see your children through to an age of independence, and 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). The Who Can Adopt section of our website First4Adoption aims to bust adoption myths.

Q. ukbristol: My and my husband spoke to an adoption agency, and they were concerned that if we were to adopt, as the child grows older he/she may come into contact with relatives from birth family - siblings, cousins, etc - who lived in the same town which would cause distress. Apparently they have had cases where cousins have looked out for the child who was adopted and then tried to make contact against the child's wishes. As such, the agency wanted adoptive parents to live close enough for social workers to visit but a reasonable distance away from the birth family and they felt that we lived too close to potential adoptees. It seems a difficult balance - too close isn't good and too far away isn't good either as too far for social workers to visit. We felt confused by all this and unsure what we should do.

"You can be an adoptive parent on benefits... those in rented accommodation can adopt, as well as those on housing benefit and tax credits."

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Even if you are just at the earliest stages of exploring the idea of adoption it is a good idea to contact a couple of adoption agencies (or even three or four). Adoption agencies hold information meetings explaining adoption in detail and they also give you opportunities to meet with adoptive parents. They also have different needs and priorities when recruiting prospective adopters in their local area.

These meetings are a great opportunity to find out about parenting, about adoption and about the children who need adoptive families. Go along to a few meetings. Ask questions, both of yourselves and of the agencies. Most prospective adopters find this very helpful in helping them make their decisions. In the early stages it is possible to contact as many agencies as you like and can include both Local Authorities and Voluntary Adoption Agencies. Each can supply prospective adopters with information and invite them to meetings. Many will also invite prospective adopters to informal conversations with social workers to understand the hopes and desires as well as the strengths they would bring to being an adoptive parent.

First4Adoption would encourage prospective adopters to contact several agencies at this early stage because it is very important to feel comfortable when working with an agency. The process will be much easier if there is a good rapport between the prospective adopter and the adoption agency. Different agencies will each have their own needs and priorities. When there has been a discouraging response from an agency it doesn't mean you can't adopt through them or through another agency You could also give our information line a call if you have any questions or concerns on 0300 222 0022.

Q. randomtask: We have talked about adopting in the future and wonder would religion go against us? My husband is a priest. Also, would the fact I have already adopted help/hinder us?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Prospective adopters go through an extensive assessment process to determine whether they are suitable to adopt a child and to find the best match with a child/children needing adoption. If you have had experience of parenting and have helped a child in the family to understand issues of adoption then you have much to bring to parenting a child needing an adoptive family. The issue of religion should not be a barrier and many families where one or both parents are priests have adopted children.

Q. Snowrose1311: I am a lone parent with two biological sons in primary school. I'd love to adopt in a year or two, but I'm on my own with little family support. Can you tell me how much support (e.g. from friends, school/nursery, childcare) a single adopter would need to have in order to be approved? I feel confident about my ability to manage three children on my own, even considering that an adopted child may have emotional and/or behavioural problems, but I've heard that potential single adopters must demonstrate that they have a support network in order to be approved.

"There is no upper age limit to adopting a child."

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Local Authorities and Voluntary Adoption Agencies have been placing children with single adopters successfully for a number of years. It is not necessary to have a partner to adopt a child. As a parent of two children you have considerable parenting experience.

As a single parent, support networks are particularly important and being able to call on friends and family would be a consideration during an adoption assessment. There are times in all families when support can be important, although how this is arranged is different in each family.

Q. WeeNoggi: Could you give tips on preparing for a home study by social services in general? Is renting versus owning a house a big factor?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: A Home Study forms the main part of any assessment to be an adoptive parent in England. It is a series of visits made by a social worker from your adoption agency to your home. During this time the social worker gets to know you and your family and spends time helping you think about what strengths you could bring to adoptive parenting. Whether you are a homeowner or you are living in rented accommodation, you can still apply and be approved as adopters.

Q. OceanBeach: How are often are disabled people able to adopt? I use a wheelchair but am still independent and work. Is this a complete no-no? My husband would be child's main carer, but we consider this normal. Would we be penalised that it is not the mother being main carer?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Disabled people can adopt and are welcomed when applying. Each family will work out which parent would be best suited to be the parent at home caring for the child. This is sometimes the male partner, which is acceptable and not unusual.

Q. ControlGeek: I've read on my local area's adoption website that prospective adoptive parents need to have recent experience of non-related (to them) children of the age range in which they are looking to adopt. The website's suggestion is that prospective adoptive parents volunteer with a nursery, school or similar to get this experience. My partner and I both work full time, which makes this pretty much impossible. So my question is, how much weight is given to recent experience, normally, and can it be negated in cases where both partners work?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Having recently spent regular time with children can be very helpful before becoming an adoptive parent. You could get current experience of being around children by regularly spending time with the children of your friends or family, which could be a good opportunity to observe parenting as well. If you have time, you could also volunteer with children's group in the evening, such as Brownies, Scouts, Rainbow or Woodcraft Folk groups.

