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Adoption Techniques for Treating Adoptive Parent Issues
Adoptive Parent continuing education psychologist CEUs

Section 16
Homosexual Adoptive Parents

CEUs Question 16 | CEUs Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Adoption
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Gay men and lesbians often encounter barriers when they pursue adoption. Adoption workers are expected to make decisions regarding child placement using the best interest standard. However, this decision-making model does not adequately consider intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational factors that affect the use of the standard. This article examines the best interest standard and makes practice recommendations to increase the accessibility of adoptions for gay and lesbian applicants.

Empirical and clinical knowledge of adoption policy and practice has increased greatly in recent years. However, a crisis remains in this arena, as many more children are available for adoption than there are families to adopt them. As a result of the 1997 enactment of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-89), which requires more expedient termination of birth parent rights than had previously existed, the number of children available for adoption continues to grow. The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), established as part of the act, estimated that as of September 30, 2001, 126,000 children were waiting to be adopted. These were children for whom the public child welfare agency had a goal of adoption, for whom parental rights had been terminated, or both. During the fiscal year ending September 30, 2001, AFCARS reported that an estimated 46,668 children were adopted through the public child welfare system (AFCARS, 2002).

Defining Suitable Adoptive Families
Child welfare agencies most often seek adoptive families from among traditional heterosexual two-parent or single-parent families. In doing this, they follow state adoption statutes, many dating to the mid-1900s that favor those families (Appell, 2001; Hollinger, 1999), even though a great deal of evidence exists that family constellations have changed significantly in the past three decades. Fields and Casper (cited in the U.S. Census Bureau, 2001) reported that the traditional two-parent nuclear family (that is, married households with one or more children under the age of 18) constituted 24 percent of all U.S. households in 2000--down from 40 percent in 1970. Although the total number of households in the United States is estimated to increase 15.5 percent from 1995 to 2010, the number of traditional families is projected to decline 6.4 percent from 24.6 million to 23.1 million. Such families would then constitute only 20.1 percent of total households (U.S. Census Bureau, 1996).

Greater flexibility in the conceptualization and interpretation of the word "family" (Ricketts & Achtenberg, 1989) would benefit children awaiting adoptive families. The effect of excluding nontraditional placement resources through an overly narrow definition of family is that some children will languish longer in foster care without permanence. Brooks and colleagues (1999) have discussed recent federal legislation intended to increase the pool of multiethnic foster and adoptive families. Their principles for recruitment and adoption placement practice show that commitment to considering gay and lesbian singles and couples as potential adoptive families would expand the possibilities for permanent child placement.

Currently there are no uniform standards across states regarding adoption by gay men and lesbians. Florida is the only state that explicitly prohibits single and coupled gay men and lesbians from becoming adoptive parents. Although 49 states allow consideration of a gay or lesbian person as an adoptive parent, only four states--California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont--and the District of Columbia explicitly permit joint adoption by lesbian or gay couples (LetHimStay, 2002). All other jurisdictions determine who can and cannot adopt on a case-by-case basis, using local and state statutes (Ricketts & Achtenberg, 1989). Thus, public child welfare agencies in most states could consider gay men and lesbians as potential adoptive parents. However, Utah and Arkansas have instituted exclusionary administrative policies effectively prohibiting gay men and lesbians from adopting children in either state's custody (Riggs, 1999). Similar measures have been considered in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas (Appell, 2001; Ferrero, Freker, & Foster, 2002; Riggs). These policies and legislative measures ignore evidence that family form does little to ensure success in adoption. Rather, adoption successes depend on the balance of resources and stressors that affect the family (Groze, 1996).

Gay men and lesbians have adopted children for many years, despite fear and discrimination. They have adopted as single parents through public child welfare agencies, private sources, and international organizations. They have sought older children from various racial and ethnic groups, as well as sibling groups and children with disabilities. And, although international adoptions have permitted more flexibility, they too have become more restrictive, as countries such as China, Thailand, and Guatemala have prohibited gay and lesbian adoption applications (Brodzinsky, 2002; Chibbaro, 2002).

Homophobia and Heterosexism
Prejudice against gay men and lesbians has been socially sanctioned for hundreds of years and, arguably, continues today. The mental health community in this country classified homosexuality as a mental disorder until the early 1970s. At approximately the same time, Weinberg (1972) first described homophobia as "the fear by heterosexuals when in near proximity to homosexuals, and the self-hatred felt by gays because of their homosexuality" (p. 4). Others describe homophobia as an "irrational fear and hatred of those who love ... [persons] of the same sex" (Pharr, 1988, p. 1), connected to racism, sexism, and other "isms" (Pharr; Plummer, 1992). Calhoun (2000) viewed it as subordination, a totally sanctioned and separate type of oppression.

