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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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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