Q. UnbearableRuth: If a person had previously voluntarily surrendered a baby for adoption many years ago (more than 10 years) having at the time felt unable to be a parent, and had then grown up a bit and much more recently had another child and is living a pretty normal settled life - would that incident in their history be likely to make them considered unsuitable to be an adoptive parent?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Voluntarily parting with a child for adoption would not automatically preclude you from adopting a child at a later time. An adoption agency would want to understand the circumstances surrounding the earlier decision and consider your current situation when assessing your suitability to adopt.


Families with biological children

Q. UnbearableRuth: What kind of age gap between an adoptive parent's biological child and an adoptive child placed would be typical in households where there were a mixture of biological children and adoptive children? Are such mixed families encouraged or discouraged? Do social services assume that the parents will hold their biological child as a favourite and therefore avoid this kind of situation?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: There are many families who have both biological children and adopted children. A child placed for adoption may have had unsettling early experiences and will need a family where their needs can be prioritised. Social workers would consider the needs of all the children in the family and experience shows that giving each child more space is particularly helpful in adoptive families. Therefore a wider age gap between each of the children may be a helpful plan.

If there is a toddler in the family it may be a good idea to attend the information meetings of adoption agencies to learn more about what is involved in adopting, the needs of the children waiting to be adopted, and to think about the timing of an adoption application.



Q. JeanBillie: My question is about ethnicity - I'm mixed race (black African and English) and my husband is white. What considerations would be made for us, if any?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: There are children from a range of ethnic backgrounds, including mixed-ethnic backgrounds, who need adoptive families. Adoption agencies are keen to recruit families who can reflect this and so they would welcome interest from families with backgrounds like yours.

Q. ThinkingofAdoption: My husband is white and I look white but am mixed race. My family is also mixed race so if you look at my parents and siblings, between us all we are white/mixed race/black. How would ethnic matching work in our case?

I am worried that if a specific match was sought for my ethnicity, we would have a very long wait. Would we be considered for a white child even though I am mixed race? Or would we be considered for a black child, even though neither of us is black, because close relatives (who we see a lot of) are?

From our own perspective, we don't mind about the child's ethnicity, since we are used to mixed families anyway. I guess my concern is that a close ethnic matching policy would mean we needn't bother applying.

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Children who need adoptive families come from a range of ethnic backgrounds, including mixed–ethnic backgrounds. Therefore, adoption agencies are keen to recruit prospective adoptive parents who can reflect the diversity of children's ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The wider family also makes an important contribution to family life, as well as friends and the diversity of a family's network can be helpful to a child of mixed heritage.

Q. ThinkingofAdoption: Do you think policies of matching ethnicity mean that children of some races stay in foster care for longer (perhaps even not being adopted)? If so, what can or is being done to increase the adoption chances for those children?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: A child's ethnic background is one of a number of considerations social workers will have when trying to match a child to an adoptive family. The aim for everyone in the adoption system is to find loving families for each child in need of a happy future, even if there is not a perfect ethnic match. Ethnicity is relevant and how a family would support a child to develop with confidence would be discussed as part of an adoption assessment.



Q. Devora: I'm kind of interested in how you're going to talk to enquirers about the realities of adoption. As an adoptive parent, I'm fascinated by the contradictory, polarised ways potential adopters are treated. First of all there are all the cosy adverts and outreach campaigns stressing that what is needed is normal families, emphasising how you don't have to be special, illustrated with photos of happy families romping around.

But as soon as you engage with the system all that changes and suddenly the emphasis is on how very unordinary you have to be to adopt. You get lots of horror stories about how difficult it all is, discouraged from daring to hope for anything like normal happy family life, and encouraged to be positive about signing up for life as an unpaid therapeutic carer.

Tell me, everybody, if you think I'm wrong - perhaps this was just my experience - but I think I see it reflected in some of the confusion and anxiety expressed by potential adopters who post queries here. I'm not saying any of this information is wrong - the good and the bad - but I think the current system is really bad at communicating with potential adopters about what the experience may be like. Partly because they're so insistent on keeping the emphasis on the child as priority, I expect.

Sorry, long ramble from me. But I think this new service is a real opportunity to improve on what we currently have.

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: It is hoped that First4Adoption can convey something of the joys of adoptive parenting as well as some of the challenges. Do look at our website First4Adoption to see how we are trying to do this. We also have adopters that volunteer on our information line 0300 222 0022 and this enables us to provide real insight to prospective adopters. It is a balance and all those interested in adopting are encouraged to attend the information meetings of several agencies to learn more about the children needing adoptive homes. In this way prospective adopters can find an agency which will be most suitable for them and they will be confident if they decide to make an application.

Mum and child

Although the needs of the child remain paramount, it is important that the hopes and expectations of prospective adoptive parents are respected and understood. First4Adoption is a service for prospective adopters and has been created to not only encourage prospective adopters but to also support them with their adoption journey. The determination of adopters to make a lifelong difference to the lives of children, who may have had difficult early experiences, is truly impressive.

