Gay couples overlooked in adopters shortage

Some of the most vulnerable children are still waiting too long for adoption placements. On the eve of Adoption Week, Amy Taylor asks why agencies still seem reluctant to consider lesbian and gay couples as adopters

Lesbian and gay rights groups and adoption agencies hoped for a brave new world when the law changed three years ago to allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt a child in England and Wales.

The Adoption and Children Act 2002, which came into force in 2005, was supposed to herald an era of inclusive families, widen the pool of potential adopters and reduce the number of children waiting to be matched with new parents. The same high hopes where pinned on the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007. But the expected results have not materialised.

Department for Children, Schools and Families statistics show that 80 lesbian and gay couples adopted children in England in 2007-8 – down from 90 in 2006-7. The figures for heterosexual couples were 2,840 and 2,940 respectively. Single people can also adopt regardless of sexuality: the figures sit at about 300 for each of the two years.

Impetus needed

British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering supported the campaign to change the law and hoped that legislation to lead to a gradual increase in the numbers of lesbian and gay couples adopting. But according to Jeffrey Coleman, director of BAAF’s southern division, “more impetus” is required.

“Agencies and councils are becoming more open to lesbian and gay applicants but the anxiety that one has is that they are still an under-utilised resource,” he says. It is still the case that some children such as those with disabilities or from ethnic minorities wait too long for adoption, he argues.

This year is only the second for which statistics on lesbian and gay adoption have been available, the adoption process on average taking about two years. Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK, says that as a result it is too early to read much into the figures – but he does argue that professionals’ personal opinions do play a part.

Value systems

“If you look at research about adoption generally, you will see that a lot of decisions are made from the individual’s own belief or value systems – they are not necessarily looking at what this child needs, what would suit them and what family would match their needs the most,” he says. “What many social workers will do is just believe that the best family will be a married couple.”

It is recognised that, historically, lesbian and gay adopters have been given harder-to-place and older children rather than babies, a consequence of the unspoken hierarchy of adoption with heterosexual married couples at the top. There is also a view among some that even when approved, lesbian and gay adopters wait long periods for placements.

Coleman recognises both these issues but says they are becoming less common. This is partly owing to evidence about lesbian and gay carers bringing about positive outcomes for the most difficult groups. “They have faced tough challenges and they have done well,” Coleman says. “You can recognise the presence of caution and reservation [among some professionals] and the success of these placements is disproving that.”

People’s prejudices

In July 2003, Wakefield Council approved its first gay foster carers, Craig Faunch and Ian Wathey. Over the next two years, 18 children were placed with the couple. They were later convicted of 12 sexual offences against four of the children. The inquiry into the case found that social workers failed to stop the abuse because they feared being seen as homophobic.

Views on the Wakefield case are mixed. Pearce says it could reinforce people’s prejudices. “It was about two abusive people. It’s not linked to their sexuality, but it will be used to avoid working with gay people.”

But Helen Cosis-Brown, principal social work lecturer at Middlesex University, disputes the idea that the case has caused more prejudice. She argues that the fear of being seen as homophobic is now a bigger risk among professionals. “You see the same thing happening in relation to specific religious groups,” she adds.

Compliance with law

The Catholic Church’s opposition to adoption by gay and lesbian couples is well documented. Catholic adoption agencies are seen to make a significant contribution in finding homes for hard-to-place children and have been able to refer same-sex couples to other agencies.

But the Equality Act 2006 will make this illegal by the end of this year. And, with less than two months to go, it is still unclear whether the agencies will shut or comply with the legislation.

There little research into why gay and lesbian adopters may be achieving positive outcomes for difficult children. One theory is that the group may be more attuned, having experienced marginalisation themselves. Cosis-Brown offers a different explanation: “Some research shows there has been a disproportionate number of lesbian and gay social workers and social care professionals who come forward as adopters and foster carers and this could be having an influence.”


“We have the right to be assessed but not approved”

In the 1990s, Janet* and her partner, both out lesbians, adopted two teenage girls. This being before the equal rights legislation, they were not able to adopt jointly so the children were placed under an adoption order for Janet and her partner applied for a residence order.

Neither of the girls now lives with the couple but they are in regular contact and Janet feels they gave them a positive start in life. The couple did not adopt with the first council they approached so had to look around.

“If we had been the type of people that had waited, we wouldn’t have got any kids,” Janet says. She still thinks that some lesbians and gays who want to adopt may keep their sexuality hidden.

Changing attitudes

Janet feels that, although attitudes are improving, they need to shift further. “The key thing is that councils are under pressure not to leave children languishing in care,” she says. “They have finally realised that there is a large resource out there in the shape of lesbian and gay carers. Gay and lesbian people, like everybody else, have the right to be assessed but not to be approved.”

She believes prejudice still exists in adoption agencies. “Some of the stories I have heard include people being asked how often they were having sex. What’s that got to do with it?

“The problem with all of this is it boils down to people’s individual prejudices. Even the more progressive people might feel anxious. There needs to be more training.”

*Not her real name

Adoption week runs from 10 November

Lesbian and Gay Adoption Group

Recruiting, Assessing and Supporting Gay and Lesbian Carers and Adopters, a best practice guide from Baaf

This article is published in the 6 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Where are the same-sex adopters?”

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