A hilarious song by Ray Stevens, “I’m My Own Grandpa,” tells the tale of how marriage and birth combined to produce a weird family relationship. While Stevens’ tune was purely fictional, real life situations can result in some altered family relationships through the legal process of adoption. Relative adoptions, also known as kinship adoptions, create new legal relationships between family members although their biological connections remain the same.
A relative adoption is exactly what it sounds like it would be. An individual who is already related to a child undergoes court proceedings to make him the child’s legal parent. For this new parental relationship to be created, though, the biological parents’ rights must be legally terminated; there cannot be two sets of parents for the child. While a new legal relationship is created through a relative adoption, the biological relationship is unchanged.
To illustrate, if Mary’s biological daughter, Eve, is adopted by her maternal grandparents, Mary’s mother and father Fred and Ginger, Mary will no longer be the child’s mother in the eyes of the law. Fred and Ginger legally become Eve’s mother and father, but they are still Eve’s biological grandparents. Since Fred and Ginger are now Mary’s parents, the adoption results in Mary legally becoming Eve’s sister even though she remains Eve’s biological mother. If Mary’s sister, Margaret, had adopted Eve instead, Mary would then legally be Eve’s aunt as well as her biological mother. Margaret would be Eve’s legal parent but still her biological aunt following the adoption. Clearly, lines are blurred as to family relationship as a result of the relative adoption.
Do these altered family relationships occur often? Yes. In their detailed look at adoption utilizing statistics, authors Dr. Jo Jones and Dr. Paul Placek in Adoption: By The Numbers, reported that 41,023 domestic relative adoptions occurred in 2014. This figure represents 37 percent, or over one-third, of the total 110,373 domestic adoptions that year. Clearly, legal proceedings are creating numerous blurred lines in American families. While a final judgment in a relative adoption leaves no doubt as to who the child’s legal parents are, it creates confusion about family roles; the legal relationship is different than the biological relationship.
Who are these relatives who are adopting family members? Adoption statistics suggest grandparents are the most common individuals in the United States to adopt a family member. BrandonGaille.com reports that over 13 million kids are living in homes with their grandparents. And, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, more than 2.5 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren. While all these situations may not involve a formal grandparent adoption, those which have not reached that point yet might do so in the future if the grandparent continues to provide care.
But grandparents are not the only relatives who adopt family members. Since adoption is established by state law, each state may define who a “relative” is for purposes of adopting. In Florida, a “relative” is statutorily defined as someone who is related within three degrees of consanguinity. Derived from the Latin “consanguinitas,” the term consanguinity means “blood relation.” In consanguinity, individuals are related as a result of descent from a common ancestor; for example, first cousins have consanguinity because they descend from the same set of grandparents. To determine if a relative is within a specific degree of consanguinity, a family tree is drawn; each up and over on the tree represents one degree. Siblings, aunts and uncles, and first cousins would all be within three degrees of consanguinity. However, since each state determines who a relative is for purposes of a relative adoption, one who is considered a relative in one state might not be considered a relative in another state.
How do relatives find themselves in the position of having to adopt a family member? Many times relatives end up adopting a child who has been placed with them for foster care. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that approximately 25 percent of temporary or permanent placements from foster care involve relatives serving as foster parents. Placement with relatives is usually the first option considered by foster care workers when children cannot safely remain with their parents or be reunited with them.
Foster care situations arise because the state has stepped in and removed a child from a biological parent for abuse or neglect. The parent is given a chance to get her act together to have the child returned to her; if reunification is not possible, parental rights are terminated, and the child becomes available for adoption. If the child has already been living in a relative’s home while the biological parent has been attempting to achieve reunification, the relative will likely want to make the arrangement permanent when reunification is not possible and parental rights are to be terminated.
Why turn to relatives to provide care if the child’s situation with the biological parent requires legal intervention? As the familiar saying goes, “Blood is thicker than water.” Biological relatives are believed to naturally feel the need to protect a member of their family in a way that a non-family member may not.
Even when foster care was not required, several situations may give rise to the need for a relative adoption. Death of a biological parent is one scenario where foster care may not have occurred prior to adoption being considered. If the parent is killed in an accident, for example, an immediate need arises for someone to take in and care for the child on a permanent basis. Relatives may feel obliged to keep the child in the family after such a tragedy.
Mental health issues might also prevent a biological parent from fulfilling her parental role. In those situations, the parent may not be in a position to take care of herself, much less her child. If the mental health issue is a chronic or long-term one, a long-term solution needs to be found to provide a stable home for the child. Again, relatives may step up to the plate at this point. They may even have been caring for the child on a sporadic or temporary basis while the biological parent has experienced mental health problems. Making a temporary arrangement permanent is the next logical step.
A common scenario for grandparent adoptions is when a child becomes pregnant or fathers a baby as a teen. The biological parent is simply too young and not prepared to parent the child. Adoption by the baby’s grandparent provides a loving home for the child with a more stable situation than a teen parent could provide.
