Shortage of adopters and foster carers can be tackled if we think outside of gender norms

Research and practice knowledge tells us that that some of the most important attributes of carers are nothing to do with gender and sexuality, says Claire Brown

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By Claire Brown

Since the 1950s, adoption agencies in the UK and America have acted as ‘gatekeepers’, deciding who is suitable to become an adoptive parent and who is not. Their decisions tend to be influenced by heteronormative and gender normative views, where the ideal family is still seen as a heterosexual couple who conform to the usual expectations of gender.

Those who identify outside of the expected norms are often seen as a second-best choice of family. As such, non-normative families are often excluded entirely, or fall to the ‘bottom of the pile’ in terms of choice of adoptive parents or foster carers (see Gailey, 2010). However, with the UK facing a constant shortage of foster carers and adoptive parents, this discriminatory approach must be reconsidered for practical as well as moral reasons.   

Although we have seen an explosion of research into lesbian- and gay-headed families over the past 20 years, we still have a way to go to move towards true equality. There is a robust and growing mass of findings that demonstrates lesbian and gay adoptive and foster families provide care that is at least as good as heterosexual families. Some studies showed that lesbian and gay families offered adopted children some advantages, such as higher levels of emotional warmth and responsiveness to their children’s needs (for example, Golombok et al, 2013).

However, research has also found that many lesbian and gay carers feel the need to present their lives in a way that fits with expected gender norms (see Hicks, Goldberg (ed) and Allen (ed) 2013, p149-162). These findings beg us to ask the question; ‘have the majority really listened, understood and changed their minds?’ Or has the minority conceded under the weight of pressure to conform?

It can be argued that the dominant culture is not one of acceptance and equality; it has pushed lesbian and gay carers to make adaptations to their life, or at least its presentation, to fit the right mould.


We could follow the line of argument that such stereotyping is a natural and useful human process. Our brains are designed for efficiency and familiarity; to code, sort and store each new encounter based on an accumulation of our previous experiences. Novel practices and ideas that lack familiarity can bring us outside of our comfort zone. If stereotyping and making choices based on familiarity with our own experiences is a natural human process then what’s the problem? Where is the harm?

The most obvious harm can be seen through interactions between workers and lesbian and gay carers. Imagine having to politely answer a social worker’s questions with predictable responses that you know don’t accurately reflect you and what you have to offer a child. You also know this is the only way you’ll get through an assessment and approval panel. Imagine having to deny your identity as a bisexual person because you know your sexuality is often misunderstood and your best chance of being accepted is to allow yourself to be put into a neater box of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.

Now imagine not even being allowed into the conversation. Imagine you are a transgender person who is told you cannot adopt or foster a child simply because you are trans. More likely, you will be given another reason for being turned down. It could be that the life and support network you have built as someone living within a subculture is deemed a little too alternative. It could be that the stress of the daily abuse you endure, and its effects on your mental health, is cited as a reason you are unfit to parent. It could even be that your very identity is not acceptable; how could a gender-fluid person possibly provide a child with the stability that they need?


Sadly, discriminatory views such as these can be masked by organisations that claim to be inclusive (Hicks and Jeyasingham, 2016). Legislation and policy can direct a ban on discrimination, but where it is still embedded culturally and structurally, it remains rife. Further, where discrimination is veiled, it is much harder to challenge.

The voices of those who define outside of usual norms of gender and sexuality will not be heard in adoption and fostering until the gatekeepers can open themselves up to listen to alternative ways of constructing families.

When we do, though, the possibility for positive change for children is huge. The UK has a constant shortage of foster carers and adoptive parents and is failing to meet the needs of thousands of children whose birth families are unable to bring them up. It can be argued that the restrictions we place on fostering and adoptive applicants are not fit for purpose.

Research and practice knowledge tells us that that some of the most important attributes of carers are nothing to do with gender and sexuality. Children need parents and carers who will accept them as they are, who have patience and adaptability in abundance, can keep their sense of humour through some dark and testing days, effuse emotional warmth and nurturance, and have high levels of resilience.

The ability to empathise with a child’s struggles with their identity and loss of relationships is too often viewed as a vulnerability rather than a strength. Acceptance and tried and tested emotional strength should be traits we are actively searching out in adopters and foster carers. As should difference; because if we’re aiming to effectively match thousands of different children, doesn’t it follow that we’re going to need lots of different carers to find the right fit?

Claire Brown is an adoption social worker who is currently studying for a PhD. Her research is a narrative inquiry exploring trans people’s experiences of adoption in England. Find out more about her research:

Twitter: @studyadoption

Facebook: Study Adoption

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10 Responses to Shortage of adopters and foster carers can be tackled if we think outside of gender norms

  1. Anthony Cocker October 4, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    This article is probably some 10/15 years out of date. I’ve been involved in social work, in many different roles over a career spanning some 35 years to date. More recently as an Adoption and Fostering Panel advisor. That attitudes towards what constitutes good parenting and the backgrounds of those providing it have changed beyond all recognisition over the last decade is beyond doubt.
    The social workers completing assessments, panel members considering them and Decision Makers accepting deliberations are in my experience only interested in the quality of care, love and affection that applicants can offer. The diverse nature of society is truly reflected in the backgrounds of those families and individuals who want to offer a home to a child in need. This is irrespective of their sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.

    The most challenging issue facing adopters and local authorities particularly these days is the need to provide them with consistent and effective post adoption support. Recent studies have revealed that as many as 1 in 4 adoptive families are really struggling in meeting the needs of children placed with them. If such services and support can be established and guaranteed, my strong belief is that more prospective adopters would come forward, whatever backgrounds they might come from and whatever skills that means they bring with them.

