Earlier today I appeared on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour to discuss the legal status of step parents.
Life as a step parent can be very challenging: get it even slightly wrong and you could face resentment from all quarters: from your spouse, from the children’s other biological parent and of course, from the children themselves. Sensitivity and a delicate approach are all-important if you want to enjoy success as a step parent.
Sometimes, of course, it works. Genuine bonds can form between a step parent and the children they have helped to raise – especially if they have a poor relationship with their other biological parent.
But the second marriages and later-in-life relationships in which step parents typically make an appearance are just as prone to failure as any other – perhaps more so. So what happens then? Must your relationship with children you may have spent years with end the moment your relationship with your ex-partner does?
The Women’s Hour segment opened with the very sad case of a women who found herself in just that situation: her relationship ended and she had been unable to see his children since then, despite them ‘adoring’ her. It was “like a bereavement” she said.
Is a genetic connection the be-all and end-all of the parent-child-relationship? Of course not: as a society we endorse and encourage the adoption of children. So where does that recognition leave step-parents?
What, if anything, Woman’s Hour asked me, could their distressed correspondent do?
In many ways the relevant law is as complex as the role of step parent itself. But in this video I aim to give you an introductions to the key points – from your de rigueur introduction to mediation via a MIAM to the importance of parental responsibility and how to obtain it.
It would be fair to say that step-parents play a similar role to grandparents in the eyes of the law: their rights are usually recognised but they are kept a little at arm’s length unless the strength of their relationship with the children can be clearly established.
If you are step-parent now wresting with your rights under the law following divorce or separation, here a few resources which may be helpful:
- A website dedicated to the ins and outs of step parenting:
- The actual text of the Children Act 1989:
See in particular Section 1, Section 8 (as amended by Section 12 of Children and Families Act 2014) regarding orders that can be made and Section 10(9) in relation to permission to make an application for a child arrangements order.
- Parental rights and responsibilities:
- A parental responsibility agreement for step parents in a marriage or civil partnership:
- Cafcass on parental responsibility, obtaining a child arrangements order and the ‘welfare checklist’:
- How to make an application to court for a child arrangements order:
- Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAMs):
- MIAM-qualified mediators:
- Form C100:
- Re A (A child): a recent case in which permission was needed before an application could be made for a child arrangements order.
See paragraph 53 of the Judgement for the relevant principles.
- Orders a court may make include attendance at a separated Parents Information Programme and, with the consent of both parties, a Family Assistance Order:
Hello, in today’s video blog post I am going to talk about step-parenting and the law.
I have just come back from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour where they had a really sad story of a lady who was never married to her partner and helped to raise his children and then when their relationship broke down she has not been able to see the children. The Woman’s Hour presenter asked me what the law was in relation to that. So, let’s have a look at that because one in three families are ‘blended’ families or step-parent families, so it touches a huge number of people.
First of all, step-parenting is fraught with practical difficulties, there is no question about that. I recommended a website that I had come across called Happy Steps where they do give lots of practical tips and also the physiology for step-parenting which you might want to have a look at.
If you do decide to get married and there are children involved then of course it is going to be very difficult but remember that marriage gives you no automatic parental responsibility over children that aren’t yours. So, you have to acquire parental responsibility if you want it, either by an agreement when your partner and the other parent of the child has to agree, you download the form from the internet and then lodge it at the Family Court in High Holborn in London. Or, if you need to, you can go to court and apply for the parental responsibility. If you’re not married, you can’t do that, the only way you can acquire parental responsibility is indirectly if you have an order that a child is to live with you and you’re named in that order. Then you will have it but only for the length of the order of the court. So it is tricky. Parental responsibility means that you then assume all the rights of a parent to make big decisions in children’s life, including education, religion, where they live, lifestyle, and also in emergency situations, such as if a child suddenly becomes ill and a decision has to made about medical treatment.
But then what happens if the relationship breaks down?
I am afraid that children and step-parents don’t always see eye-to-eye and even with the best will in the world, the step-parent may not be seen to be as neutral or as on side if that happens as a ‘real’ birth parent.
And so relationships break down, what happens then?
You can apply to the court to see the children, if it is in their best interests, by issuing what is called a C100 and paying £215 court fee. Before you go to court it is mandatory you attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting and try and whether or not the dispute can be resolved by mediation. If you do go to court it is highly likely that it will be before a Magistrates Court and there will be a two stage hearing. The first hearing will be to decide interim matters after you have been contacted by a Cafcas officer, that is the Children Advisory Courts Service, that is a social worker who will first of all want to find out if there are any safeguarding issues, whether there is any domestic violence or any concerns about violence or abuse and then they might be brought in to try and help sort out the dispute of the first hearing or file a report for the second hearing, which is usually the final hearing.
At the first hearing, which is a despite resolution appointment, the Magistrate and you and your former partner will be trying to sort it all out and the Magistrates can make an interim order for the time being. So, don’t forget to ask for that if you go there. Then finally, the order will be made in court at the next hearing and the court will decide.
On what basis will the court decide?
Well, that is all set out in the Children Act, so have a good look at section 1 (3) of the Children Act in particular; that is the Children Act 1989, and there you will get the welfare checklist. When the court makes its decision, it has to do so on the basis that the welfare of the child is paramount and the checklist set out all of the things that the court will take into account.
The last thing I want to mention is that if you haven’t lived with the children for three years, and this applies to grandparents as well, you first of all have to get permission from the court before your application to see the children can proceed. It is worth checking, again, the Children Act for the criteria that are involved and the latest court decision. It is tricky but accompanying this blog post are some written references so click on the links and that will take you straight through to what I hope will be able to give you more information. It is a complex subject, I can’t obviously cover it all but I hope I have got the basics to enable you make a decision about it. If you really want to see the children and you think it is in their best interest, then there is no harm in trying, thank you.