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The 'last resort'?: Lesbian and gay experiences of the social work assessment process in fostering and adoption

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This article presents the results of a piece of research which considered the experiences of a number of lesbians and gay men who had been assessed as potential foster o r adoptive carers by social workers. The findings suggest discriminatory
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   PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE This article was downloaded by: [University of Salford]  On: 30 September 2009  Access details: Access Details: [subscription number 731731667]  Publisher Routledge  Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Practice Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t713665951 The 'last resort'?: Lesbian and gay experiences of the social work assessmentprocess in fostering and adoption Stephen HicksOnline Publication Date: 01 April 1996 To cite this Article Hicks, Stephen(1996)'The 'last resort'?: Lesbian and gay experiences of the social work assessment process infostering and adoption',Practice,8:2,15 — 24 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09503159608415357 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09503159608415357 Full terms and conditions of use:http://www.informaworld.com/terms-and-conditions-of-access.pdfThis article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial orsystematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply ordistribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contentswill be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug dosesshould be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directlyor indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.  The ‘Last Resort’? : esbian and gay experiences of the socialwork assessment process in fostering and adoption Stephen Hicks This article presents the results of a piece of research which considered the experiences of anumber of lesbians and gay men who had been assessed as potential foster or adoptive carersby social workers. The findings suggest discriminatory responses in relation to lesbian and gayapplicants which, it is argued, disadvantage their chances of being approved and having childrenplaced within their care. The article attempts to locate such responses, and to suggest ways inwhich a more anti-discriminatory assessment practice can be developed. Introduction: “.,.Afrer 13 years of trying to adopt as a gay couple we wereturned down again. People say that we would make goodparents but we are not given the chance to tq. How come? .. ’’ (Smart, 199 1 : 17).Should lesbians and gay men be considered the suitable carersof children in fostering and adoption, and if so, why should thisbe only at a point of ‘last resort’? These are the questions whichare to be addressed in this article, which presents the findings ofmy research interviews (Hicks, 1993) withanumberoflesbiansand gay men, all of whom have been through the process ofsocial work assessment to be considered as potential foster oradoptive carers. The research focuses in particular on howlesbians and gay men experience such assessments, and all ofthose interviewed provided me with detailed critical accounts of this process. Current public, political and also social workwisdom continues to suggest that lesbian and gay carers, ifthey are to be considered at all, should be used only as a ‘last resort’(Community Care, 1993), but this seems to me to be both a dishonest approach, and one which denies children’s, lesbians’and gay men’s rights. Practice Volume 8 Number 2 15  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  S alf o rd]  A t : 14 :48 30  S e p t e mb e r 2009  The last resort - esbian and gay fostering The issue of the fostering and adoption of children by lesbiansand gay men has received increasing attention of late. There hasrecently been an important review of adoption law, culminatingin the publication of the White Paper ‘Adoption: The Future’(DOH et al., 1993). Alongside such policy developments, thedecisions by certain local authorities to approve gay or lesbianapplicants (for example, in Birmingham, Hampshire or Manchester) have also received press and media scrutiny. For these reasons, I became very interested in how lesbians and gaymen experience the process of social work assessment. Where asocial work agency has a positive public policy regarding appli-cations by lesbians and gay men, then one might expect that theywould be treated fairly, but I have found this to be untrue (Hicks,1993). Even in the most forward thinking of local authorities,discriminatory practice in relation to lesbians and gay men isalive and well, and this research attempts to grapple with howsuch discrimination manifests itself.My suggestion is that social work maintains both institutionalheterosexism and heterosexist practice (Logan & Kershaw,1994), which, in relation to the needs of children and youngpeople in particular, revolves around a number of ‘lay beliefs’about the unsuitability of lesbians and gay men to care for them.Discussion of such beliefs can be found elsewhere (Hicks, 1903;Ricketts, 1991; Skeates and Jabri, 1988), but to summarize, theyinclude notions that children living with gay men or lesbianswill automatically become gay themselves, that lesbians and gaymen, in particular, represent a sexual threat to children, that suchchildren will grow up with distorted role models and concepts ofwhat is a ‘man’ and what is a ‘woman’, and that they will sufferundue stigma amongst their peers because they have lesbian or gay parents.None of these beliefs is supported by studies of children livingwith lesbians or gay men, a summary of which is provided in Green & Bozett (1991), and yet such research is frequentlyignored,orits existence denied. This is part of the heterosexistpractice of social work, which frequently uses such discrimina-tory