Overview of Lesbian and Gay Parenting, Adoption, and Foster Care

Fact Sheet: Overview of Lesbian and Gay Parenting, Adoption, and Foster Care

The last decade has seen a sharp rise in the number of lesbians and gay men forming their own families through adoption, foster care, artificial insemination and other means. Researchers estimate that the total number of children nationwide living with at least one gay parent ranges from six to 14 million. 

At the same time, the United States is facing a critical shortage of adoptive and foster parents. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children in this country are without permanent homes. These children languish for months, even years, within state foster care systems that lack qualified foster parents and are frequently riddled with other problems. In Arkansas, for example, the foster care system does such a poor job of caring for children that it has been placed under court supervision. 

Legal and Policy Overview of Lesbian and Gay Parenting

Many states have moved to safeguard the interests of children with gay or lesbian parents. For example, at least 21 states have granted second-parent adoptions to lesbian and gay couples, ensuring that their children can enjoy the benefits of having two legal parents, especially if one of the parents dies or becomes incapacitated. 

Recognizing that lesbians and gay men can be good parents, the vast majority of states no longer deny custody or visitation to a person based on sexual orientation. State agencies and courts now apply a "best interest of the child" standard to decide these cases. Under this approach, a person's sexual orientation cannot be the basis for ending or limiting parent-child relationships unless it is demonstrated that it causes harm to a child -- a claim that has been routinely disproved by social science research. Using this standard, more than 22 states to date have allowed lesbians and gay men to adopt children either through state-run or private adoption agencies. 

Nonetheless, a few states -- relying on myths and stereotypes -- have used a parent's sexual orientation to deny custody, adoption, visitation and foster care. For instance, two states (Florida and New Hampshire) have laws that expressly bar lesbians and gay men from ever adopting children. In a notorious 1993 decision, a court in Virginia took away Sharon Bottoms' 2-year-old son simply because of her sexual orientation, and transferred custody to the boy's maternal grandmother. And Arkansas has just adopted a policy prohibiting lesbians, gay men, and those who live with them, from serving as foster parents. 

Research Overview of Lesbian and Gay Parenting1

All of the research to date has reached the same unequivocal conclusion about gay parenting: the children of lesbian and gay parents grow up as successfully as the children of heterosexual parents. In fact, not a single study has found the children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged because of their parents' sexual orientation. Other key findings include: 

  • There is no evidence to suggest that lesbians and gay men are unfit to be parents. 

  • Home environments with lesbian and gay parents are as likely to successfully support a child's development as those with heterosexual parents. 

  • Good parenting is not influenced by sexual orientation. Rather, it is influenced most profoundly by a parent's ability to create a loving and nurturing home -- an ability that does not depend on whether a parent is gay or straight. 

  • There is no evidence to suggest that the children of lesbian and gay parents are less intelligent, suffer from more problems, are less popular, or have lower self-esteem than children of heterosexual parents. 

  • The children of lesbian and gay parents grow up as happy, healthy and well-adjusted as the children of heterosexual parents. 

A Crisis in Adoption and Foster Care

Right now there is a critical shortage of adoptive and foster parents in the United States. As a result, many children have no permanent homes, while others are forced to survive in an endless series of substandard foster homes. It is estimated that there are 500,000 children in foster care nationally, and 100,000 need to be adopted.2 But last year there were qualified adoptive parents available for only 20,000 of these children.3 Many of these children have historically been viewed as "unadoptable" because they are not healthy white infants. Instead, they are often minority children and/or adolescents, many with significant health problems.4

There is much evidence documenting the serious damage suffered by children without permanent homes who are placed in substandard foster homes. Children frequently become victims of the "foster care shuffle," in which they are moved from temporary home to temporary home. A child stuck in permanent foster care can live in 20 or more homes by the time she reaches 18. It is not surprising, therefore, that long-term foster care is associated with increased emotional problems, delinquency, substance abuse and academic problems.5