Q. Maryz: I would like to ask what provision is being put in place for "after-adoption" support. I think many more adoptions would be happier and the children better off in the long run if the support offered after adoption was on a par to the support offered if a child was still in care. I don't know whether that is changing?

The amount of effort and the resources put in to selecting adoptive parents isn't matched by the effort and resources put into supporting them, in my experience.

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Post-adoption support is an important consideration when a child joins an adoptive family. This is discussed at the time that the match is identified when an adoption support plan is drawn up. Currently each adoptive family is entitled to an assessment if there are subsequent problems, to identify what services may be helpful. At present there is not a duty on Local Authorities to provide additional support and families sometimes struggle to find the most appropriate support. However, health services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health teams, CAMHS, are increasingly aware of the additional needs of those dealing with issues arising from adoption.

There are also specialist agencies that provide post adoption support, such as After Adoption and Adoption UK. Adoption UK is an organisation set up by adopters for adopters and offers a range of supportive services.

There are other organisations listed on the First4Adoption website where post-adoption support is available. The government is currently looking into ways to enable adoptive families to access support using an Adoption Passport and there should be further information about this in the coming weeks. Do check our website for updates about this and follow us on Twitter @First4Adoption.


Other questions

Q. Phineyj: How common is it for birth parents to contact their children post-adoption via Facebook or other social media, and is there any research into the impact this has on the long term success of adoptions?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Adoption agencies work with adopters to help them prepare themselves and their children for the potential impact of contact with birth families. As you say, this is particularly important given the rise of social media and the internet. Other organisations that offer support to adopters, such as Adoption UK, can also be a good source of advice. These organisations might be a good place to find research about how common this is and about any impact. Finally, a book written last year Bubble Wrapped Children: How social networking is transforming the face of 21st century adoption by Helen Oakwater covers this area.

Q. LaVitaBellissima: Do siblings often get adopted together?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: It is hoped that siblings who have always lived together and have a good relationship can be placed in an adoptive family together. Larger sibling groups may be placed in separate families, but if possible it is hoped that the different families will offer ongoing contact to enable the siblings to remain in touch. Finding a family to adopt four or more children together is a challenge, but if the social workers think this is in the children's best interests then they will make every effort to achieve this. There is often financial support available to enable adopters to consider a large sibling group.

"It is hoped that siblings who have always lived together and have a good relationship can be placed in an adoptive family together."

Q. rabbitonthemoon: Is it always the case that ex-partners have to provide a reference?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: There is some discretion about interviewing ex-partners, particularly where there has been a history of abuse. If you have not parented children together within that relationship it should not be an issue. Previous partners who have jointly parented children can only state if they have concerns about a future child's well-being and why. They do not have a right to veto the application.

Q. WeeNoggi: My husband and I live in Vietnam and we can adopt here legally. This would mean bringing our adopted child to the UK and getting a home study done after the adoption process. Is this fairly common or would we be perceived as attempting to bend the rules?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: If an overseas country is a member of the Hague Convention then an adoption order granted in that country would be recognised by the UK. Vietnam is a member of the Hague Convention and therefore the adoption order granted in Vietnam would be recognised in the UK and it would not be necessary to apply for an adoption order once the adoptive family return to the UK.

If one of the adopters is a British national then the child would become a British national on the granting of an adoption order. If an overseas country is not a member of the Hague Convention then it would be necessary to apply for an adoption order once the family have returned to the UK. See intercountry adoption.

Q. Lotta1234: I'm interested in concurrent planning. Is this possible in Hertfordshire please?

A. GemmaGordon-Johnson: Concurrent Planning enables prospective adopters to be approved as foster carers so that a baby, who is unable to live with his/her birth family, can be placed with them a fostering basis. During this time, while the Family Courts are assessing the best plans for the baby's future and deciding whether he/she will need to be adopted, the baby will need to maintain regular contact with its birth parents through contact meetings, and the foster carers will need to support the birth family's efforts to regain the care of their child. If the Court decides that the baby can be safely returned home to the birth family then the foster carers would help the baby settle back into their birth family.

If, however, the Court decides that it is not safe to return a baby to their birth family and the baby needs the security of an adoptive family, then the baby can be adopted by the foster carers with whom they are already living. This will prevent the baby from having to suffer the upset and loss of moving from a foster home where they have settled to a different adoptive family.

This process has been pioneered by the children's charity Coram which is now working with a variety of adoption agencies to ensure that Concurrent Planning is more widely available across the country. For the most up-to-date information, it's best to enquire with your local adoption agencies whether Concurrent Planning programmes are active in your area. To find the contact details of Local Authority and Voluntary Adoption Agencies in your area, you can call us on 0300 222 0022 or visit our website First4Adoption.

Last updated: 9 months ago