When a child has been adopted, they are to be treated as though they have been born as a child of the adoptive parents, extinguishing parental responsibility which a person had for the child, prior to the order being made. For grandparents this can be an extremely difficult process, and, although not always the case, it may mean that they are no longer able to see their grandchildren.
In this blog, we explore the different forms of adoption that may take place and the impact that this has on a grandparent’s ability to maintain contact with their grandchildren.
What rights do grandparents have after adoption?
It is important to note that, within family law, grandparents do not have rights in respect of their grandchildren, instead the court will be guided by what is in the best interests of the child.
However, the court does recognise the importance of family relationships and before making an adoption order, they will consider whether there should be arrangements for allowing any contact with the child, by the natural family. The court recognises that each case has to be considered on its own particular facts. There will therefore be some circumstances where it will be in the child’s best interest to maintain contact with their natural family, which may include their grandparents.
What are the main types of adoption and their impacts on grandparents rights?
As noted above, the form of adoption that takes place will impact the grandparent’s ability to maintain contact with their grandchildren, be that direct, or indirect, contact.
There will be some cases where the court considers that it is not in the child’s best interest to have any contact with their natural family, and this is called a closed adoption. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for the natural family to process, before making the order, the court will have very carefully considered what is in the child’s best interest, considering their safety and welfare. In a closed adoption, the complete break in contact will extend to the child’s natural grandparents.
Where a child has been adopted via open adoption, the court will have considered that it is in the child’s best interest to allow for some continued contact with their natural family. The extent and form of contact will depend on the circumstances of the case, however, it is important to note that it is not a form of shared parenting. As with closed adoption, the natural parents’ parental responsibility will still be extinguished.
Whether grandparents maintain contact in an open adoption case, will depend on the facts of the case. A court may order formal contact arrangements, with specified family members, or they may leave contact to voluntary agreement, rather than a court order.
Where the court makes an order for formal contact arrangements, it should be made clear within the adoption order, what form of contact is to be permitted. For example, the court may specify that direct contact takes place, which includes face-to-face contact between the child and their natural family, as well as phone calls, texts and emails. Alternatively, the court may make an order for indirect contact, also known as ‘letter box’ contact. This will be an exchange of written information between the adoptive parents and the natural family through a central point which enables addresses to be kept confidential, and inappropriate contact to be managed. Adopters can be asked to send letters and photographs to the natural family on at least an annual basis, documenting milestones that the child has achieved during the year.
Private adoption involves placements which haven’t been arranged by a local authority or a registered adoption agency. It may, for example, involve the adoption of a child by their relatives. In the majority of private adoption cases, the child must have had their home with the prospective adopter for a minimum duration of time, before the application can be made.
As to the impact it has on grandparents’ ability to have contact with their grandchild, it is very case-specific. Unlike with closed adoption, there will not be an order in place preventing contact, however, there will not be an automatic right for the grandparents to see the child.
What are some possible challenges that grandparents could face when it comes to adoption?
Before an adoption order is made, if the court does not intend to make an order for post-adoption contact of their own volition, it is possible for an individual seeking contact to make an application. Grandparents do not have an automatic right to apply for contact unless the child has lived with them for more than 3 years. Usually, they must obtain leave of the court to make such an application. In deciding whether to grant leave to make an application the court will consider three things:
- firstly, whether there is any risk that the contact will disrupt the child’s life, to the extent it is harmful;
- the applicant’s connection with the child; and
- anything said by the child, or the adoptive parent(s).
If the court grants leave to make an application, it will then be necessary to make a formal application for post-adoption contact. Given its complexity, we would advise that you obtain legal support should you wish to make such an application.
An additional challenge for grandparents is the finality of the adoption process. Adoption orders and any arrangements for contact are intended to be permanent and final, so the issue of contact should generally be decided, prior to making an adoption order. Whilst there is a mechanism for a member of the adopted child’s natural family to apply for post-adoption contact (as discussed above), once an adoption order has been made, the question of contact may only be re-examined if there is some fundamental change in circumstances, which is rare. Whilst this can be very challenging for the adopted child’s natural family to deal with, the court takes this approach as a way of protecting the child and ensuring stability.