In order to reach out and find more and better parents for children without homes, adoption and foster care policies have become increasingly inclusive over the past two decades. While adoption and foster care were once viewed as services offered to infertile, middle-class, largely white couples seeking healthy same-race infants, these policies have modernized. In the past two decades, child welfare agencies have changed their policies to make adoption and foster care possible for a much broader range of adults, including minority families, older individuals, families who already have children, single parents (male and female), individuals with physical disabilities, and families across a broad economic range. These changes have often been controversial at the outset. According to the CWLA, "at one time or another, the inclusion of each of these groups has caused controversy. Many well-intended individuals vigorously opposed including each new group as potential adopters and voiced concern that standards were being lowered in a way that could forever damage the field of adoption."6

As a result of the increased inclusiveness of modern adoption and foster care policies, thousands of children now have homes with qualified parents. 

Myths vs. Facts

Myth: The only acceptable home for a child is one with a mother and father who are married to each other. 

Fact: Children without homes do not have the option of choosing between a married mother and father or some other type of parent(s). These children have neither a mother nor a father, married or unmarried. There simply are not enough married mothers and fathers who are interested in adoption and foster care. Last year only 20,000 of the 100,000 foster children in need of adoption were adopted, including children adopted by single people as well as married couples. Our adoption and foster care policies must deal with reality, or these children will never have stable and loving homes. 

Myth: Children need a mother and a father to have proper male and female role models. 

Fact: Children without homes have neither a mother nor a father as role models. And children get their role models from many places besides their parents. These include grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, friends, and neighbors. In a case-by-case evaluation, trained professionals can ensure that the child to be adopted or placed in foster care is moving into an environment with adequate role models of all types. 

Myth: Gays and lesbians don't have stable relationships and don't know how to be good parents. 

Fact: Like other adults in this country, the majority of lesbians and gay men are in stable committed relationships.7 Of course some of these relationships have problems, as do some heterosexual relationships. The adoption and foster care screening process is very rigorous, including extensive home visits and interviews of prospective parents. It is designed to screen out those individuals who are not qualified to adopt or be foster parents, for whatever reason. All of the evidence shows that lesbians and gay men can and do make good parents. The American Psychological Association, in a recent report reviewing the research, observed that "not a single study has found children of gay or lesbian parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents," and concluded that "home environments provided by gay and lesbian parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children's psychosocial growth."8 That is why the Child Welfare League of America, the nation's oldest children's advocacy organization, and the North American Council on Adoptable Children say that gays and lesbians seeking to adopt should be evaluated just like other adoptive applicants. 

Myth: Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are more likely to grow up gay themselves. 

Fact: All of the available evidence demonstrates that the sexual orientation of parents has no impact on the sexual orientation of their children and that children of lesbian and gay parents are no more likely than any other child to grow up to be gay.9 There is some evidence that children of gays and lesbians are more tolerant of diversity, but this is certainly not a disadvantage. Of course, some children of lesbians and gay men will grow up to be gay, as will some children of heterosexual parents. These children will have the added advantage of being raised by parents who are supportive and accepting in a world that can sometimes be hostile. 

Myth: Children who are raised by lesbian or gay parents will be subjected to harassment and will be rejected by their peers. 

Fact: Children make fun of other children for all kinds of reasons: for being too short or too tall, for being too thin or too fat, for being of a different race or religion or speaking a different language. Children show remarkable resiliency, especially if they are provided with a stable and loving home environment. Children in foster care can face tremendous abuse from their peers for being parentless. These children often internalize that abuse, and often feel unwanted. Unfortunately, they do not have the emotional support of a loving permanent family to help them through these difficult times. 

Myth: Lesbians and gay men are more likely to molest children. 

Fact: There is no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. All of the legitimate scientific evidence shows that. Sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is an adult sexual attraction to others. Pedophilia, on the other hand, is an adult sexual attraction to children. Ninety percent of child abuse is committed by heterosexual men. In one study of 269 cases of child sexual abuse, only two offenders were gay or lesbian. Of the cases studied involving molestation of a boy by a man, 74 percent of the men were or had been in a heterosexual relationship with the boy's mother or another female relative. The study concluded that "a child's risk of being molested by his or her relative's heterosexual partner is over 100 times greater than by someone who might be identifiable as being homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual."10

Myth: Children raised by lesbians and gay men will be brought up in an "immoral" environment. 

