Outcomes for children in LGBT led families

British studies

2013 – Research into adoptive families headed by same-sex couples paints a positive picture of relationships and wellbeing in these new families. The study, which was carried out by Cambridge University, suggests that adoptive families with gay fathers might be faring particularly well.

“Overall we found markedly more similarities than differences in experiences between family types”.  Professor Susan Golombok

In-depth research into the experiences of adoptive families headed by same-sex couples suggests that children adopted by gay or lesbian couples are just as likely to thrive as those adopted by heterosexual couples. It also reveals that new families cope just as well as traditional families with the big challenges that come with taking on children who have had a poor start in life.

A report outlining key findings from the research – which was carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – is published today by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) to coincide with LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week. The study is the first of its kind in the UK.

The research explored in considerable detail the experiences of 130 adoptive families, looking at important aspects of family relationships, parental wellbeing and child adjustment. The study compared three kinds of adoptive families: those headed by gay fathers (41 families), those headed by lesbian mothers (40 families), and those headed by heterosexual parents (49 families).

“We worked with more than 70 adoption agencies across the UK to recruit families. The participating families were similar in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and education,” says Professor Susan Golombok, director of the Centre for Family Research and co-author of the report.

“Overall we found markedly more similarities than differences in experiences between family types. The differences that did emerge relate to levels of depressive symptoms in parents, which are especially low for gay fathers, and the contrasting pathways to adoption which was second choice for many of the heterosexual and some lesbian parents – but first choice for all but one of the gay parents.”

The study took the form of home visits to the families, written questionnaires, and recorded parent-child play sessions. All but four of the children studied were aged between four and eight years old, and all had been placed in their families for at least 12 months prior to being interviewed. All families had two parents.

Each year adoptive families are needed for some 4,000 children. Same-sex couples have had the legal right to adopt since 2005 but remain a small proportion of the total number of adopters.  National statistics show that annually around 60 children are adopted by gay couples and a further 60 by lesbian couples.

The bill that brought about the change was fiercely contested and took three years to pass through parliament. Issues raised in the debate included concerns that children adopted by same-sex couples would face bullying from peers and worries that children’s own gender identity might be skewed by being raised by parents of the same sex.

Responses from the same-sex parents, adopted children themselves and the children’s teachers indicates that these issues do not appear to be a significant problem – although the researchers, and some parents themselves, acknowledge that problems of bullying could become a problem as the children become teenagers.

The majority of the children in the study appeared to be adjusting well to family life and to school. Face-to-face interviews with parents, and with those children willing and old enough to take part, showed that parents talked openly with their children about adoption and recognised the value of children maintaining contact with their birth parents.

Some interesting differences emerged in parents’ wellbeing across the three types of family. Gay fathers were significantly less likely to report having depressive symptoms than lesbian mothers and heterosexual couples, most probably reflecting the lower levels of depression shown by men than women generally. However, it should be noted that the level of depression reported by lesbian mothers and heterosexual parents was below, or in line with, the national picture for mental health.

Gay fathers appeared to have more interaction with their children and the children of gay fathers had particularly busy social lives.

Pathways to adoption also differed across the three groups. While most heterosexual couples expected to become parents as a matter of course, fewer same-sex couples expected to have children. This was particularly true of gay fathers many of whom had viewed their sexual identity as incompatible with parenthood.

Most of the heterosexual couples, and a significant number of lesbian couples, had experienced fertility problems. Many had undergone IVF treatment with no success. In contrast, only one of the gay couples had tried (but failed) to conceive with the help of a surrogate. For the remaining gay couples, adoption was the first choice.

Most parents across the family types had had positive experiences of the adoption process with many speaking warmly of the support they received. A number of same sex couples, however, reported that agencies lacked experience in working with gay and lesbian parents and that this showed itself in awkwardness. One gay parent described having the phone put down on him when he said that his partner was a man.

