Good Enough to Parent but Not to Marry

Self-identified lesbians and gay men are currently caring for over 14,000 foster children and have adopted at least 65,000 children from foster care. Over half of lesbians and gay men who adopt do so from the foster care system. These parents are far more willing to adopt children with special needs, older children or other "hard-to-place" children.

As we wait impatiently for the Supreme Court to decide the same-sex marriage cases, we're paying little attention to the placement of children with gay and lesbian parents. Many states that prohibit same-sex marriage allow gay men and lesbians to foster and adopt children. This practice has been in place for decades. Foster parenting and adoption are the most highly scrutinized family structures we have, with prospective parents subject to home visits and mandatory training. Why do American politicians care more about regulating an intimate adult relationship like marriage than the parenthood of children already traumatized by abuse or neglect?

In part, the answer comes down to money. More than 400,000 children are in foster care nationwide, over a quarter of them awaiting adoption. Foster care is expensive, and states receive federal funds to place children in adoptive homes. There are chronic shortages of qualified foster and adoptive parents. Not surprisingly, then, public adoption agencies dealing with children from foster care are significantly more willing and likely to place children with lesbian and gay parents than are private ones -- 90 percent versus under 60 percent, per a recent study.

Adoption is different from fostering, though. It's permanent and creates a real parent in the eyes of the law. The fact that several states allow single lesbians and gay men to adopt but deny them marriage, despite the data showing that two-parent households fare better than single parent households, shows there is something else going on. Sex, maybe. For people who do not like to think about gay men and lesbians having sex, a sole (i.e., neutered) parent is better than a couple whose intimate relationship is immediately visible. This focus on adult sexual relationships rather than parenting capabilities is reflected in the reasons that some adoption workers have rejected gay and lesbian parents. One study found that 0.3 percent cited the prospective parent's "lifestyle" and 14.5 percent his or her "sexual orientation" as "incompatible" with adoption.

Perhaps it is out of concern for children. Even opponents of same-sex marriage do not want children to languish in foster care. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who opposes expanding marriage to gay couples but recently reversed his view on adoption by them, suggested that, for "orphans," this kind of family is better than no family at all. Yet this explanation is also inconsistent. Many opponents of same-sex marriage argue that children are harmed by being raised by lesbians or gay men. Not only do the data clearly refute this claim, but if those making the argument genuinely believed it, why would they endorse adoption by these parents they consider harmful? Perhaps they see foster children as throwaway or unworthy of the same protection as other American children. If legislators like Paul Ryan truly want to ensure loving and stable homes for all children, they should fully support all adoptive families. This includes both financial and legal support, such as allowing gay men and lesbians to marry and reap for their families all the financial, social and other benefits of marriage.

In any event, it is too late to thwart these prospective parents now. In recent years, budget analyses have torpedoed efforts in a few states to ban lesbians and gay men from foster or adoptive parent roles. For instance, a proposed 2008 ban in Tennessee would have cost the state at least $5.5 million. The Urban Institute estimates that a national ban on gay and lesbian fostering would cost $87 million to $130 million.

The number of existing families headed by lesbians and gay men has great salience for debates over same-sex marriage. (Recall Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's query as to the desire of the 40,000 children being raised by lesbians and gay men in California for "their parents to have full recognition.") The Supreme Court is probably not ready to find a sweeping constitutional right to gay marriage. But the longstanding practice of gay men and lesbians fostering and adopting our neediest children has and will continue to contribute to the gradual spread of marriage equality state by state.