For LGBT+ Adoption and Fostering Week 2019, Dr Stephen Hicks, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, discusses the changes in policy over the last 20 years and the impact they have had on LGBTQ+ adopters and foster carers.
- Only 18 years ago, same-sex couples were not legally able jointly to adopt, and Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was still on the statute.
- Since then, changes in policy have led to a better climate in which to develop practice in the field.
- However, there are some policy recommendations that could help to improve practice in the future.
Despite the fact that Department for Education figures show that there were 450 adoptions by same-sex couples in England during 2017/18 – roughly 12% of the total number – the topic of foster care and adoption by lesbians and gay men receives relatively little public discussion. Yet publications, such as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering’s report on recruiting, assessing and supporting lesbian and gay adopters, indicate that this is an important area for social work and welfare policy and practice. Under the Equality Act 2010, for example, public services such as those provided by foster care and adoption agencies are required to practice without discrimination on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’, ‘sex’ and ‘gender reassignment’. And, more importantly, the stated values and ethics of social work agencies in the UK suggest that they are committed to challenging discriminatory practices concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
LGBTQ foster carers’ and adopters’ experiences
In 2018, my co-author Janet McDermott and I published a new and revised edition of our book Lesbian and Gay Foster Care and Adoption, which we had originally published in 1999, an occasion that gave us the opportunity, not only to consider how practice and policy in the UK has moved on but also to revisit some of the gay and lesbian adopters and foster carers that we had originally spoken to some 20 years earlier.
Quite apart from the fact that some of them are now grandparents, it was fascinating for us to catch up with them and see how their lives as foster carers or adopters had worked out. For example, Lee told us that he had “changed so much” since the first time we spoke to him. This was not only because he now identifies as a transgender man, but also because he has seen his five adopted children grow up and go on to form their own families. Although Lee felt that adoption had brought him many challenges in his life, he noted how well all his children had turned out. This had also given him the confidence to go into social work education himself and help to equip the next generation of social workers with better practice skills.
Nita and Clare, a lesbian couple who adopted three daughters, also told us how much better they think attitudes towards gay and lesbian parents are now, and also how – after being the first ever lesbian adoptive couple approved in their local authority – they were pleased to see many social work agencies now working closely with LGBTQ carers and parents.
What has changed in policy over the last 20 years?
When we published the first edition of our book, same-sex couples were not legally able jointly to adopt, and Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – which forbade the ‘teaching…of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ – was still on the statute. But changes such as the Adoption and Children Act 2002, Equality Act 2010, legal adjustments to civil partnership and marriage, better fostering and adoption practice standards and the repeal of Section 28 (in 2003) have led to a better policy climate in which to develop practice in the field. The Adoption and Children Act 2002, for example, allowed unmarried (including same-sex) couples jointly to adopt, while improved national standards for foster care and adoption have emphasised equality of opportunity.
There is now more openness amongst social work agencies and staff to working with gay or lesbian applicants and there are better or fairer approaches to the ways that such applicants’ suitability is assessed, although Kate Wood’s research shows that some applicants still feel they are being asked to put on ‘a bit of a show’ to meet others’ expectations. The gay men and lesbians we interviewed for our book were also much more likely to be open about their sexuality and to feel that adoption or foster care were parenting routes open to them, a marked contrast from those that contributed to the 1999 edition.
There’s still room for improvement
However, there are some policy recommendations that could help to improve practice in the future:
- Better training on LGBTQ families for social workers and foster care/adoption panels. This could begin on social work qualifying programmes but could be extended via continuing professional development (CPD) for social workers and also bespoke training for agencies and their panels.
- Better approaches to recruitment – many LGBTQ people still think foster care and adoption are not options open to them. Agencies should consider their advertisements regarding recruitment of foster carers and adopters, their statements about equality and how/where they might reach out to LGBTQ communities.
- More research into the experiences of LGBTQ carers and their children. Although this has been growing in recent years, there is still relatively little research in this field in the UK. In addition, much of the research focuses on ‘outcomes’ for children, which means that we know little about many aspects of the LGBTQ foster care or adoption experience.
- An emphasis on challenging oppression and discrimination in practice, not just on bland ‘diversity policies’, which sometimes avoid talking about LGBTQ people through attempts to treat everyone ‘the same’. This would entail a commitment from social work to reflect upon how issues of sexuality are addressed, how open conversations with LGBTQ prospective parents may be introduced and to the potential problems of heteronormative practice.