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.

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