Come on Social Services…

It’s time to let go of your prejudices and recognise that gay adopters have a lot to offer…

My partner and I read with great interest the stories of gay and lesbian adopters in Be My Parent. We are a same-sex couple currently on our second round of adoption after being successfully matched with a gorgeous boy nearly three years ago. Our adoption journey has been far from easy, however.

Image of a white boy outside
We made a positive choice to adopt a child having decided against sperm donation. We were very clear right from the beginning that we wanted to parent on an equal footing. Having a child who was biologically from one of us, and not from both, didn’t feel right, so we investigated the adoption route.

It became very clear, very early on, that our local adoption agency had never knowingly assessed gay or lesbian prospective adopters, and they were unsure what to expect. From the outset they informed us that, although they had no issues with our sexuality, they couldn’t speak for any other agencies that may have more traditional attitudes about what a family make-up looks like.

Undeterred, we continued with being assessed and worked hard to ensure that we had a strong application. Our link worker was, and has remained, very supportive during the entire time, and is now the guru on all matters gay for her department. Without her support we would have given up on a number of occasions.

Once approved, we registered interest in many children and I for one hated the part when asked by social workers the name of my husband and the awkward silences that followed when I explained that we were a same-sex couple. I would like to believe that the silence was innocent, but there is always the nagging suspicion that the social worker was desperately looking for an excuse not to go any further with the conversation without seeming discriminatory.

Despite a strong application, we were ruled out many times for lack of childcare experience, length of our relationship and lack of male role models – all of which were lame excuses if agencies had bothered to read our application form, but were well rehearsed stock answers for dismissing us without appearing biased. Who after all could argue with such subjective reasoning?

After a number of unsuccessful months we had a meeting with our social worker to take stock of where we were. I remember quite clearly during that meeting our social worker’s dismay at the lack of interest and take up that there had been in us as a couple. She could only conclude that our sexuality was the sticking point.

“You need something to set you apart from everyone else,” she said.
“What about Paula’s ethnicity? Let’s only go for Eastern European children,” I said with my tongue firmly embedded in my cheek and with more than a hint of sarcasm. That seemed like it would narrow our chances even further, but suddenly a light came on, just above the head of our social worker, who informed us that a little Lithuanian child had been relinquished in our local area. “That’ll do. It’s close enough to Poland!” I said, not believing for one second that we would be matched with a baby.

That little Lithuanian child came to live with us when he was six months old and was adopted by us when he was a year old, but only after a nationwide search for parents for him. So even though we were known to our agency, had, in their words, a strong application, and we were a fairly close match to his ethnicity, our agency was still prepared to pay another authority £10,000 to poach their adopters and keep our little lad in foster care for six months rather than getting him settled earlier into his forever family.

It has come to light since that there were a number of workers opposed to our adoption of our son, using religion as the basis of their objections. My partner is Catholic but now non-practising due to the church’s stance on gay people, and our son’s birth mother wanted him brought up Roman Catholic. In the eyes of these workers, this fact was more important than our positive attitudes to diversity, our good financial situation, our lovely house and safe environment, our education, our outstanding support network of gay and heterosexual people and their children, our ability to provide our child with a wide range of experiences and our willing eagerness to lavish him with love and support throughout his life.

Sexual orientation discrimination is not in decline but just being forced underground and making people find ever more inventive ways of covertly discriminating.

Our son is now three and we have just been through the adoption process again to hopefully add to our family. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, or so they say, and with our previous experience under our belt we thought we had most bases covered. The original objections for us parenting had now been proved wrong: we have parented successfully for nearly three years, we have cemented our relationship with our civil partnership, and Liam’s male role models feature heavily in his life. Our application this time round is fantastic with some excellent references from friends and family and a glowing report from our social worker. The law is now on our side with gay people having been allowed to adopt jointly since 2005 and the new Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 makes it unlawful for providers of services, goods or facilities, including adoption agencies, to discriminate against their service users on the grounds of sexual orientation.

