Choosing to adopt or foster a child in care is likely to be one of the most challenging, but rewarding, decisions you'll ever make.
There are around 4,000 children in England who need to be adopted every year, and many more who need fostering. According to adoption charity CoramBAAF, the average age at adoption in 2014-2015 was three years and three months.
Some children will have siblings, but the decision to keep siblings together is based on a balanced assessment of each child's needs.
Some will have been abused or neglected in early childhood, or have specific medical problems or a learning disability.
Most have had unsettled lives and have been taken into care. They may have experienced some form of trauma including loss and separation, even when adopted shortly after birth.
Their past experiences may have taught them strategies for surviving in a dangerous world and encouraged a confused view of family life and relationships.
While a loving and supportive home is essential for these children, the role of an adoptive parent is also to help identify and access the services and treatments they may need, both short term and long term, to improve their chances in life.
The two-part adoption process
The first step towards adopting a child is to contact your local authority's adoption team or a voluntary adoption agency, see Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies' (CVAA) to ask for information and procedures. You can find an adoption agency near you through First4Adoption.
In July 2013, the government launched a new two-part adoption process so that prospective adopters can be approved to adopt a child more quickly. Adoption agencies are now expected to assess and prepare prospective adopters to apply to adopt within six months - unless you, as a prospective adopter, feel you need more time.
During the first part, which should take two months, prospective adopters will learn about what is involved in adopting a child and adoption agencies will obtain references for each applicant.
The second part, which should take four months, involves more intensive assessment and preparation of prospective adopters so that they are ready to apply for approval to adopt a child.
At the end of the second stage, prospective adopters should know if they have been approved to adopt. The adoption agency will then be able to match them as quickly as possible with a child or sibling group who needs adopting, providing the adopters are happy with the proposed match.
Find out more about the adoption process at First4Adoption.
Sometimes there isn't an appropriate match with your family in your local area and so your agency will need to cast their net wider. There are several ways of expanding your search to find the right child or children for you, including:
If you have not been matched with a child within three months, your agency must place your details on the National Adoption Register. This register holds information on children waiting to be adopted throughout England and of approved prospective adopters who are available and able to meet the needs of different children. You can also refer yourself to the register three months after getting approval to adopt.
As part of the adoption process, you will need to think about what age range and possible disabilities you can manage, as well as the possibility of adopting a sibling group. You may find that your initial views will develop as part of the preparation and assessment process, and talking to other adopters can help to answer some of your questions. Adoption UK has an online community of adopters, which discusses a wide range of adoption issues.
Foster carers and fostering options
The information on NHS Choices is aimed at adopters and prospective adopters, including foster carers who have been or are hoping to be approved as adopters. While many of the health issues are similar for children who are fostered to those who are adopted, the guidance for foster carers may be different.
If you are a foster carer looking for advice and support for a child in your care, or you want to find out more about fostering, you can call the confidential fostering advice service Fosterline on 0800 040 7675, 9am-5pm Monday-Friday.
CoramBAAF also has a lot of information and resources for foster carers or for people interested in fostering.
Fostering for Adoption
Fostering for Adoption is a recent initiative that aims to give a child a permanent home as early as possible. In Fostering for Adoption, the local authority places a child on a temporary basis with foster carers who are also approved as adopters, so that if the court later agrees that the child should be adopted the placement could become an adoptive placement.
Concurrent Planning for at-risk under-twos
Concurrent Planning is part of the Fostering for Adoption initiative. It is a fostering option for babies and young children under two in care who are likely to need adoption, but who still have a chance of being reunited with their birth family.
Concurrent carers foster the child while the courts decide whether or not they can return to their birth family. If the courts decide the child's parents cannot provide the security and care they need, and there are no alternative carers, the child will remain with their concurrent carer(s) and be adopted by them, so they should not face the same level of disruption as they might with traditional adoption.
For more information, visit the fostering options page on First4Adoption.
Adoption health information on NHS Choices
Read about your health and wellbeing as an adoptive parent, including your adoption medical.
Find out about some of the possible health issues faced by children who need adopting.
Find out what support you and your adopted child can expect to receive before, during and after the adoption process and placement.
Read Andrew's story about overcoming his IVF experiences and adopting his son.
Read Sally's story about the psychological challenges her two adopted children face.
Article provided by NHS Choices