For as long as Ashlee Chambers can remember, her stepfather has been the key father figure in her life. Her biological parents had separated by the time the 29-year-old was born and she always called him "Dad".
After he split up with her mum when she was 12, Ashlee and her sisters continued to spend time with him. "He could have easily walked away from me and my sisters – he didn't necessarily have a responsibility to us," she tells SBS Life.
But Chambers, from Melbourne, has grown tired of confusion about their kinship. "People ask, 'When you're talking about your dad, who do you mean?'" she says. "I want it to be clearer and official that he's my dad – I'm sick of people second-guessing our relationship."
When she floated the idea of being formally adopted, her dad was touched and they're now in the process of compiling the paperwork.
"He felt really honoured and we both shed a tear – it was a beautiful moment," she says. "It's like getting married. You know you are going to be with that person for the rest of your life, but the formalisation gives you a sense of security."
Stamp of approval
When we think of adoption, we often imagine children being taken in by altruistic couples to give them a safe home, but Australian adults themselves apply to be adopted to formalise the relationship with their step-parent or primary carer each year.
The County Court of Victoria granted seven adult adoptions in 2015 and Trudie Strathdee, adoptions clerk at Emil Ford Lawyers in Sydney, says she processed about seven adult adoption applications in the past two years.
"I was surprised at how many adult adoptions I've done," she tells SBS. "A lot of them strongly want their step-parent recorded on their birth certificate as an acknowledgement that they brought them up."
It can also be important psychologically to help them feel an official part of the family. "Often after they turn 18 and are legally adults they feel a little excluded from the family and they want to officially be part of it."
The legal process takes usually takes four to six months and involves filling out forms, seeing a counsellor to confirm both parties are satisfied with what they are consenting to and getting a police check.
Both birth parents also have to consent and two close family friends have to confirm that the applying parent, whether a foster carer or a step-parent, is a fit and proper person to be a mother or father. There are costs involved too – in NSW about $1055 for the court filing fee, $250 for the counselling plus about $4400 if you use a lawyer.
"When we are together, people just presume that we are mother and daughter."
Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University Professor of Humanities, says we've almost come full circle to how adoptions were originally conceived.
"In Rome and Greece and in the East, it was all about getting an heir," she tells SBS. "If you didn't have the blood relationship, you had to create a relationship in law. It was actually used to solidify power or money and hold it within families."
Even today, adoption can simplify inheritances but Strathdee says that in her years dealing with adult adoption cases, money has never been the driving force.
Dr Susan Green, consultant psychologist and trainer for VANISH (Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help), says some people may be better waiting until they reach 18 to be adopted.
"With the adoption of children from care, I personally have a position that the child isn't consenting to that," she says. "It might be better that they were under permanent care so that the parents have full legal means, and when they reach 18 they can then decide to be legally adopted by the family."
The waiting game
Of course, you don't have to formally adopt somebody for them to be like a child to you. Melbourne woman Joanne Mravljak specifically chose not to adopt her 26-year-old foster daughter Nicole, who she raised since she was six, because her birth parents were still alive.
"Her mum is still around and I have to respect the fact she is her natural mother," Mravljak tells SBS.
Throughout childhood, Mravljak says she also thought it was important for Nicole to have access to a social worker to offer her another level of support – something she would have lost if she had been formally adopted.
"We always explained to Nicole that it was not that we didn't want to adopt her, but it was the best-case scenario to have the department involved for financial reasons and emotional support," she says.
But that doesn't mean that Mravljak and her husband see her any differently. "My husband walked her down the aisle at her wedding," she says. "When we are together, people just presume that we are mother and daughter."
Nicole also tells SBS Life that she's happy to keep things as they are. "I call her mum and I'm happy with how it is," she says.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Ivan.