    • Kim Hartwell October 4, 2017 at 12:43 pm #

      I totally agree with you Anthony, well said.
      This is a very out of date piece that does not represent my experience of the here and now. With nearly 30 years experience I have witnessed this practice and I am relieved to see that it has passed. Don’t get me wrong it can always improve we can always get better and there will always be practitioners stuck in the past or bigoted. This needs challenging head on when seen not suddenly say all social workers are the same. There is enough social work blaming going on from the government, the press and the public without starting to kick ourselves. I see lots of very good practice and hold on to that.

  2. Frank Dietrich October 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm #

    Clearly you both a wealth of experience on adoption but to slate an article that raises important issues that doesn’t fit with your personal views seems reductive. The author is clearly writing from both her own experiences too as well as citing recent research in the field that is clearly not of date.
    This article is quite plainly written to not downplay the practitioners but to ensure that those children are given the opportunities to be adopted by loving and caring families, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
    A well written, well sourced article.

  3. Ian G October 4, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    I thought this was an interesting, measured and thought provoking article.

    The author has evidently explored the issue thoroughly, drawing on contemporary research as well as their own experiences and the experiences of trans people undertaking the adoption process.

    Whilst all the comments are in agreement that massive progress has been made over the previous decade(s), this article is a good reminder that we cannot be complacent.

    Despite the progress made, we as social workers will all have inherent biases in our mindset. If the research undertaken by the author, the additional referenced articles, and the people interviewed as part of this narrative enquiry all suggest that there are still issues with trans people’s adoption experiences, who are we to dismiss their concerns.

    I thought the article was balanced and not looking to blame social workers. However, progress will only be made when we can openly critique ourselves, identify where we can make improvements and work towards best practice.

    Overall, a well written article that should give ‘pause for thought’ and inspire us to challenge our prejudices.

  4. Nigel Hird October 4, 2017 at 6:36 pm #

    As a mental health professional , gay man and single parent of 3 children many areas of this well writen article bring back sad and unhappy experiences of the adoption process. One of my children is adopted and my experience of the adoption process once I cane out was not at times pleasant with at times judgements being made about my private life which they had never asked me when they believed me to be straight. All my children are the most brilliant kids anyone could ask for.
    Ms Brown in her article has raised questions that others still find difficult to raise and discuss . She should praised be and not judged . Thought provoking !!

  5. Anthony October 4, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

    A very apt article and a true representation of family placement services today. I am somewhat surprised at the first two comments. Yes, we have made progress but to disregard structural and societal oppressive systems so flippantly is worrying. We know from current research and statistics that adopter/foster carer demographics demonstrate huge inequalities.
    From my experience panel, managers, and other workers look at sexuality, gender, disability, religion, ethnicity in unbalanced ways. I have been asked many times to explore this, with the applicant, in my assessments and to demonstrate the impact on them and their ability to provide care. This is only asked/ explored if the applicant fits into a minority label and then validated as ‘exploration of identity’. A person has more to their identity than one label. Intersectionality is rarely explored in any part of the process including matching, which I have found frustrating
    The recruitment, assessment, panel, and post support is largely set up within a heteronormative system and whilst diversity is encouraged we have along way still to go.
    I am glad you are looking at the impact on this on trans applicants, as there is a massive gap in research and understanding of the issues. I look forward to hearing your outcomes. A wonderful and insightful piece.

  6. R Lee October 4, 2017 at 9:26 pm #

    While I have no doubt that this article is well-researched etc. etc. and certainly any institutional bias against LGBT adopters or foster carers needs to be faced up to, I think the headline is an over-statement. In 2014, 6.7% of adoptions were to same-sex couples. These figures do not include any LGBT individuals that adopted who were not part of a couple, i.e. single adopters. Stonewall estimates that approx 5-7% of the population identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual. These figures certainly do not give the impression that thinking outside gender norms will be the answer to shortages of foster carers and adopters and in fact seem to suggest that rates of adoption among the LGBT community are roughly proportionate.

  7. robyn stoker October 4, 2017 at 9:27 pm #

    While I feel it is important to recognise the progress already made in the profession in the last 10-15 years it is unrealistic to say that this is an outdated article while there are still prejudiced attitudes which negatively impact on the services we provide. This is not about kicking ourselves, it is about having open and honest conversations with each other and those we support in order to improve. Although homophobic and transphobic views have become less acceptable amongst social workers this may actually be perpetuating practices which discriminate against people, let’s not close this conversation down.

  8. Gareth Millar October 6, 2017 at 5:07 pm #

    I agree with the commentators views that discussion if this important issue should not be closed down or silenced. Claire Brown is undertaking research in this area and works in the field as a social worker – her piece is timely and valid.

    As a social work practitioner and manager I too have attended many panels and matching meetings. Like many who assume we have moved on 10-15 years I thought blatant racism would not be encountered amongst panels members but I have observed and challenged this in recent years. Complacency is best avoided in my experience. Well done Claire on this article.

  9. Ciaran Murphy October 24, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    I would like to add my agreement to those who observe the importance of continuing the discussion as to discrimination in adoption and other means of achieving permanency for children.
    My continued experience as a frontline child protection social worker, researcher and academic has highlighted to me, that to assume that the issue of discrimination in achieving permanency has been resolved and is a thing of the past is, at best, naïve. I have a number of colleagues conducting contemporary research into this issue and I am sure that they would agree that where there have been improvements, these issues persist in places, and by continuing the discussion we challenge the narrative that this is a problem that is resolved and no longer needs looking at. In this regard, I found the article to be helpful and important, and I commend the author for her efforts in producing this interesting and relevant piece.