With all this in place, how is it then, that we have been ruled out of an interview for a little half-Polish baby from another agency when the baby’s background reflects to a great extent that of our son’s? Why did the social worker not even request our application form before making her decision? Well, apparently, the birth mother doesn’t like lesbians and can’t believe that you would ever contemplate placing a baby with a same-sex couple. According to the social worker she doesn’t even want the child placed with a single adopter – so that’s alright then, we’re not being singled out because we are gay… except we most blatantly are.

Frustrated, angry, sad…We feel all of these things and yet what can be done? The situation is not black and white and there appears to be a loophole in the legislation. It seems the Adoption and Children Act 2002 s.19 is interpreted as meaning that a birth parent who is voluntarily relinquishing a child for adoption has a say in where and with whom the child is placed, only nobody we have spoken to can agree if that means the parent has the final say or if their feelings should just be taken into account and where possible accommodated. It seems, however, that in the case of this baby, the agency is concerned that his or her birth mother may withdraw her consent for adoption if they disagree with her stance on discrimination.

It seems that getting consent from the birth parent for adoption could be a fast-track route to placing a child, as the adoption agency doesn’t have to apply for a care order before the placement order and in that respect I can see that it would be in the baby’s best interest in this case to be settled sooner than later. However, if you start ruling out applicants for the child on the basis of pure discrimination, firstly, you are breaking the law and leaving your agency open to discrimination claims. Secondly, and more importantly for the child, how do you know that you have got the best possible parents for the child. Where is the child’s best interest in this? An individual’s prejudice should not inform an agency’s decision on potential adopters and if, as a last resort, the birth parent cannot possibly bring themselves to give up their child to gay or single people and therefore decides to take their baby home, isn’t that possibly the best case scenario for the child? Isn’t that what social services strive for wherever possible? If the birth parent then proves to be unfit, the usual route of emergency protection orders and care orders is open to the agency, who then, do not or cannot, according to the Equality Act, discriminate against same-sex couples – well, not openly anyway.

We have complained about this matter via our social worker and rattled a few cages. All parties have agreed that a discussion needs to be had and a way forward identified that complies with the new law. So hopefully our experience will not have been in vain.
We do not hold out any hope for an interview for this particular baby, but will continue looking for our newest family member and hope and pray that one day, before I’m too old, a social worker will see fit to talk to us and place a child with us.

So why bother writing this? Our initial response to the situation was to accept it. That was until it had sunk in and we got angry. But we realised that, if the discrimination is so deeply embedded in us, what can we expect from others whose worlds until very recently consisted of white heterosexual relationships, homophobia and heterosexism? With that in mind, to do nothing was not an option. Had we kept quiet and accepted the social workers’ dismissal of us, it would have been like colluding with the discrimination and agreeing that as a same-sex couple we are in some way inferior.

We also have a responsibility to our son to help educate people on alternative family situations so that he grows up in a society were he is valued and encouraged to develop to meet his full potential. He already knows he is a worthwhile and beautiful individual and contributes well to the relationships he has formed. Our hope is that this continues into adulthood with or without a sibling by his side.

So if this article changes the attitudes of just a handful of social workers, or at least gets them thinking about equal opportunities in a real way, then it was worth writing.

Julie Lender-Swain

Liam's name has been changed to protect his confidentiality.

Comment from Mo O’Reilly – Director of Child Placement at BAAF

Whilst it is important that adoption agencies listen to birth parents’ wishes regarding their child’s future, birth parents cannot/should not dictate an adoption placement, or block a possible placement, particularly if it is informed by prejudice. Agencies will want birth parents to feel as positive as possible about the adoptive family that the child is to be placed with but, once the agency has gone through the formal process and agreed that a child should be adopted, then they must take responsibility to ensure that the placement meets the child’s needs.

Traditionally, birth parents have been asked to voice their preference about the religion in which their child should be brought up, but again this was a guide and not an instruction about future placements. The absolute responsibility of the adoption agency is to place a child in a family that meets the child’s needs first and foremost. It is not acceptable that the ‘right’ placement is disregarded because the birth mother may become unco-operative, because this placement is hopefully for life and will have a critical impact upon the child’s future. So whilst it is tempting for agencies to be deflected down one path because it avoids delay for the child, this decision has to be the best it can possibly be because the implications of it are lifelong.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 30 April 10

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