Homophobia is most often accompanied by heterosexism, bias that favors heterosexual people as the norm and heterosexual families as superior to other family forms. According to Plummer (1992) and Calhoun (2000), heterosexism is dangerous and pervasive. It effectively silences gay men and lesbians, placing them "at the outside of civil society" (Calhoun, p. 76) and privileges heterosexual men and women. It displaces gay men and lesbians from both the public and private spheres, particularly the "sphere of marriage and the family" (Calhoun, p. 76).

Laws and regulations, narrow definitions of family, homophobia, and heterosexism limit the possibility that lesbians and gay men will be considered as adoptive parents. The cumulative effect of actions by states, local jurisdictions, agencies, and individual staff members is to prevent or discourage consideration of their availability and interest. Even if child welfare staff members overcome these initial barriers, the decision-making tool most often available to them may further limit the inclusion of gay and lesbian families as placement candidates. This standard, the "best interest of the child," is used as a measure to guide placement of children in the custody of the child welfare system.

The Best Interest Decision-Making Standard
All states allow social workers, judges, and professionals involved in the placement of children with prospective adoptive families to apply the best interest of the child standard for decision making (Ricketts, 1991). This standard requires that child welfare workers base their recommendations and decisions on what is best for the child, not what is best for the potential adoptive parents or the agency and not the worker's personal opinion. Workers must assess the match between short- and long-term needs of the child or children awaiting placement and the resources, strengths, and vulnerabilities of a particular family.

Literature suggests that considerations surrounding gay men and lesbians' suitability as adoptive parents focus first on the applicants themselves. These concerns include the mental health of the applicant (Falk, 1989; Green, Mandel, Hotvedt, Gray, & Smith, 1986), parenting skills (Cramer, 1986; Patterson, 2000a), and his or her relationship quality and stability (Flaks, Ficher, Masterpasqua, & Joseph, 1995; Koepke, Hare, & Moran, 1992). Next, consideration focuses on the effect of gay or lesbian adoption on the child's psychological and psychosexual development (Allen & Burrell, 1996; Falk, 1989; Gibbs, 1988; Green et al.; Knight & Garcia, 1994; Patterson, 1992, 2000a), sexual safety (Cramer, 1986; Falk, 1989; Knight & Garcia), and social stigmatization (Donaldson, 2000). In addition, studies have examined permutations of these subthemes among gay and lesbian biological and adoptive families (Sullivan, 1995). Currently, no empirical evidence demonstrates that living with a gay or lesbian parent has any significant negative effects on children (for an overview of the available research, see Patterson, 2000b).

In using the best interest standard, social workers may be influenced by peers, supervisors, their organizational context, and the larger socio-cultural arena, and this may restrict their decision making. To more fully understand these influences, we use systems theory focusing on the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational levels in our analysis.

Environmental and Societal Forces
Although adoption had been viewed for many years as a service available to white middle- and upper-income families, it has come to target a much broader audience. Single-parent families, people of various racial and ethnic groups, and other nontraditional families are recruited to obtain permanent placement for an increasing number of children waiting in the child welfare system (Mallon, 2000).

Intrapersonal Influences
Two empirical studies have explored homophobia among child welfare workers and its effect on adoption placement recommendations (Ryan, 2000; Taylor, 1998). Taylor reported that his sample of 50 child welfare workers in California generally favored allowing adoptions by gay men and lesbians. However, approximately one-third of respondents thought that gay and lesbian adoption applicants should not be able to adopt a child younger than five years, and 25 percent believed the child should be older than 15.

Ryan (2000), in a sample of 80 social workers, found that attitudes toward gay men and lesbians as adoptive parents derive from childhood and familial experiences as well as professional indoctrination. African American workers in his study were more likely to exhibit heterosexist views than workers from other racial or ethnic groups. He reported that these views appear to be related to family and socialization experiences. However, the receipt of special training was highly effective in the formation of positive attitudes and behaviors toward deciding the placement of children with gay men or lesbians. Ryan's research underscores that values and morals developed through primary socialization provide an important framework within which individuals initially evaluate issues. To the extent that child welfare workers use their own standards for decision-making purposes, the best interest of the child is often clouded in the process. Brooks and Goldberg (2001) noted that biased workers can affect placements in a number of ways: by questioning the parenting abilities of gay and lesbian applicants, leaking information to birth parents, and not seeking out lesbian and gay families.

Organizational Influences
Child welfare agency managers are often caught in a dilemma when staff members make a determination to place children with gay men or lesbians. Influential stakeholders from outside the agency, as well as within, may hold negative views of gay and lesbian adoptive parents. Although some agency representatives covertly allow adoptions by gay men and lesbians to occur, such secrecy helps to maintain the status quo of worker confusion, gay and lesbian exclusion, and waiting children.