Although not a problem exclusively for teens, finances may make it unworkable for a biological parent to raise her child. She simply cannot afford to do so even if she wants to be a parent. Having the child’s grandparents adopt is often a realistic solution for all concerned; the grandparents are older and likely more financially secure, perhaps even being able to offer benefits such as medical coverage.
A child’s abandonment by a parent also gives rise to the need for a home for the child. Often these situations start off innocently when a biological parent asks the child’s grandparent or other relative to care for the child on a temporary basis but then never returns to take up the parenting mantle. The relative has, by that point, already bonded with the child. A relative adoption allows the relative, who is caring for the child on a day-to-day basis, to provide legal security for the child. Once a relative adoption is finalized, the relative is able to exercise the legal rights of a parent such as authorizing medical care and dealing with school officials.
Although not perhaps an intentional abandonment of her child, a biological parent’s incarceration may lead to the need for a permanent home for the child to be found. This need is particularly pressing when the child is young and the parent will be incarcerated for a significant portion of the child’s minority. Who will care for the child when his parent is locked up? A relative may step up to the plate and eventually pursue a relative adoption.
By far the most distressing and an increasingly more common reason for relative adoptions is substance abuse by the biological parent. The parent’s addiction may preclude his ability to adequately and safely provide for his child. In some cases, the addiction may lead to the parent’s death or incarceration. Substance abuse is increasingly contributing to adoption rates by relatives and by non-relatives alike. Per addictioncampuses.com, about 31% of all U.S. children placed in foster care were removed from their homes due to parent drug or alcohol use. The opioid epidemic has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of children entering foster care which puts them on the pathway to adoption if the biological parent cannot get clean.
Despite the child’s need for a stable and permanent home, relatives may hesitate to pursue an adoption. In order to adopt, the biological parents’ rights must be terminated. Relatives may cringe at the thought that they are taking their child or other relative to court to achieve such termination.
Benefits exist for a relative adopting a child. First, the adoption allows the child to maintain family bonds and connections. Adoptions by non-relatives not only sever legal ties with the biological family, but they often cut off contact with the biological family. Second, biological parents, who may be traumatized by the termination of their parental rights, have the peace of mind knowing that their child is in the hands of someone they know and trust, a close family member, when a relative adopts.
One benefit of a relative adopting could be a double-edged sword. The biological parent may be able to remain a part of the child’s life although not in the role of a parent. Most grandparent adoptions are open, allowing for interaction between the child and his biological parent. This contact may be difficult for the biological parent who is reminded of her inability to have raised her child herself. The contact may also be confusing to the child who is adopted. Young children may not be able to understand the legal ramifications of an adoption and why “Mom” is no longer “Mom” and is no longer around regularly while “Grandma” is now “Mom” and ever-present.
A clear benefit to a relative adopting is that the relative will be aware of the child’s ancestry and family medical history. Non-relatives who adopt may not have as much information at their fingertips or be able to relate the biological family history as a blood relative could. A relative will have a deeper and more personal understanding of the child’s family and their heritage.
A smooth transition to a new family dynamic is also an advantage in a relative adoption. Typically, the child is already familiar with the relative and may even have lived with the relative for some time prior to the adoption. Separation from a biological parent will have been confusing and upsetting to the child if not outright traumatic. Being with a known relative provides some sense of normalcy and connection for the child and may minimize the trauma.
Relatives who do want to step up to the plate and adopt have an easier road to travel in the legal process than non-relatives do. Streamlined procedures are usually available when a relative is adopting. These types of cases have fewer statutory requirements than a non-relative newborn adoption. Often there is no home study required of the relative, who is presumed, because of the blood connection, to have the relative’s best interest at heart, or the background investigation which is required is cursory. The process moves faster and costs less.
Relationship to the child alone does not guarantee a relative adoption will occur. The relative must be fit and willing to take on this obligation. Being willing is only part of the inquiry. A relative placement may not be approved due to the unsuitability of the relative for the parental role. A physical infirmity or lifestyle issue (drug use? criminal history involving children or violence?) might preclude a relative from becoming a legal parent. If the child is old enough to voice an opinion and objects to being adopted by the relative, the adoption might not be granted.
Relative adoptions generally arise out of a bad situation such as a biological parent’s death, incarceration, mental health issues, or substance abuse. While a relative adoption is not a cure-all for the child’s difficult circumstances, such an adoption can provide the child with a stable and loving home while allowing the child to remain with biological family. Any adoption changes the lines of a parent-child bond; the parental connection is erased from the biological parent and drawn to the legal parent. But in addition to creating a legal parent-child bond, a relative adoption blurs the lines of biological family relations. Biological ties remain, but legal relationships are altered. Even if the biological relationship lines are blurred, a relative adoption may provide a lifeline to give the child a good life when a biological parent is unwilling or unable to do so.
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