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Supporting LGBTQIA+ adoptive parents along the “rocky road” of adoption

22 June 2021

We are all exposed to a range of messages and beliefs about adoption, diversity, equality, homophobia and racism throughout our lives. Adoptive parents are tasked with helping their children manage how they absorb these messages while also helping them regulate their emotions, grow their sense of self and develop a sense of safety and belonging. Here Sue Dromey, Practice Manager and Integrative Child Psychotherapist with our adoption support service, PAC-UK discusses the history of LGBTQIA+ adoption as well as some of the unique challenges LGBTQIA+ adoptive parents face.

Same sex male couple sitting on the floor of their front room with their children, helping them do their homework

In my 20 years of working with PAC-UK I have had the honour to work with many LGBTQIA+ parents and families. I have seen them fight and advocate for their children while pushing to get much-needed services, and I wonder if people are sometimes able to draw strength from their own journeys, which have often included a need to establish who they are in the face of adversity.

My first experience of exploring the issues arising for LGBTQIA+ adoptive parents and their children was in the early 90s when I met a couple during a seminar I had arranged.
They had raised their children together but legally only one of them was the official adoptive parent.

Their assessment would have taken place in the late 1970s and it seemed that there had been no question of them being considered as a couple – they were deemed to be ‘friends’ as, if a couple was not married, only one could adopt.

The possibility of being in a lesbian relationship was not explored and perhaps not even imagined by the assessing social workers. The couple themselves had not challenged this assessment as they simply wanted to be parents.

We are a long way from those days. In 2002 same-sex couples were granted the right to adopt in England and Wales, and the number of LGBTQIA+ adoptive parents has increased over time. Government statistics show that one in six adoptions in England were by same-sex couples in the year 2020.

All families using our Child and Family Therapeutic Service, have something in common: they struggle with the impact of complex trauma on their children. This can result in emotional and sensory problems, challenging behaviours, hyper-vigilance and relationship issues with parents and peers. There is also shame – the shame of being neglected, of being abused, of being abandoned; the children we work with are often quickly triggered into shame and the behaviours that follow.

Parents may also find the experience triggers early trauma in their own histories and this can be both a strength and vulnerability for LGBTQIA+ parents who may have had to build resilience in the face of adversity as they may share some of the challenges of their adopted children, as well as an understanding of how to manage them. It is crucial to address these issues in the therapeutic work we do, and PAC-UK always allows some time to work with the parents first, before the child joins the family sessions.

It is not the sexual orientation of the parent that is the key to family survival but the quality of parenting. Our work helps the child believe and feel that, despite all that has gone before, they have strong parents who can keep them safe. In exploring all the very good reasons an adopted child might not dare to trust, we help the child to notice the times where they can experience a ‘safe mummy and safe mum’, or a safe “daddy and a safe papa.’ Our work with parents, be that in therapeutic family work or ‘non-violent resistance’ parent groups, is to empower them, to build their parental presence and their relationship with their child along the rocky road of adoption.

All adoptive families have to embrace and celebrate diversity and difference, but for LGBTQIA+ families this can be more public. Each family approaches this in their own way, and sometimes they need support. We are honoured to do so, work with the diverse range of families who come to us and join with them in their struggle to become stronger, happier families.

PAC-UK received the Level 1 eQuality Award at the House of Commons on 25 April 2013 and have continued to build on this since then. The eQuality Project, set up in 2012 and run by Pace Health – an LGBT Mental Health & Well-being Organisation – is part of the Department for Education Improving Outcomes for Children, Young People and Families Fund.

Find out more about our adoption support service, PAC-UK.

Young family watching television at home