On the way to the fostering open evening five years ago, my partner and I wondered if we would be the only lesbian couple. In fact, we were the only people attending. We were welcomed with open arms and were asked at the end of the evening if we might be interested in two children who they thought might be a good match.
It was all a bit unorthodox, but it certainly dispelled our fears of not being accepted. However, through writing my books, Proud Parents and the Pink Guide to Adoption, I have heard of incidents where people have been told they weren’t suitable for spurious reasons, such as having a bathroom downstairs, and of gay couples waiting ages for a match.
I would suggest joining a support group for LGBT adopters and foster carers, like New Family Social. Talk to people online, or at their monthly meetings, to get recommendations for local authorities or fostering agencies.
During our assessment, the social worker was a bit awkward when she asked about our experiences of coming out and told a story about a relative she thought might be gay.
On the preparation course, the safer caring section scared us – it made us feel as if you couldn’t be natural with children. A male couple I interviewed for one of my books said they were told to put a cushion between them and the child if they cuddled them. Others also felt this part of the training could put people off.
We were told, for example, that a male carer shouldn’t bathe a child on their own. I questioned this. Surely if men have been approved as carers they should be treated equally? It made me wonder if they’d have approved a single gay carer or male couple.
I’ve never met anyone else from the LGBT community on all the training courses, which can feel a bit isolating. You feel like you have to wave the rainbow flag sometimes when assumptions are made by trainers or other carers.
Local authorities and agencies should go through their training programmes and literature with a fine toothcomb, checking for assumptions. However, it is not just about words, it is also about attitudes and these are harder to change.
Sexuality awareness training may help. I’ve heard a social worker say she was surprised when she heard lesbians have had relationships with men, and had assumed that something must have gone wrong that led to them becoming a lesbian.
We were a bit nervous about meeting the children’s birth family as part of the introductions, but it was easier than we thought. We were asked if we would make sure they had male influences. We agree this is important and have men in our family and friends network who we see regularly.
Before the children moved in we created a photo album with captions of our house, surroundings and lifestyle. We featured pictures of our wedding and were very clear with the children that we were a couple.
However, it took our seven-year-old boy a little while to cotton on. I knew he was studying Black History Month at his school so I related it to that and talked to him about not discriminating against people.
We have had ongoing conversations with the children about letting us know if they are ever teased at school, and how families come in different shapes and sizes.
It’s important to prepare children for whatever family they are moving to and give them as much information as possible. The most important thing is showing them love and understanding and giving them time and attention.
The children have bonded well with us and seem relaxed about being in a lesbian household – inviting friends over, wanting us to come to school events as a couple etc. We have very open discussions about relationships and I think this helps with teenagers.
Over the last four years, we have had very patchy support from social services because of high turnover of staff. We have not encountered any outright homophobia. Some staff have been from the LGBT community, which has probably helped. However, one professional kept questioning us about male role models for our foster son.
Last year, I applied to Tower Hamlets council to sit on their fostering panel. It turned out I was recruited partly because of my sexuality, which I think is a really positive thing.
I would urge local authorities and agencies to think through the whole process from recruitment through to supervision and make sure people from the LGBT community are welcomed and supported.
We are a very useful resource – we know what it’s like to be different but equal.
Oxford University Rees Centre has just published a literature review of the recruitment, assessment, support and supervision of LGBT foster carers.