Being adopted makes children different to many of their peers: being adopted by same sex couples could add another dimension to that sense of being different. Interviews with parents showed that they were well aware of the extra challenges they and their children might face – and that they hoped to raise children who were secure in their own identity and valued diversity.

2012 – A new study is currently underway exploring similarities and differences in family relationships, interviewing gay male, lesbian and heterosexual couples who have adopted. The research studies the role of fathering and mothering in children’s psychological development. The project is headed by Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the Centre for Family Research, and Professor Michael Lamb, Head of Social and Developmental Psychology – both at the University of Cambridge. We will list any publications from the study here as soon as they become available. Further information on the research: http://www.ppsis.cam.ac.uk/CFR/about/people/documents/Cambridgestudyofadoptivefamilylife.pdf

Tasker, F. (2007) Reviewing Lesbian and Gay Adoption and Foster Care: the Developmental Outcomes for Children, Family Law 37: 524.

Abstract: Looks at the research on lesbian and gay parenting. Considers lesbians and gay men as adoptive parents and foster carers. Concludes the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and SI 2007/1263 make it clear that, as a matter of social policy, in all issues relating to adoption and fostering same-sex couples are to be treated equally with heterosexual couples.

Tasker, F. (2005) Lesbian Mothers, Gay Father and their children: A Review, Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics 26: 224-40.

Abstract: There is a variety of families headed by a lesbian or gay male parent or same-sex couple. Findings from research suggest that children with lesbian or gay parents are comparable with children with heterosexual parents on key psychosocial developmental outcomes. In many ways, children of lesbian or gay parents have similar experiences of family life compared with children in heterosexual families. Some special considerations apply to the context of lesbian and gay parenting: variation in family forms, children’s awareness of lesbian and gay relationships, heterosexism, and homophobia. These issues have important implications for managing clinical work with children of lesbian mothers or gay fathers.

Hicks, S. (2005). Is Gay Parenting Bad for Kids? Responding to the ‘Very Idea of Difference’ in Research on Lesbian and Gay Parents. Sexualities  8(2): 153-168.

Abstract: This article examines the claim that children of lesbians and gay men are different to those of heterosexuals, particularly in their gender and sexual identity. The author considers two examples, a UK Christian discourse opposed to all forms of lesbian and gay parenting and a US liberal equality approach, represented by the work of Stacey and Biblarz (2001). Both, the author argues, treat difference as a thing acquired by children. This article examines and disputes the ways in which this idea of difference is achieved, and proposes that treating gender and sexuality as measurable outcomes is highly problematic. The author argues for research that asks how contemporary discourses of sexuality actually maintain the very idea that lesbian and gay families are different.

Murray, C. (2004) Same-Sex Families: Outcomes For Children And Parents, Family Law 34: 136-139.

Abstract: A brief overview of the existing research mainly for a legal audience.

Clarke, V., Kitzinger, C. and Potter, J. (2004) ‘Kids are just cruel anyway’: Lesbian and gay parents’ talk about homophobic bullying, British Journal of Social Psychology 43(4): 531-550(20).

Link: http://www.fatih.edu.tr/~hugur/kindnes/Kids%20are%20just%20cruel%20anyway.PDF

Abstract: Psychologists recognize homophobic bullying as a serious problem for young lesbians and gay men; however, when it comes to children in lesbian and gay households the issue is not so clear cut. Some psychologists sympathetic to lesbian and gay parenting regard it as a problem, but most do not. Despite this, the inevitability and severe psychological consequences of homophobic bullying is a prevalent theme in discussions of lesbian and gay parenting in contexts ranging from custody cases to television talk shows, and is used to implicate lesbians and gay men as unfit to parent. This is the broader context in which lesbian and gay parents discuss their children’s experiences of bullying. In this study, we provide a discursive psychological analysis of six lesbian and gay parents’ accounts of bullying. We argue that these accounts are discursively and rhetorically designed to deal with a heterosexist social/political context. Lesbian and gay parents face a dilemma of stake and accountability: reports of no bullying risk being heard as implausible given the prevalence of the bullying theme; at the same time, reports of bullying are equally if not more risky, raising the possibility of charges of bad parenting. We explore the detail of the parents’ accounts of bullying to illustrate how they are designed to negotiate this web of accountability, and we argue for the importance for critical social psychology of analysing the talk of socially/ politically marginalized groups.

