GLBT Communities & Adoption:
Courting an Untapped Resource
by Ellen Kahn
Ellen Kahn is the director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Family Project. In this position she provides national leadership regarding public education and advocacy efforts to achieve full equality for GLBT families. Outside of HRC, Ellen is president of Rainbow Families DC’s board and lives with her partner and their two daughters in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Published in the Winter 2008 issue of Adoptalk
In the past decade, increasing numbers of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) individuals have chosen to build their families through adoption. Unfortunately, while many child welfare professionals and agencies have become more welcoming to the GLBT community, barriers continue to keep qualified, loving adults from offering good homes to children and youth who are awaiting permanent families. For the sake of these youth, we must work to open doors to members of the GLBT community—a largely untapped resource—and give them expanded opportunities to make a positive difference for children.
All Children—All Families
In March 2007, the Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA’s School of Law, in association with the Urban Institute, issued a report titled Adoption and Foster Care by Gay and Lesbian Parents in the United States. The report suggests that up to 2 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in the U.S. are interested in adopting. Roughly 65,500 adopted children (greater than 4 percent of all adoptees) are already living with a gay or lesbian parent—more than 16,000 in California alone. Of children in foster care, approximately 14,000 (or about 3 percent) are living with gay or lesbian parents.
Regrettably, other studies have found that only one in five adoption agencies attempts to recruit gay and lesbian families, and fewer than half knowingly place children with gay or lesbian parents. If adoption agencies became more open to prospective GLBT adoptive parents and just a small fraction of the 2 million who expressed an interest in adoption came forward, we might be able to eliminate the wait for thousands of children and youth in foster care.
Making more permanent family connections is the vision of the All Children—All Families initiative. Launched by the Human Rights Campaign’s Family Project, with strong support from child welfare professionals across the country, the initiative aims to level the field for prospective GLBT foster and adoptive parents by promoting cultural competence among child welfare professionals, and informing the GLBT community about opportunities to parent waiting children.
In December 2007, the initiative released the first-ever Promising Practices Guide, a comprehensive manual that offers advice, resources, and sample documents to help agency leaders and staff work with GLBT families more effectively. Agencies that achieve benchmarks outlined in the Guide will earn the All Children—All Families Seal which identifies them as a “welcoming and competent” agency. Benchmarks include developing non-discriminatory policies and practices; using GLBT-inclusive language in person and in print; and actively recruiting GLBT foster care and adoption applicants.
HRC has an updated list of GLBT-friendly agencies on its web site as well. The first agency to receive the All Children—All Families Seal was Family Builders by Adoption in Oakland, California.
Barriers for GLBT Parents
Through conversations with dozens of GLBT adoptive parents and the professionals who work with them, we have identified many of the common barriers that keep qualified GLBT adults—single and partnered—from the children who are waiting. Overt barriers include discriminatory laws and policies. In Florida, for instance, GLBT families and individuals can foster but not adopt children in state care. Mississippi explicitly prohibits adoption by couples of the same gender.
Another common, if less obvious, challenge that GLBT parents face is the bias that many child welfare professionals have against GLBT parents. Some profess a deep belief that children should be raised only in “traditional” families with one mother and one father. Though they want children in care to find permanency, too many workers and administrators regard GLBT families as a choice of last resort for only the most difficult children.
More subtle barriers include indications that an adoption agency does not welcome non-traditional families to apply. The web site might only feature images of children with a mother and father. Application forms may be constructed to only accommodate traditional couples. Staff might ask insensitive and probing questions of GLBT couples that other applicants never face.
Dennis Patrick, a member of the All Children—All Families National Advisory Board, has adopted four children from foster care. He and his partner started the process with an agency that claimed to be open to working with gay couples, and they were led to believe that the agency would support them and provide them with the same regard that other prospective parents were given.
They found, however, that there was a lack of communication between the agency director and the line staff with whom they first met. From the director’s perspective, there never was any intention to place children with Dennis and his partner—or with any other gay couple. For months they were drawn along with the hope and belief that they would indeed become parents.
Fortunately, Dennis and his partner never let the disappointment keep them from moving ahead. They worked to find another agency that was genuinely open to placing children with gay couples, and they are now raising four young sons.