Fact: There are all kinds of disagreements in this country about what is moral and what is immoral. Some people may think raising children without religion is immoral, yet atheists are allowed to adopt and be foster parents. Some people think drinking and gambling are immoral, but these things don't disqualify someone from being evaluated as an adoptive or foster parent. If we eliminated all of the people who could possibly be considered "immoral," we would have almost no parents left to adopt and provide foster care. That can't be the right solution. What we can probably all agree on is that it is immoral to leave children without homes when there are qualified parents waiting to raise them. And that is what many gays and lesbians can do. 


1See American Psychological Association. Lesbian and Gay Parenting: A Resource for Psychologists, District of Columbia, 1995; Child Welfare League of America, Issues in Gay and Lesbian Adoption: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Peirce-Warwick Adoption Symposium, District of Columbia, 1995. 

2Petit, M. & Curtis, P., Child Abuse and Neglect: A Look at the States, 1997 CWLA Stat Book, Child Welfare League of America, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 72, 124. 

3Petit, supra note 2. 

4Sokoloff, B., "Antecedents of American Adoption," The Future of Children. Vol. 3, No. 1 (1993), pp. 17-26; Cole, E. & Donley, K., "History, Values, and Placement Policy Issues In Adoption," in The Psychology of Adoption. Eds. David Brodzinsky & Marshall Schecter, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 273-294. 

5Eagle, R., "The Separation Experience of Children in Long Term Care: Theory, Resources, and Implications for Practice," The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Vol. 64, pp. 421-434 (1994); Robert, G., et al., "A Foster Care Resource Agenda For the Ô90's," Child Welfare Vol. LXXIII, No. 5, pp. 525-552 (1994). 

6Issues In Gay And Lesbian Adoption, Child Welfare League of America, Washington, D.C., 1995, p.2. 

7Overlooked Opinions, "The Gay Market," Chicago, January 1992. 

8American Psychological Association, Lesbian And Gay Parenting: A Resource For Psychologists (1995). 

9See Bailey, J.M., Bobrow, D., Wolfe, M. & Mikach, S. (1995), Sexual orientation of adult sons of gay fathers, Developmental Psychology, 31, 124-129; Bozett, F.W. (1987). Children of gay fathers, F.W. Bozett (Ed.), Gay and Lesbian Parents (pp. 39-57), New York: Praeger; Gottman, J.S. (1991), Children of gay and lesbian parents, F.W. Bozett & M.B. Sussman, (Eds.), Homosexuality and Family Relations (pp. 177-196), New York: Harrington Park Press; Golombok, S., Spencer, A., & Rutter, M. (1983), Children in lesbian and single-parent households: psychosexual and psychiatric appraisal, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 24, 551-572; Green, R. (1978), Sexual identity of 37 children raised by homosexual or transsexual parents, American Journal of Psychiatry, 135, 692-697; Huggins, S.L., (1989) A comparative study of self-esteem of adolescent children of divorced lesbian mothers and divorced heterosexual mothers, F. W. Bozett (Ed.), Homosexuality and the Family (pp. 123-135), New York: Harrington Park Press; Miller, B. (1979), Gay fathers and their children, The Family Coordinator, 28, 544-52; Paul, J.P. (1986). 

Carole Jenny, et al., Are Children at Risk for Sexual Abuse by Homosexuals?, Pediatrics, Vol. 94, No. 1 (1994); see also David Newton, Homosexual Behavior and Child Molestation: A Review of the Evidence, Adolescence, Vol. XIII, No. 49 at 40 (1978) ("A review of the available research on pedophilia provides no basis for associating child molestation with homosexual behavior.") 

10Carole Jenny, et al., Are Children at Risk for Sexual Abuse by Homosexuals?, Pediatrics, Vol. 94, No. 1 (1994); see also David Newton, Homosexual Behavior and Child Molestation: A Review of the Evidence, Adolescence, Vol. XIII, No. 49 at 40 (1978) ("A review of the available research on pedophilia provides no basis for associating child molestation with homosexual behavior.") 

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