MacCallum, F. and Golombok, S. (2004) Children raised in fatherless families from infancy: a follow-up of children of lesbian and single heterosexual mothers at early adolescence, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 45(8): 1407-1419.

Abstract: An increasing number of lesbian women and single heterosexual women are bringing up children with no male involvement. This study follows up to adolescence a sample of children raised in fatherless families from birth or early infancy.Methods: Twenty-five lesbian mother families and 38 families headed by a single heterosexual mother were compared with 38 two-parent heterosexual families. The quality of parenting by the mother, and the social and emotional development of the child, were assessed using standardised interview and questionnaire measures administered to mothers, children and teachers.Results: Children in fatherless families experienced more interaction with their mother, and perceived her as more available and dependable than their peers from father-present homes. However, there were no group differences in maternal warmth towards the children. Mothers raising their child without a father reported more severe disputes with their child than did mothers in father-present families. The children’s social and emotional development was not negatively affected by the absence of a father, although boys in father-absent families showed more feminine but no less masculine characteristics of gender role behaviour. No major differences in parenting or child development were identified between families headed by lesbian and single heterosexual mothers. Conclusions: The presence or absence of a father in the home from the outset does appear to have some influence on adolescents’ relationships with their mothers. However, being without a resident father from infancy does not seem to have negative consequences for children. In addition, there is no evidence that the sexual orientation of the mother influences parent–child interaction or the socioemotional development of the child.

Barrett, H., and Tasker, F. (2002) Gay Fathers and their children: what we know and what we need to know, Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review 3: 3-10.

Barrett, H., and Tasker, F. (2001) Growing up with a Gay Parent: Views of 101 gay fathers on their sons’ and daughters’ experiences, Educational and Child Psychology 18: 62-77.

Golombok, S. (2000) Parenting: what really counts? London: Routledge.

Non-British studies (selection)

Farr, R.H., Forssell, S.L. and Patterson, C. J. (2010) Parenting and Child

Development in Adoptive Families: Does Parental Sexual Orientation Matter?, Applied Developmental Science 14: 3: 164- 178.

Abstract: This study investigated child development and parenting in 106 families headed by 27 lesbian, 29 gay, and 50 heterosexual couples (80% White, M¼42 years) with young adopted children (41% White, M¼3 years). Parents and teachers reported that, on average, children were developing in typical ways. Measures of children’s adjustment, parenting approaches, parenting stress, and couple relationship adjustment were not significantly associated with parental sexual orientation. However, several family process variables—parenting stress, parenting approaches, and couple relationship adjustment—were found to be significantly associated with children’s adjustment, regardless of parental sexual orientation. Implications for understanding the role of gender and sexual orientation in parenting, as well as for legal and policy debates, are discussed.

Patterson C.J. (2009) Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents: Psychology, Law and Policy, American Psychologist 64(8): 727-736.

Abstract: Legal and policy questions relevant to the lives of lesbian and gay parents and their children have recently been subjects of vigorous debate. Among the issues for which psychological research has been seen as particularly relevant are questions regarding child custody after divorce, same-sex marriage, adoption, and foster care. This article provides an overview of the current legal terrain for lesbian and gay parents and their children in the United States today, an overview of relevant social science research, and some commentary on the interface between the two. It is concluded that research findings on lesbian and gay parents and their children provide no warrant for legal discrimination against these families.

Erich, S.,  Kanenberg, H., Case, K., Allen, T., Bogdanos, T. (2009) An empirical analysis of factors affecting adolescent attachment in adoptive families with homosexual and straight parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(3), 398-404.

