If you're considering taking the first steps towards adopting, this article takes a look at what you might face on your journey to parenthood - plus we speak to serving personnel and adopted children to discover what the process was like for them.
Adoption isn't a civvy street thing, it's a human thing. Soldiers, sailors, airmen & airwomen can offer vulnerable children, a nurturing, loving and stable environment to grow and be loved.
If a child cannot be brought up by their birth family, people looking to adopt can become their legal parents with the same rights and responsibilities.
Armed forces charity SSAFA supports serving men and women, veterans and their families. As part of their work, they run an independent adoption agency that works with local authorities in the UK to provide support for service personnel wishing to create a family through adoption.
Jill Farrelly, Team Manager for Armed Forces charity SSAFA’s Adoption Service, admits there’s a lot of wrong thinking around adoption as a route to parenting for service personnel. She said:
“One of the enduring myths is that they’re going to be disciplinarians; very regimented in the way they discipline children – a bit like a Sergeant Major.
"We’ve even been asked if adopters have guns in the house.”
LISTEN: What Is The Adoption Process?
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According to SSAFA, you are eligible to apply to adopt if you:
- Are aged 21 or over. There is no upper age limit to becoming an adoptive parent
- Are single, married, in a civil partnership, living together with a partner or are part of a dual serving couple
- Are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual
- Are already a parent
- Are a homeowner or renting a property in the UK
Also, having a criminal record doesn't automatically affect your chances of adopting.
Can You Get Help?
According to data from the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board published in May 2018, 2,750 children were waiting to be adopted at the end of 2018. Of those children, 39% had been waiting for 18 months or more.
Since 1964 SSAFA has approved more than 400 military adoptions. In 2018 alone, SSAFA worked to place 12 children with new families and approved 11 new families for adoption. Today, your marital status and sexuality don't affect your chances of adopting.
Around a decade ago, British Army medic Zoe and her wife Sally, a schoolteacher, decided to adopt. However, at their board interview with the city council, they were faced with some difficult questions. Zoe said:
"How are you going to react on the doorstep when they see two Mums coming up in this day and age?
"Which at the time was probably reasonably relevant, possibly not quite so now as more and more gay and lesbian couples are adopting."
Zoe and her wife were initially turned down by their city council. The next step was to contact SSAFA. Zoe said:
“They [SSAFA] understood what we were doing and what we wanted to do.
"Being in the military was actually a plus and not a minus.”
LISTEN: Who Can Help Me Adopt?
Finding A Forever Home
Adoption UK is the leading charity helping those who wish to adopt to become parents. They estimate the average age for children finding their ‘forever home’ through adoption is three years old.
Alison Woodhead, Director of Public Affairs & Communication at Adoption UK explains that in those short years, some children may have already gone through a lot. She said:
“Most children taken into care, taken from their birth families and put up for adoption, have suffered serious and sustained neglect and abuse.
“It’s imperative social workers find these children the very best ‘forever family’.”
Jill Farrelly of SSAFA says the core qualities serving personnel display in their day jobs are ideal in parenting children from challenging backgrounds. She said:
“You need to be able to be resilient, provide as much stability as possible for a child, be child-focused in terms of looking at a child’s needs and be able to laugh at yourself.”
What Military Adoption Leave Is There?
The Tri-Service Regulations for Leave and Other Types of Absence guidance clearly states that "all serving personnel, regardless of their length of service, are entitled to take up to 52 weeks of Adoption Leave."
Adoption leave can start either:
- From the day a child starts to live with the adopter, or
- Up to 14 days before the child starts living with them
Prepping to become an adoptive parent means getting your administration squared away.
After an expression of interest, the process is typically divided into two stages – the first largely paperwork-led. The second stage includes a social worker visiting the home of prospective parents.
Can Serving In the Military Actually Help?
Royal Air Force couple Jane and her husband adopted through their local authority.
Despite several false starts, due to moves between UK postings, they found that when inviting their social worker to their quarter, living on an airbase brought benefits. She said:
“Once she’d actually seen the house and seen our nice neighbours and seen the support network that we had there she was actually quite comfortable with us being in the military.”
