Academic journal article Family Relations

Issues Considered in Contemplating Stepchild Adoption

Academic journal article Family Relations

Issues Considered in Contemplating Stepchild Adoption

Article excerpt

Lawrence Ganong,* Marilyn Coleman, Mark Fine, and Annette Kusgen McDaniel

The primary purpose of this study was to explore the factors that stepfamily members consider when contemplating stepchild adoption. Thirty-two adults and 22 stepchildren from 16 stepfamilies were interviewed about their thoughts and feelings regarding stepparent adoption. The desire to be a "regular" family, to sever relationships with the nonresidential parent, and to legitimize roles and relationships were reasons given for considering adoption. Whether or not family members thought about or discussed stepchild adoption was related primarily to the level of involvement of the nonresidential parent. Implications for policies that may expand the range of options available to strengthen the stepparent-stepchild bond are discussed.

Key Words: adoption, stepchildren. stepparent.

Stepfamily households, defined as households in which there is an adult couple, at least one of whom has a child from a previous relationship, are common in the United States. In 1990, 11.3% of children in the United States lived with a parent and a stepparent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992). A number of these stepchildren are eventually adopted by their stepparent; although the extent of stepparent adoption is not known, it has been estimated that 100,000 stepchildren are adopted by their stepparents every year (Levine & Sallee, 1990).

There are probably many similarities between stepchild adoptions by a stepparent and adoptions in which both adults adopt an unrelated child, especially when children are younger than preschool age at the time of adoption (Reitz & Watson, 1992). There are also similarities with older children in both types of adoption children are confronted with modifying selfidentities; they may experience loyalty conflicts between genetic and adopting parents; family members must learn new roles; the family boundaries must be redefined by its members; and adopting parents must cope with identity changes (Daly, 1988; Kirk, 1981; Visher & Visher, 1996; Watson, 1996).

Despite the similarities, there are important contextual differences that make stepchild adoption worthy of study as a special type of adoption. For instance, in stepchild adoptions only the stepparent is seeking to change her or his legal status in relation to the children (Mahoney, 1994), whereas in most other adoptions there are two adults seeking to adopt a child. In stepchild adoption the stepchild has an already existing relationship with one biological parent in the home, an emerging relationship with another adult in the home (the stepparent), and possibly an ongoing relationship with a nonresidential biological parent. By contrast, in adoption of unrelated children, the child does not have a pre-existing relationship with either of the adoptive parents. Consequently, in stepchild adoptions the stepparent is the additional member of an already existing family unit, whereas in other adoptions the child is the newcomer. One possible result of these structural differences is that issues such as openness in adoption, defined as the extent of direct and indirect contact between the adopted child and the birthparents (Kirk, 1981), may have different meanings in stepchild adoptions than in other types of adoptions.

In addition to these structural differences, it is likely that there are differences in the motivations to adopt between stepchild adoptions and other adoptions. For example, infertility is a primary reason why childless couples adopt (Daly, 1988; Kirk, 1964; 1981), but this is seldom the reason why stepparents adopt their stepchildren (Wolf & Mast, 1987). Consequently, the process of deciding to adopt is likely to differ, as are the factors that are considered when adoption is contemplated. For these reasons, much of the literature on adoption of unrelated children is unlikely to generalize to stepchild adoption.

Process of Stepchild Adoption

For a stepparent to be able to adopt, the nonresidential parent must relinquish all legal ties to the child (Mahoney, 1994). …

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