Policy statements from professional organizations that include child welfare staff and administrators could positively influence organizational and individual social worker behavior. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and NASW have all adopted official policy statements that explicitly address the placement of children with gay men or lesbians (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2002; Ricketts, 1991). The American Psychiatric Association's (1986) policy on adoptions by gay men or lesbians states that "single factors such as homosexuality should not necessarily or automatically rule out the selection of a potential adoptive parent" (p. 1506). The American Psychological Association, in 1974, after removing homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, adopted the following resolution: "Homosexuality per se implies no impairment of judgment, stability, reliability, or general social and vocational capabilities" (1975,p. 1). The organization later adopted the following resolution: "Sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation of prospective adoptive parents should not be the sole or primary variable considered in placement" (1976,p. 1). The NASW Code of Ethics (2000) states, "Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of ... sexual orientation" (Section 4.02).

The Child Welfare League of America, the nation's oldest and largest child advocacy group, is more explicit in its assertion that lesbians and gay men seeking to adopt shall be judged by the same standards that apply to heterosexuals: "All applicants should have an equal opportunity to apply for the adoption of children and receive fair and equal treatment and consideration of their qualifications as adoptive parents ... [and that] sexual preference should not be the sole criterion on which the suitability of adoptive applicants is based" (2000,pp. 47-50). However, even with these official policies in place, the effect on individual agencies and their staff is not clear.

Aligning Personal Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors with Professional Guidelines
A primary intervention tool for changing behavior is the use of training. Ryan (2000) found that training focused specifically on adoptions by gay men and lesbians was the most significant predictor of social worker placement recommendation. Others have also noted the positive effects of general training on attitudes held toward gay men and lesbians (Ben-Ari, 1998; Christensen & Sorensen, 1994; Serdahely & Ziemba, 1984; Wells, 1991). Trainers should begin this work by helping social workers define their beliefs and attitudes about gay men and lesbians, including attitudes about them as parents. Identifying individual values and beliefs regarding this issue is essential to the growth process (Taylor, 1998).

A strong association exists between Western Judeo-Christian theology and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians (Crawford & Solliday, 1996). Training for individual workers might include information about current interpretations of biblical references to help modify attitudes (Boswell, 1980). Finally, training should focus on communication and problem solving around workers' concerns or discomfort in assessing and working with gay and lesbian applicants.

Research suggests that interventions directly addressing stereotypes and unfounded beliefs may be most effective in countering negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians as parents (Crawford & Solliday, 1996). Adoption workers could meet with gay and lesbian applicants, birth families, and adoptive families (Berkman & Zinberg, 1997; Herek, 1988; Herek & Glunt, 1993), thereby enlisting collective support. Other strategies for changing attitudes have been suggested. For instance, special committees focused on gay and lesbian issues within an agency "increased the visibility of gay/lesbian employees and have led to a more tolerant attitude [among staff]" (Brooks et al., 1996, p. 26). Providing social workers with information from relevant research may further help to illuminate and broaden their perceptions of family. For example, the majority of students in one study attributed their attitude changes to meeting with a gay man and his mother and obtaining additional theoretical and empirical information about gay men and lesbians (Ben-Ari, 1998).

Child welfare workers also need to understand how to apply the best interest standard in ways that are inclusive. In training, they should be encouraged to examine applicant information and materials with an awareness of the child's needs and interests, recognizing that their own values may impede that process. Definitions of family could be discussed and broadened in a training or educational setting so that workers begin their consideration of applicants from a larger pool of adoptive candidates.

Conversely, some academics suggest that the long-term effect of training on gay and lesbian issues is negligible (Berkman & Zinberg, 1997). More research is needed to ascertain the veracity of this claim and the potential source of such erosion. Continued vigilance appears crucial to maintaining an open dialogue among workers on the issue of gay and lesbian adoption.

Conclusion
Social work professionals have a responsibility to challenge problems that have been socially sanctioned and created. Leadership requires doing what is right, not necessarily what is popular or consistent with expressed community standards and values. Working to ensure the best interests of children may require joining the fight against gay and lesbian prejudice. A recognition of struggles in the civil rights movement and the women's movement can help us understand how such normative prejudice has denied large segments of the population full participation in society. These struggles also help identify the significance of any change in values, attitudes, and behaviors that were once perceived as acceptable.

No one has the right to adopt; children do have a right to loving, permanent homes. This article has proposed that one step toward that goal is a critical re-evaluation at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational levels of the ways in which the best interest of the child standard is defined and applied.
- Ryan, Scott D., Pearlmutter, Sue, Groza, Victor; Coming Out of the Closet: Opening Agencies to Gay and Lesbian Adoptive Parents; Social Work; Jan2004, Vol. 49 Issue 1
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information about homosexual adoptive parents. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 16
What makes heterosexism such a big obstacle for gay and lesbian adoptive parents? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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