After a two-stage process, prospective adopters are formally approved to adopt at Panel.
Jane and her husband were quizzed by professionals who, at first, didn’t fully understand their military background. One lady on the panel said:
“How are you going to feel when your child doesn’t conform to the strict boundaries that you obviously have in your family?”
Luckily, the couple’s social worker emphasized the flexible and solution-focused approach pair would take in parenting.
Being in the armed forces can be like a family, and that sense of belonging comes in handy. To be approved adopters need to create a support network of family, close friends and others in their immediate community who, if need be, can be called upon to provide practical help.
Living on a military site helped Jane and her other half who eventually adopted a son in 2016. She said:
“When we said that we move as a family unit [the social worker] took that as a very positive thing for us ... we should really emphasize that."
Military Adopting While Overseas?
To qualify for Adoption Leave under the Armed Forces Occupational Adoption Leave Scheme (AFOALS) when a child is adopted from overseas serving personnel must:
- Be the child’s adopter
- Have received official notification from the relevant UK authority confirming the central authority has or is prepared to, issue a certificate confirming that they are eligible to adopt and have been assessed and approved as being a suitable adoptive parent
- Provide their Commanding Officer or Chain Of Command with the correct notification
What Post Adoption Support Is There?
Adoption UK says around a third of families with adopted children are just like any other.
Another third will find their child’s history having some effect as they grow up.
And a final third of families – the ones we tend to hear about – experience significant and prolonged problems.
They often need post-adoption support from a range of medical, educational & social professionals.
"We need people who are able to parent in a different way to how you might parent a birth child.
"We offer training on things like therapeutic parenting because that is a very positive way of addressing children's behaviours which may be challenging without using things like shame which can be very damaging to a child who's already been through trauma."
LISTEN: What's It Like To Be An Adoptive Parent?
The dedicated post-adoption service offered by SSAFA provides essential help for parents.
Sally and her wife Zoe adopted three boys more than ten years ago. This wrap-around support has been a lifeline for them. Sally said:
“At any point, whenever we’ve needed someone to turn to, there’s always been somebody there.”
For forces families, upping sticks every two to three years for a new posting can seem at odds with providing a stable home for children, who may have already experienced significant trauma.
Sally and Zoe found the British Army to be a good ally. The army’s approach to their family’s needs gave them the support they needed. Sally said:
“The Army have been great. They’ve been supportive all the way through our journey.”
Becoming A Family
An important stage of the process is for adopters to meet the child or children several times and these meetings are incredibly emotional.
It took Jane and her husband nearly three years just to get to that stage. There was so much paperwork that they almost lost sight of the purpose.
However, after what felt like a lifetime, everything fell into place. Jane said:
"He just threw himself into my husband's arms and said 'are you my new Daddy?'
"That was the moment when you think 'this has been worth every single moment of the stress and the heartache'.
"After maybe 20, 30 minutes or so we were just hopelessly in love with him."
LISTEN: What's It Like To Meet Your Adopted Child?
A New Start
What’s it like for the children themselves, to step into an unfamiliar house and start life with a new mum and dad? Megan and Lilly were adopted as young children by their now parents Andrew and Regina. They describe their first impressions of stepping into their new family home after years of living with different foster families. Lilly said:
"We'd been moved around a lot so when we got here I told Megan 'don't settle down in the house because we don't know if we're going to move or stay'."
Lilly says it was the stability and love shown by their adoptive parents that meant she could finally let her guard down and trust that she might be in her 'forever home'.
Megan and Lilly have some sage advice for those taking the first step towards adopting. Megan said:
"It's not just about the parents and it's not just about the child, it's about both as a collective."
LISTEN: Megan and Lilly tell their story
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If you’re considering adoption as a route to parenting – as a couple or as an individual – you can find out more on the adoption process and learn of other people’s adoption journeys at www.ssafa.org.uk and www.adoptionuk.org