States, Courts Beginning to Respond to Research on Parenting by Gays and Lesbians, Professors Say

Kerry Abrams

Law School professor Kerry Abrams said some courts are beginning to take into account research that shows no difference in outcomes for children raised by gay or lesbian parents — a shift that could have implications for adoption.

February 7, 2012

State courts and legislatures have been slow to acknowledge a growing body of research suggesting that the sexual orientation of parents does not affect the overall quality of parenting or a child's development, two University of Virginia professors said during a talk Thursday at the Law School, but there are some signs that could be changing.

An estimated 100,000 children in the United States, including more than 1,500 in Virginia alone, are waiting to be adopted — with no apparent shortage of interest from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples, said University of Virginia psychology professor Charlotte Patterson, a leading expert on the psychology of sexual orientation and child development in families involving LGBT parents.

"The larger context in this country is there are lots of kids out there who need adoptive families," Patterson said.

In 2010, Patterson, then-UVA doctoral student Rachel Farr and Stephen Forssell of George Washington University published the results of a national study of 106 adoptive families, 56 of them involving gay or lesbian parents. The same-sex couples lived in areas of the country where their unions are legally recognized, she said.

The results, Patterson said, showed that the parents in all three groups — gay, lesbian and straight — were equally capable in their parenting skills. According to the study, which incorporated data from independent reporters such as school teachers, the children of gay and lesbian parents had "no fewer and no more problems."

But even in the face of such research, LGBT parents face legal challenges. Last week, a Virginia Senate subcommittee rejected a bill that would have banned discrimination in adoption and foster case placement based on a number of categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

Meanwhile, the Senate subcommittee and the House of Delegates have approved legislation that would allow private adoption agencies to deny placements that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs, including factors such as the prospective parents' sexual orientation.

Law School professor Kerry Abrams said a historical preference for households parented by heterosexuals has hurt gays and lesbians — not only in challenges to state adoption laws, but in challenges to same-sex marriage bans and in custody decisions in which a parent is revealed to be homosexual.

With regard to families headed by LGBT parents, even when presented with studies showing equivalence between straight and gay parents, including several conducted by Patterson, many courts have said, "We just don't know enough yet," Abrams said. "We don't know without a doubt that same-sex parents can do as well."

But gays and lesbians have found some recent relief. Abrams cited a 2010 Florida appeals court decision (In re: Matter of Adoption of X.X.G.and N.R.G) that found the state's adoption ban was unconstitutional, in part because of a contradiction: The state allowed a gay parent to have foster-parenting rights, but would not allow the parent to adopt. The court said that violated the Florida constitution's equal protection clause.

Abrams said the case, in which the court's opinion cited research showing no difference in outcomes for children raised in LGBT families, may indicate an increased willingness on the part of courts to take into account the growing body of scientific support for such adoptions.

"I think there was a difference in attitude toward the evidence" when compared with earlier cases, Abrams said. "They start talking about the quality and the breadth of the research."

As Patterson explained, that research contradicts some claims by those who oppose LGBT adoptions. For example, the national study revealed that LGBT parenting did not affect the development of adopted children's gender roles.
The study found some differences in LGBT families, however: They more equally divided child-rearing duties in two-parent households, and they were more likely to adopt children of a different race.

Patterson said she hopes to extend the study over a longer period of time.

With so many children in need of a home, same-sex couples could potentially help solve the problem. "None of us has ever lived in an America like that," she said. "Think of it. Wouldn't that be incredible?"

The discussion was sponsored by the student organizations Lambda Law Alliance, Feminist Legal Forum and Virginia Law Families.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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