Astract: Data were collected on 154 adoptive families with gay/lesbian and straight adoptive parents (154 parent respondents and 210 adolescent respondents). This study was principally interested in factors affecting adolescent attachment including parent sexual orientation, adolescent and parent life satisfaction, and parent level of relationship satisfaction with their adopted child as well as other key parent, child and adoption characteristics. The results suggest that higher level of adopted adolescent attachment to parents is not related to adoptive parent sexual orientation. Adolescent attachment to parents is related to adolescent life satisfaction; parent level of relationship satisfaction with their adopted child, number of placements prior to adoption, and adolescent’s current age. Adolescent life satisfaction, like level of attachment is an indicator of youth well-being. This variable was found to have a significant relationship with parent level of relationship satisfaction with their adopted child. The results also indicated parent’s level of relationship satisfaction with their adopted child was related to parent life satisfaction. The variable child’s age at adoption was found to have significant relationships with parent life satisfaction, parent’s level of relationship satisfaction with their adopted child, and number of placements prior to adoption. Implications for policy, practice, education and further research are discussed.

Patterson, C.J. (2005) Lesbian and Gay Parenting, Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Erich, S. (2005) Gay and Lesbian Adoptive Families: An Exploratory Study of Family Functioning, Adoptive Child’s Behaviour and Familial Support Networks. Journal of Family Social Work, 9(1), 17-32.

Abstract: Traditional legal and social forces have hindered the adoption of children by gay and lesbian individuals and couples. Using a convenience sample drawn from gay and lesbian support groups and Internet sites, this exploratory study examines adoptive families with gay and lesbian parents in terms of family functioning capabilities, child’s behavior, and family support networks. Data were gathered from 47 gay and lesbian parents and 68 of their adopted children. The results suggest that these adoptive families are performing within the healthy ranges established by scales measuring family functioning and adopted child’s behavior. Additionally, the results of this study suggest these families have adequate levels of help from their support networks. Finally, those families who adopted siblings and those who adopted older children with a history of abuse reported higher levels of family functioning. The results of this exploratory study, in combination with previous studies of gay and lesbian families, support the practice of adoption by gay and lesbian adults.

Patterson, C.J. (2004) Gay fathers in The Role of the Father in Child Development (Fourth Edition, M.E. Lamb (ed.), New York: John Wiley.

Bennett, S. (2003) Is There a Primary Mom? Parental Perceptions of Attachment Bond Hierarchies Within Lesbian Adoptive Families. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 20(3): 159-173.

Abstract: Basic tenets of attachment theory were evaluated in a qualitative study of 15 lesbian couples with internationally adopted children, focusing on parental perceptions of a primary mother-child attachment within the families. Interviews with 30 mothers examined variables affecting the hierarchy of parenting bonds, including division of labor, time with the child, and parental legal status. All children developed attachments to both mothers, but 12 of the 15 had primary bonds to one mother despite shared parenting and division of labor between the partners. Quality of maternal caretaking was a salient contributing factor; no significant relationship existed between primary parenting and parental legal status.

Anderssen, N., Amelie, C, and Ytteroy, E.A. (2002) Outcomes for children with lesbian and gay parents: A review of studies from 1978 to 2000, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 34(4): 335-351.

Abstract: Twenty-three empirical studies published between 1978 and 2000 on nonclinical children raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers were reviewed (one Belgian/Dutch, one Danish, three British, and 18 North American). Twenty reported on offspring of lesbian mothers, and three on offspring of gay fathers. The studies encompassed a total of 615 offspring (age range 1.5–44 years) of lesbian mothers or gay fathers and 387 controls, who were assessed by psychological tests, questionnaires or interviews. Seven types of outcomes were found to be typical: emotional functioning, sexual preference, stigmatization, gender role behavior, behavioral adjustment, gender identity, and cognitive functioning. Children raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers did not systematically differ from other children on any of the outcomes. The studies indicate that children raised by lesbian women do not experience adverse outcomes compared with other children. The same holds for children raised by gay men, but more studies should be done.

New resources to suggest?