LGBTQ Adoption: How Adults Can Prepare to Become New Parents
When Scott Tayloe, his husband and their young adopted son visited their local coffee shop in Los Angeles County, a group of older men began staring at the family. Eventually, one man came up to Tayloe, pointed to his son and asked, “Is he yours?”
Instead of getting defensive, Tayloe decided to introduce the men to his family. They began asking more questions about the adoption process, and those questions eventually led to an unexpected friendship with the coffee shop regulars.
The experience motivated Tayloe and his husband to return to Florida, where they lived before pursuing adoption. He said the teaching moment made him think that “there were guys sitting and having coffee in Florida that needed to see us, too.”
The process of adopting a child is not easy for anyone. While LGBTQ individuals and couples are eager to adopt, many still face encounters that range from awkward to prejudicial. But with the help of adoption professionals such as social workers, they remain resilient and work to overcome hurdles one opportunity at a time.
“As a profession, social work is doing well in terms of not just allowing LGBTQ couples to adopt but also reaching out to them, engaging them and trying to support them,” said Devon Brooks, an expert in child welfare and associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
What Should LGBTQ Adults Consider if They Are Interested in Adoption?
Same-sex couples are stepping up to help provide homes for children in need. According to a report on same-sex households from the Williams Institute (PDF 1.1 MB), among same-sex couples raising a child in 2016:
were raising an adopted child
were fostering a child
However, LGBTQ couples have a number of distinct considerations they must weigh as they begin the process.
Encountering foster care and adoption professionals who have explicit or unconscious biases against LGBTQ couples.
When Tayloe and his husband decided to start a family, they wanted the adoption process to be positive and deliberately sought out an agency that worked with gay couples. Experts recommend other couples do the same.
“Negative stereotypes and myths … still affect LGBTQ couples interested in adopting,” Brooks said. “They also influence the behaviors of professionals who are working with [them].”
A fact sheet from the Family Equality Council points out that the patchwork of foster and adoption laws throughout the United States means that LGBTQ parents may not have express protections from discrimination in many states (PDF, 547 KB). And because professionals have a lot of discretion and are entrusted with the child’s best interest, discrimination is difficult to identify, Brooks said.
Working with trusted professionals and agencies who have a history of advocating for LGBTQ families can help to ensure that these couples have the best support network to guide them through the process.
Encountering prejudice in day-to-day interactions as a family or being placed in awkward situations.
Despite growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in the United States, these families still stand out. According to a separate Williams Institute report on families with lesbian, gay and bisexual parents, research is mixed on whether children with LGB parents encounter more bullying, with some studies suggesting there are higher rates of bullying for children with LGB parents, while others found no difference (PDF, 1.5 MB). The children did report hearing homophobic slurs, unlike their peers.
A good professional will make prospective parents aware of the potential for discrimination and work with them to develop strategies to cope, Brooks said, adding that the role of the parent or parents in the child’s life is what matters most. To that point, the aforementioned report also summarizes more conclusive research that shows children with same-sex parents have similar quality of life, social functioning, self-esteem and educational outcomes as children of heterosexual parents, suggesting that negative attitudes toward these parents are unfounded.
Still, day-to-day interactions can be filled with assumptions about family makeup or relationship status. And while these may not be as deliberately negative as discrimination, they can be wearing for parents.
“When I go up and talk to a teacher or I fill out paperwork at school, they’ll always ask about their dad, or they’ll say ‘your husband,’” said Charissa Naul, who is raising two daughters she and her wife adopted with the help of New York–based You Gotta Believe, which finds permanent families for young adults, teens and preteens in foster care. “I have to address that frequently, and I hate it.”
Becoming a parent to a child who has a different racial, ethnic or cultural background or has special needs.
Same-sex couples are more likely than their heterosexual peers to adopt transracially. LGBTQ couples may also adopt children who are neurodiverse or who have developmental challenges.
These types of adoptions add a complicating layer to the process. Parents will have to account for how issues of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and ability intersect, rather than just focusing on one issue, Brooks said. He noted that skilled social workers and other professionals can help LGBTQ couples anticipate and prepare for these types of situations.
And while their own struggles may be different than those of their children, many LGBTQ adults believe the resilience they have built over time can help them care for children.
“I’ve had LGBTQ families who’ve said, ‘We’ve had to deal with prejudice and discrimination, being outed throughout our entire experience together, so we can adopt [transracially] or a child with special needs. We have the tools that we need to advocate, to stand up and rally for our child’s unique situation,’” said Pam Hoehler, LCSW-C, LICSW, home study and foster care adoption manager at Adoptions Together in Maryland.
What Questions Should LGBTQ Parents Reflect on to Prepare for Adoption?
As with most life-changing decisions, preparing for the adoption process requires research and self-examination. Before starting the adoption journey, LGBTQ individuals and couples need to take a step back and address any unique issues that relate to their situation. Some of the self-reflective questions they can ask themselves include:
Where do you live?
Talk to your neighbors. Go to community events. Learn how your family will be received. You need to know what interactions to expect and if it may be better to move somewhere else.
Is your social circle diverse?
You may not be equipped to address all of the challenges that your new child will face. It’s important for children to see role models and mentors who look like them and can guide them through challenges that you have not experienced.
Are you open to learning from others in the LGBTQ community who have adopted children?
Support from peers matters. Mentors are just as important as counselors, therapists and other formal service providers. Read, watch videos and listen to parenting podcasts, such as Daddy Squared and Outspoken Voices: A Podcast for LGBTQ+ Families.
Are you willing to learn about other cultures and experiences?
If you are adopting a child of another race or a child with special needs, you will also need to learn about the specific challenges these children may encounter. Awareness is key, and the learning process is never-ending.
What was your experience coming out?
Social workers will ask prospective LGBTQ parents how they dealt with coming out about their sexuality. Similar emotions will potentially be revisited when they adopt and their family addition is introduced and interacts with others.
Are you comfortable communicating openly about differences?
LGBTQ parents should be open with each other and their inner circle. They can start talking with their child at the infant stage about the differences in their family so that the conversation becomes comfortable when the child is old enough to understand. Children will need to understand that bullying or discrimination is a result of people who have attitudes that are not consistent with the family.
Are you OK being visible?
LGBTQ families still stand out. Are you willing to turn that into a positive by using other people’s questions as opportunities to educate them about LGBTQ adoption and the need for more adults willing to adopt?
How will you handle negative situations?
Focus on strategies and strengths and harness resiliency skills you’ve developed over time as a member of the LGBTQ community. The attributes among prospective LGBTQ parents that stand out for social services agencies workers include psychological stability, sensitivity, strong support systems and resourcefulness.
The research has shown that LGBTQ couples can be terrific parents. But like anybody else, they need to put in work as they welcome children into their homes.
“The stronger the parents, the stronger the family,” Brooks said.
Resources for LGBTQ Adults Considering Adoption
Family Equality: national network group information page links to applications for membership and a toolkit for starting a group.
Hayden’s List: rating website of businesses, organizations and service agencies for the LGBTQ community and its supporters.
Human Rights Campaign: map identifies child welfare agencies nationwide that partner with HRC’s All Children-All Families project serving the LGBTQ community, including children in foster care and prospective foster and adoptive parents.
Lifelong Adoptions: guide applications and FAQs about LGBTQ adoptions, under the supervision of Lutheran Child and Family Services.
Movement Advancement Project: map with summary information about adoption laws in each state and territory.
National Adoption Center (PDF, 701 KB): guide to LGBTQ adoption that outlines adoption and foster care, as well as the application process and what agencies can help prospective LGBTQ parents.
Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California