Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Foster Parents: Strengths and Challenges for the Child Welfare System

By Downs, A. Chris; James, Steven E. | Child Welfare, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Foster Parents: Strengths and Challenges for the Child Welfare System


Downs, A. Chris, James, Steven E., Child Welfare


Historically, a shortage of skilled and dedicated foster parents has existed in America. Lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LBG) foster parents have received little attention in the published literature. This article documents the challenges and successes of a group of 60 LGB foster parents. All participants provided foster parenting for public (state or county) agencies. The primary successes of this group included meaningful and gratifying parenting and successful testing of whether adoption might be a natural next step after foster parenting. The primary challenges included insensitive, inappropriate, and difficult social workers; state or local laws that worked against successful foster parenting by LGB adults; failure to recognize parents' partners; and lack of support by the system to acknowledge the important role of LGB parents. Numerous recommendations are identified for improving how LGB foster parents are supported within child welfare systems including foster parent and social worker training in LGB issues.

Every year, a very large number of children enter the foster care system in the United States. On September 30, 2003, 523,000 youth were in the system. On average, they were 10 years old and stayed 31 months in foster care. Many (46%) were placed with adults who were unrelated to them. A high and disproportionate percentage of them were youth of color: 35% African American and 17% Hispanic. Little change has occurred since 1999 in the numbers, characteristics, or lengths of stay for youth entering care (U.S. Children's Bureau, 2005).

Most youth enter foster care because they experience neglect or abuse from their parents (Child Welfare League of America [CWLA], 2005). Foster care systems often compound earlier traumas by placing youth in more than one foster home over time, thus increasing instability. A recent longitudinal study documented that foster home stability is linked with more positive outcomes after exiting foster care. In contrast, placement disruptions lead to less desirable outcomes. Overall, long-term outcomes for foster youth are discouraging because as adults, they experience higher levels of mental health challenges and post-traumatic stress disorder (Pecora, Williams, Kessler, Downs, O'Brien, Hiripi, & Morello, 2003).

A chronic and critical shortage of foster homes exists (Rhodes, Orme, Cox, & Buehler, 2003). In 2000, only 174,000 licensed kinship and non-relative foster homes were in the United States (CWLA, 2005). This shortage is fueled by the fact that many fami lies discontinue fostering within the first six months and foster parents often are asked to provide homes for more youth than they deem optimal and eventually burn out (Rhodes et al.). The urgent need for safe, quality foster homes is obvious.

Characteristics of adults who are successful foster parents have been documented before. Among these are a deep concern for youth, positive attitudes toward children in need, and good psychological and physical health (Buehler, Cox & Cuddeback, 2003; Tyebjee, 2003). While political, religious, and environmental factors appear unrelated to willingness to provide foster parenting, the sexual orientation of prospective parents may be a factor: Gay and lesbian adults show much higher than average interest and willingness to foster and adopt (Tyebjee).

Logic would suggest that because LGB adults may be more interested in being foster parents, they would be recruited more actively by public agencies eager to provide safe, welcoming homes. Societal resistance to LGB parents, however, is well documented: Homophobia, political reactivity, and social stereotyping abound (Donovan & Wilson, 2005; Ferrero, Freker, & Foster, 2005; James, 1998; McIntyre, 1994).

A growing and substantial body of evidence indicates that LGB adults are equivalent to heterosexual adults in the quality and aptitude of parenting their own and adoptive children, and that their offspring are as personally and socially successful as children of heterosexual parents (Kurdek, 2004; Patterson, 1992, 1996, 2003; Patterson & D'Augelli, 1998; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001). …

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