beliefs in assessment processes (Hicks, 1993). As thisarticle will demonstrate, this works to disadvantage the potentialapproval of lesbian and gay carers, and also the placement ofchildren in their care. For this research, I considered the situations of eleven people;six lesbians and five gay men. I was interested to interview thosewho had both been through the social work assessment processand had been approved. I also wanted to speak with lesbians andgay men who came out during the assessment process. For these 16 Practice Volume 8 Number 2  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  S alf o rd]  A t : 14 :48 30  S e p t e mb e r 2009  Stephen Hicks reasons, I made my contacts largely through friends, my ownposition within the lesbian and gay community, and throughorganizations such as the Lesbian and Gay Foster and AdoptiveParents Network. ‘They treated us as second-class citizens’:sexuality in assessment Social work decisions, made at all points of the fostering andadoption process from initial contact through to the placementof a child, can be seen to be part of the overall ‘assessment’.Nevertheless, there does exist a discrete piece of work, usuallyreferred to as ‘the assessment’ proper, consisting of visits madeto the applicant(s) by a social worker to consider their suitabilityto be a foster or adoptive carer. For applicants who had already come out as lesbian or gay tosocial work agencies, however, assessment decisions about theirsuitability, based solely on the fact that their sexuality wasknown, had often already been made before the home visits(Hicks, 1993). The lesbians and gay men that I spoke withreported comments from social workers that, for example, gaymen were not strong enough to cope with the demands of ‘difficult’ foster children, or that the local authority did not wantthe ‘fuss’ that having a lesbian foster carer would cause.As I have noted, all of those lesbians and gay men with whom I spoke had been formally assessed, however, and were able togive me critical accounts of their experiences. Assessment visitsuse a ‘standard’ structure provided by ‘Form F’ (BAAF, 1991),revised following the implementation of the Children Act 1989,which details the areas that should be covered by the socialworker with prospective carers. Form F does actually discusslesbian and gay foster and adoptive carers, and has the followingsuggestion to make : “...Agencies should be open in their approach to potentialapplicants, to reflect the wide variety of children needingfamilies. Applicants come in many guises: single people,married or unmarried couples, people with disabilities,lesbian and gay people. Stereotyped notions of the idealfamily should be examined critically ... ” (BAAF, 1991 ; p. 2). Nevertheless, the form itself does include several areas in whichdiscrimination against lesbian and gay applicants is possible,examples being sections on ‘marital status’ or family networks.It is also my belief that many heterosexual social workers, farfrom critically examining their attitudes towards stereotyped Practice Volume 8 Number 2 17  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  S alf o rd]  A t : 14 :48 30  S e p t e mb e r 2009  The last resort - esbian and gay fostering notions of the ideal family, instead actively work within practiceparameters which promote heterosexuality as an a priori qualityfor a ‘natural’ and ‘loving’ home. This attitude has been writteninto policy recently, with the Adoption White Paper’s emphasisupon married couples as the best of ‘family structures’ (DOH etal., 1993).Examples of ways in which Form F may discriminate againstlesbian and gay applicants includes the section on individualprofiles, which places more importance upon kin relationships,rather than the wider social networks often adopted by lesbiansand gay men. The questions regarding gender roles suggest thata rigid “stress on femininity for girls/ toughness for boys”(BAAF, 1991;~. 1) should be checked out, but I found thatlesbians and gay men are frequently asked to prove the oppositehere; that is, that they will be able to provide ‘traditional’male/female role modelling for children. Evidence of this is also to be found in Golombok et al. (1983), Ricketts (1991), andSkeates & Jabri (1988). This is another example of thepromotion of heterosexuality and its active ‘construction’ bysocial work assessments. Attitudes of Social Workers: All of the people interviewed felt that they had been in theposition of having to ‘educate’ their social worker about lesbianand gay issues, and lesbian and gay lives. This in itself is dis-criminatory, since social workers who know little about gay menand lesbians may express such ignorance in their assessmentconclusions. An example of this was reported to me by Peter, asingle gay man assessed for adoptive care by a social workerfrom an inner London authority with explicitly anti-discrimina-tory policies. He told me that he thought that his social workerviewed all gay men as “Oscar Wilde types”, just one of any number of stereotypical ideas about gay men, and that suchideas were expressed in the final assessment report, which stated: “...Peter admitted to me that he was a homosexual ... Despitebeing homosexual, Peter does not wear theatricalclothes.. His flat and way of life is perfectly normal.. . ” Some of those interviewed told me that their social worker hadignored or avoided the issue of their sexuality, even where thiswas already known to the local authority, in order to ‘protect’the placement. Michael, a single gay man, was known to be gay,but the assessing social worker avoided any mention of this.Often this is because the local authority have specific, often‘difficultlhard to place’, children in mind for these potentialcarers, and want to use this particular placement. Nevertheless, 18 Practice Volume 8 Number 2  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  S alf o rd]  A t : 14 :48 30  S e p t e mb e r 2009
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