Dennis’ negative experience, though, would alienate many GLBT families who lack the resilience to try again. I have heard many people say it took them at least a year to recover from feeling rejected and hurt by agency staff. If an agency is to recruit a variety of prospective adoptive parents, it must be welcoming and open from the first contact—whether it is on the phone, at a community recruitment event, or in a written response to an e-mail inquiry—through finalization and beyond.
The key to creating a truly welcoming, competent agency is support from the highest level of leadership within the agency. One social worker or recruitment specialist should not have to carry the flag for GLBT families, or be the only person that works with GLBT clients. The agency must have a clear policy that supports adoption by GLBT parents, and the director must ensure that staff have the tools, resources, and support they need to work effectively with this specific population. Each element of practice should be responsive to the real needs and experiences of GLBT adoptive parents.
Agencies’ commitment to strengthening GLBT competency should extend to hiring and training protocols. When interviewing prospective employees, agency representatives should assess general beliefs and attitudes about the GLBT community and GLBT adoption, just as they might evaluate the applicant’s comfort with people of color, transracial adoption, and single adoptive parents.
Staff should also be aware that more than 30 years of solid social science research has repeatedly shown that children raised by caring and committed GLBT parents are doing just fine, and are not any different on social and academic measures than children raised by a mother and father. To augment research, staff should have opportunities to meet with GLBT parents and their older children to learn about their experiences first hand. Exposure to successfully functioning GLBT families can help break down myths and fears that still exist.
Typically, when GLBT adults are considering adoption, we look for specific language or other clues that tell us we are welcome. We highly recommend that agencies have a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and develop a mission or purpose statement that reveals their commitment to work with the GLBT community. These policies and statements (examples are in the Promising Practices Guide) should be posted on the agency web site and appear in printed material too.
Images—online and in print—offer us more clues. We look for photos and art on agency web sites and brochures that feature single parents as well as images of two men or two women with children. When we see our families reflected in photos and in the agency’s literature, it sends us a very powerful message.
Once we begin to work with an agency, other details can make the ongoing experience affirming or frustrating. For example, many same-sex couples are asked to complete application forms that have blanks for the mother’s and father’s name. Some applicants will simply scratch out one or the other and insert their information, but others find these traditional forms offensive and may question the agency’s sensitivity. The solution to this problem is quite simple. Amend all the agency’s forms to ask for the names of “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”—a format that works for every applicant—rather than “Mother” and “Father.”
The home study or family assessment process can be especially stressful for gay and lesbian partners when workers are unfamiliar with cultural and relationship issues that are unique to same-sex couples. We expect or fear that we will be scrutinized much more closely than our heterosexual counterparts, and it is not uncommon for social workers to ask questions that reflect stereotypical thinking about GLBT people, or to altogether avoid any discussion about the history and quality of a couple’s relationship.
A colleague of mine recently went through a home study with his partner of 11 years. During the study, the social worker asked, “Which one of you will be the mother figure?”
There are several problems with this question. First, it assumes that one of the men must have a feminine role. Second, it indicates the social worker’s inability to reasonably assess how the child will be exposed to female role models (grandmothers, sisters, friends, etc.) who are part of the fathers’ support network. Last, the question reflects the worker’s belief that a mother/female is a requisite part of the immediate family, and that fathers/males cannot adequately nurture a child.
Regrettably, this is just one of dozens of examples of bad questions from social workers who may be well-meaning, but who are not equipped with the language, comfort level, and insight to fairly home study GLBT prospective parents.
For agencies that wish to better prepare their staff for conducting home studies, the Promising Practices Guide includes a significant section on home study and family assessment that shines light on the dos and don’ts for this element of practice. We strongly recommend that social workers also receive in-depth training to help them develop the comfort level, knowledge, and vocabulary to do the best possible home study with GLBT families.
HRC’s All Children—All Families initiative is designed to help agencies recognize and embrace the importance of recruiting, retaining, and supporting all qualified families for children. As more agencies improve their practice, we are confident that increasing numbers of GLBT adults will come forward to explore foster and adoptive parenting and, ultimately, increasing numbers of children will join permanent loving families. And that’s what it’s all about: finding permanent families for the children and youth who are counting on us.