Same-Sex Couples and Social Work Bias in Adoption

Same-Sex Couples and Social Work Bias in Adoption

Race, Legality, Gender Bias, Personal Perceptions

Gay and lesbian couples continue to adopt children but their efforts to become parents are often hampered by longstanding prejudices and biases that persist in the adoption institutions in the US. The adoption approval process by social workers is often stymied by an array of prejudices and biases that take many different forms. Despite the changes in legislation and policy structures that are more open to gay adoption, social services are still inhibited by a vast array of barriers and biases that cross many different factors including the legality, race, gender bias, and personal perceptions of parenthood. 


Perhaps the most obvious barrier to gay adoption is the fact that the legal system. In the US, gay and lesbian adoption is governed by state laws and the legality of gay adoption varies from state to state. The laws are also confusing because they are written in a way that allows for couples to adopt children in the context of one parent or single parent adoption. For example, Mississippi allows a single person to adopt a child whether gay or straight but in Utah, unmarried persons are not allowed to adopt whether gay or straight. The most progressive states, “California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. allow adoption by openly gay and lesbian couples” (LAMBDA, 2016). The least progressive state is Florida which openly bans gay adoption in any form (LAMBDA, 2016).

The legality of gay and lesbian adoption directly impacts the ability of these individuals to adopt and raise families. Ultimately, the legal system can provide reinforcement of biases and stereotypes which bar gay and lesbian couples from adopting. This impacts social work in two negative ways. First, social workers are part of a system of codified prejudice and bias that reinforces prejudice in an institutional manner. Whether social workers agree with the legal system or not they are part of a system that lacks equity and promotes inequality for individuals (Goldberg, 2010).

The second negative impact of legal barriers is the fact that children are barred from potential families that want and care for them and may instead continue to exist in the foster care system or in families that are unable to care for them properly. Legal barriers to adoption increase the potential for negative outcomes for children who need homes. Even in heterosexual adoption proceedings 27% of individuals who begin the adoption process discontinue the process after one year due to the challenges of finances and social issues attached to the process. The problem escalates in same sex couples to 44% (McRoy, 2007). The success rate of adoptions for same- sex couples is often as low as 7% (McRoy, 2007).


Social workers are often challenged by their own concepts and prejudices concerning race and adoption when faced with situations where gay couples are involved. For example, gay fathers are more likely to adopt transracially (Farr & Patterson, 2009). This trend is believed to be caused by the fact that social workers, families, and adoption agencies are less likely to approve the adoption of gay fathers over straight couples and lesbians. The two leading factors in this trend include:

Adoption agencies may refuse to work with gay men or pressure them to hide their sexual orientation (Goldberg, 2010).

Families of origin may resist gay men’s parenthood aspirations and threaten abandonment (Goldberg, 2010).

Race is a huge factor in adoption for all couples as families of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are less likely to approve of a different race adopting the child. This is complicated more by biases in social workers who may find fault in the adoption due to prejudices. This problematic for gay and lesbian parents as they must often go outside the US to adopt to overcome racial and ethnic issues. Ultimately, this problem in the social work and adoption system creates a situation where some children in the US are less likely to be adopted due to prejudice.

Gender Bias

Equal in severity to race, gender bias is a broad-based issue impacting all areas of adoption. For example, families providing children or caretakers are less likely to approve same sex couples but this disapproval increases with gender differences. Gay fathers are less likely to be able to adopt male children and lesbians are less likely to be able to adopt female children. Gender bias is a serious problem because even in heterosexual couples, there is a bias when adopting female vs male children. Girls are 3–6% more likely to be adopted than males and these number increase dramatically when homosexual partners are considered:

The existing literature on parents’ preferences for the gender of their biological children has invariably identified a preference for boys. This is believed to be the case both within the U.S. and abroad (e.g., as manifested in the case of the missing women in China). However, our results on gender preferences constitute a reversal of this evidence in the adoption environment. One possible explanation is that PAPs fear dysfunctional social behavior in adopted children and perceive girls as “less risky” than boys in that respect (Baccara, Felli, Collard-Wexler, & Yariv, 2015).

This gender bias is pervasive throughout the adoption process and social workers are equally prone to this thinking. This bias is so strong that it is considered one of the primary drivers for international adoption for gay men as they are far less likely to be able to obtain legal adoption in the US. Gay men are 33% more likely to seek transnational adoption over domestic adoption due to the biases of gender.

