Lesbian and gay fostering and adoption: out of the closet into the mainstream?

Author:Brown, Helen Cosis


The changing nature of the 'family' in the UK over the last quarter of a century has had a profound effect on social work with children and young people. In particular, it has had a considerable impact on fostering and adoption practice in relation to those deemed suitable to care for separated children. This article explores the changes surrounding the acceptability of lesbian and gay adoption and fostering from the early 1980s to the present day. It draws on the literature and documents in the public domain, as well as on the authors' practice experience. In setting out to explore this often controversial topic, we are mindful that social work practice is located in a social, political and historical context and that an understanding of this is crucial because knowledge about the past enables us to interpret the present and plan for the future. We shall look at the 1979-97 Conservative Government's preoccupation with the social and political position of lesbians and gay men. This is demonstrated in the debates surrounding various pieces of legislation and the law reviews relating to the care of children and the right of lesbians and gay men to parent (Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990; Adoption Law Review; Family Placement Guidance 1991; Local Government Act 1988).

We track the debates and changes to the legislative and policy framework which have enabled lesbians and gay men to become visible foster carers and adopters. In national policy terms, a number of recent legal changes--the Equality Act 2006, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002--have transformed the current context for social work practice in this area. We look at the contradictions relating to these developments and consider how and why discourses surrounding the public debates have remained so consistent over the last 25 years. We also examine the research findings concerning outcomes for children growing up in lesbian and gay households and how these have influenced policy and practice.

The article's main focus is on 'best' social work practice in fostering and adoption that is necessary to enable children's needs to be effectively met. In debating this, we are keen to move away from the 'rights' perspective that has dominated much of the debate regarding lesbians and gay men parenting, to one that emphasises the paramountcy principle in relation to children's welfare, as stated in section 1 of the Children Act 1989. We will consider the following areas of practice: recruitment, assessment, placing children and matching, support to carers and safer care.

There can be little doubt that social work practice with regard to lesbian and gay carers has changed and developed over the last quarter of a century. This trend is evidenced, for example, by the acceptance of such people as carers by organisations like the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). BAAF's publication about this subject (Mallon and Betts, 2005) demonstrates its wider social 'acceptability'. We shall argue that in these respects, lesbians and gay men are finally 'out of the closet'. However, at the same time BAAF has allowed 'sexuality' as an aspect of 'diversity' to vanish from the Form F used by agencies as the proforma for the assessment of prospective applicants (BAAF, 2005). Moreover, as demonstrated by the discourses surrounding the passing of various pieces of permissive legislation, the inclusion of lesbians and gay men in the mainstream remains tentative and contradictory.

Legislative and policy debates

Conservative Government years 1979-1997

A small number of articles have recounted the legislative history of the acceptance of lesbians and gay men as parents, whether through adoption, foster care or as birth parents (Skeats and Jabri, 1988; Brown, 1998a; Hicks, 2005a; Manthorpe and Price, 2005). Although there is anecdotal evidence that lesbians and gay men have always cared for children, the growth of feminism and the politicisation of lesbians and gay men in the UK from the 1950s onwards meant that through the 1960s and 1970s gay issues became more salient and gay people more confident in asserting their 'right' to be carers, both for adults and children. This developing confidence occurred against a backdrop of public opinion and social welfare institutions being hostile to the idea of children being in contact with lesbians and gay men because of perceived dangers of sexual abuse by gay men, conversion to homosexuality and the possibility of 'abnormal' social and emotional development.

An example of public sector opinion on this matter in the 1980s was manifested in the sacking of Susan Shell and Judith Williams, who worked successfully with young people but were dismissed when their sexuality became known to their employers. The Tribunal investigating Susan Shell's dismissal upheld her employer's actions on the grounds that her lesbianism made her unsuitable to work with adolescent girls. The local authority is recorded as having said:

It is the responsibility of social services departments to encourage the sociosexual norms of marriage for the young people in their care, and it was not prepared to debate the philosophy of homosexuality. (Davis, 1993, p 60)

A similar situation applied to Judith Williams. Her employer, noting her lesbianism, described her as 'temperamentally unsuitable' and said that the agency required its employees to be, 'mature, stable adults who identify with the conventional adult model normally accepted by society' (Davis, 1993, p 61).

These two cases demonstrated the importance of lesbians and gay men within social work and social care having employment rights and protection. Brown (1998a) provides an analysis of the relationship between trade union activities in this area, from the mid-1970s through to the 1980s, and the influence of this upon Labour-controlled local authorities, as well as the Labour Party generally. The effect of national and local trade union activities on Labour-controlled social services committees, which enacted local policy and procedures, is complex and is documented elsewhere (Cooper, 1994). This dynamic occurred within the wider social context of the organisation and mobilisation of lesbians and gay men as a social force and was happening against a backdrop of the Conservative Party, from 1979, using the debates related to the passing of specific pieces of legislation to try and limit the rights of lesbians and gay men to parent. At this time, the Government was sufficiently concerned about this situation to challenge the progress made in some local authorities. For example, in 1984, the Conservative council of Rugby deleted 'sexual orientation' from their equal opportunities policy (Sanderson, 1995, p 154).

A number of authors have considered the debates surrounding the 1979-97 Conservative Government's preoccupation with lesbian and gay men's right to parent and care for children (Brown, 1998a,b; Hicks, 2005a; Manthorpe and Price, 2005): 'Each time these debates have arisen they have highlighted the degree of homophobia that permeates our society' (Brown, 1998a, p 29). These issues arose at each stage of the legislative and social policy processes in, for example, section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, the Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990, the Family Placement Guidance and Regulations of the Children Act 1989 (Department of Health, 1991) and the White Paper, Adoption: The future (Department of Health, 1993). A summary of the Government's view can be seen in the Adoption Law Review discussion paper no. 3, which read as follows:

The question of adoption by lesbians or male homosexuals, whether living with a partner or not, is controversial. There is one view that such applicants should not be excluded from consideration if they can satisfy an agency that they can provide a home in which a child's interests would be safeguarded and promoted. Others take the view that placement with a lesbian or male homosexual could never be in a child's interests and could never provide a suitable environment for the care and nurture of a child. (Department of Health, 1991)

Despite old arguments being repeated in the legislative processes, the major child care lobbies successfully argued that gay and lesbian applicants should not be excluded from consideration, thus showing that:

... consultation and lobbying processes still do act as a force to keep in check extreme ideologies that particular governments might favour. However, the end product has often been less than anybody hoped for. (Brown, 1998a, p 29)

Hicks (2005a) emphasises the significance of 1988 in the history of lesbian and gay foster care and adoption. It was the year that Skeates and Jabri published their report on fostering and adoption by lesbians and gay men. In addition, although section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act discriminated against lesbian and gay families, it did acknowledge their existence, albeit as 'pretend families'. This acted as a catalyst for lesbians and gay men...

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