In November of 2004, Matthew Ramsey and his boyfriend were devastated. The state where they lived at the time, Ohio, had just voted to amend the state constitution to bar same-sex marriage.
“As gay men, it felt like, ‘we’re not accepted. We’re never going to be able to get married and have kids here,’” says Ramsey.
That’s why Ramsey and his now-husband, now based in the Seattle suburbs, put their life on hold for years.
“We knew Seattle would just be simpler for us, with fewer hurdles, being a gay couple and trying to foster and then adopt. We specifically waited until we were in a part of the country where we thought it’d be more feasible.”
Although Washington had a same-sex marriage ban on the books until early 2012, the state significantly expanded the rights of domestic partners in the late 2000s, including the legal right to parenthood of adoptive children for both partners. After moving in 2011, the couple immediately started the process to get licensed as foster parents. Ramsey and his husband are now the proud adoptive parents of two boys, biological brothers aged 7 and 8, who first came to them as foster children.
“Not only has this process been wonderful and emotional, challenging and rewarding, it’s been an opportunity to overcome discrimination, bigotry and homophobia,” said Ramsey. “It’s been an opportunity to fully realize my goals and dreams. And it’s been an opportunity to form a family with two beautiful, spectacular children who needed a forever home.”
Across the country, the number of children in foster care has been increasing the last couple of years, according to federal data. And as the opioid crisis wreaks havoc on families, at least half the states either lost foster home capacity between 2012 and 2017, or gained beds below the pace of increases in foster youths, according to a survey conducted by The Imprint.
Advocates say a crucial untapped foster parent demographic is getting overlooked, despite this shortage: LGBTQ individuals and couples, like Ramsey and his husband.
“The sheer numbers waiting to form families is substantial and significant, and that’s a number that will be growing,” says Rev. Stan Sloan, CEO of the national nonprofit where Ramsey works, the Family Equality Council.
According to a recent study by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, there are an estimated two million LGBTQ parents ready and willing, which could make a major dent in the foster parent shortfall in many states. But same-sex couples are currently raising only an estimated 3 percent of foster children in the United States, and 4 percent of all adopted children, according to the Family Equality Council.
The problem, say Sloan and other advocates, are the challenges LGBTQ parents face seeking to foster or adopt.
Seven states have passed laws that allow foster care and adoption agencies to deny LGBTQ parents foster care licenses or to adopt, and two more states (Oklahoma and Kansas) may soon follow. The laws are part of a growing trend of so-called religious exemption laws, which allow government-funded organizations to refuse to work with otherwise qualified families if working with those parents violates their religious beliefs. If they believe marriage should be between one man and one woman, for example, and want to be free to turn away an LGBTQ family interested in taking in a foster child without fear of reprisal.
Family Equality Council has launched the Every Child Deserves a Family campaign partly as a response to the rapidly growing number of states passing such laws. They are currently working to get the Every Child Deserves a Family Act through Congress, and are working on attracting more Republican co-sponsors.
The act would prohibit child welfare agencies that receive federal funds from discriminating against potential foster or adoptive families due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.
Sloan said the council doesn’t “anticipate that it’s going to move anywhere in this current congressional configuration.” The campaign is meant to raise awareness in preparation for a “more favorable Congress.”
On the other hand, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.) have introduced bills that would do the opposite: Restrict federal funding for states that barred faith-based providers from discriminating because of religious beliefs. The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017 would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to cut 15 percent of Title IV-B or IV-E funding to any state that takes an “adverse action” against child welfare service providers that decline to serve anyone — gay couples, for example — on the grounds that doing so would violate “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Below the federal level, there are a host of other obstacles that these millions of potential foster parents face: State adoption laws are inconsistent for couples that aren’t legally partnered; some private, denominational foster care agencies are reluctant to work with same-sex couples; some agencies also reserve “hard to place” children for same-sex families they feel will take any child they can get.
Some jurisdictions have set up special efforts to help same-sex couples overcome these barriers and actually encourages recruitment. New York’s Administration for Children’s Services created the LGBT Foster Care Project to help recruit and train same-sex foster parents. The project hosts existing same-sex parents at monthly support groups.
Since the mid-2000s, a growing body of rigorous, peer-reviewed research has confirmed that same-sex couples produce outcomes for children at least as good as opposite-sex couples. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2013 stating, “scientific evidence affirms that children have similar developmental and emotional needs and receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders.”
A 2014 study found that adults raised by same-sex parents are more tolerant toward all types of human diversity. And there is no evidence that children raised by same-sex or transgender parents are more likely to identify as LGBTQ.
Same sex couples, or couples with one or more transgender partners, also face their own mental barriers.
“I’m transgender and my partner was a 24-year-old gay man, when we were thrust into parenthood and that was one of our own internal barriers,” says Trystan Reese, director of family formation at the Family Equality Council. “Are we going in front of a judge and are they going to see us as a family, even though we don’t look like ‘one mom, one dad?’ It even cut against our own idea about what a family could or should look like and whether or not we fit that mold.”
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to LGBTQ couples is legal, with parenting laws that predate the gay rights movement and didn’t contemplate LGBTQ families.
CORRECTION: May 7, 2018. A previous version of this article included a photo with a caption identifying the wrong family. The family’s names have been removed.