Personal Perceptions

There are many personal perceptions of parenthood which continue to place barriers on the adoption process. One of the major issues for gay and lesbian couples is the fact that they face resistance from social workers and adoption agencies due to preconceived notions of parenthood. The concept of the nuclear family and the need for both father and mother to be present in the home in order to properly parent persists in being a major issue. This factor increases the possibility of gay couples being passed over for hetero couples who have fewer resources and means to provide for children. Statistically, this occurs in an estimated 32% of cases (Baccara, Felli, Collard-Wexler, & Yariv, 2015). This problem is not entirely an issue with social worker bias as adoption and origin families are also highly likely to approve of heterosexual couples due to the belief that children need a traditional family role to be nurtured properly. This problem continues to limit children to be adopted in to families that would provide equal if not better resources for the child.


Lesbian and gay parents have been compared in numerous studies only to find that parenting is equal if not in many cases more effective by homosexual couples. The scientific literature provides that:

However, there is substantial evidence that underscores the merits of and successes found in LGBT parenting. After reviewing the scientific literature, three major professional associations — The American Psychological Association ([APA], 2010), Australian Psychological Society ([APS], Short, Riggs, Perlesz, Brown, & Kane, 2007), and Canadian Psychological Association ([CPA], 2006) — came to the conclusion that the well-being of children with same-gender parents does not vary from that of children with heterosexual parents (Montero, 2014).

In a literature review 100 empirical studies concerning the outcomes of children adopted by gay couples, it was found that there was no difference between these children and those adopted by heterosexual couples (Montero, 2014). Despite these facts, social work continues to place barriers in front of same sex adoption. Much of these barriers are produced by individual social workers who maintain personal prejudices and biases towards gay couples and adoption. In studies of social workers who worked directly with gay couples, it was found that the social worker’s attitudes towards homosexuality were directly correlated with the rates of adoption approval (Montero, 2014). Ultimately, this means that social workers are a defining factor in homosexual adoption approval and their attitudes and understanding impacts the outcomes of children needing adoption.

The largest issue impacting gay and lesbian couples is the law. The law is conflicting and poorly setup with regards to the rights of adoptive parents. The creates massive issues for social workers because there are so many different laws. To first understand this problem, one must understand that the Supreme Court has already unanimously decided in favor of gay adoption rights by reversing an Alabama Court Ruling denying parental rights to lesbian adoptive parents involved in a separation.

The two women in the case were together for 16 years, and they had three children conceived by assisted reproductive technology — an older daughter, now 13, and boy and girl twins, now 11. The actual names of the parents have not been revealed. They are identified in court documents by the initials V.L. and E.L. (Totenberg, 2016).

This reversal is supposed to set the standard for gay adoption but instead, it has been met with resistance. State laws are contradictory to the established rights of the parent under the SCOTUS decision. States continue to make laws that either forbids gay adoption or place strong restrictions on it. Most notably Florida, has the strongest anti-gay legislation pertaining to adoption which outright bans any form of adoption involving gay persons (LAMBDA, 2016). These laws make the job of social workers difficult and breeds prejudicial thinking within the adoption institutions.

It is most likely that the rights of gay couples to adopt are being impeded old prejudices that are present throughout the US human services institutions. It has not been that long since the change in laws in many states and attitudes are slower to change than the laws. There are many prejudices that have endured since prior to the 1970s which classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. The real people who suffer in this issue are the children who could have homes but instead are forced to remain in the foster care system due to the prejudices that exist.


Baccara, M., Felli, L., Collard-Wexler, A., & Yariv, L. (2015). Initially, many gay men view coming out as synonymous with relinquishing their dreams of fatherhood (Berkowitz & Marsiglio, 2007; Goldberg, Downing, & Moyer, 2012). NYU, Sociology. NYU.

Farr, R. H., & Patterson, C. J. (2009). Transracial adoption by lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents: Who completes transracial adoptions and with what results? Adoption Quarterlyy, 12, 187–204.

Goldberg, A. G. (2010). Gay dads: Transitions to adoptive fatherhood. New York, NY: University Press.

LAMBDA. (2016). In Your State. Retrieved from LAMBDA:

McRoy, R. G. (2007). Barriers & success factors in adoptions from foster care: perspectives of families and staff. Adopt US Kids. AdoptUSKids.

Montero, D. (2014). Attitudes Toward Same-Gender Adoption and Parenting: An Analysis of Surveys from 16 Countries. Advances in Social Work, 15(2), 444–459.

Totenberg, N. (2016, March 7). Same-Sex Adoption Upheld By U.S. Supreme Court. (NPR, Producer) Retrieved from

Photo by BETZY AROSEMENA on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Thu, Jan 28, 2021. Same-Sex Couples and Social Work Bias in Adoption Retrieved from

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