Children adopted by same sex couples – a review of the evidence

What is this?

This page contains a developing summary of the evidence for the outcomes of children adopted by same sex couples. I am still working on a companion piece on the broader issue of children raised by same-sex couples.  I will take each of the recent published papers, and briefly summarize it, and then review it. This will feed into a blog post on the topic. For each paper I will give a reference, so that the interested reader can follow up on the materials reviewed. If you are aware of any recent papers that I ought to cover, please let me know – by email to or by phone on 086 606 9713.

There is one good, and quite indispensable, review. It is a book, by Abbie Goldberg – ‘Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children: Research on the Family Life Cycle. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2010’. In it she summarizes the entire literature, up to about 2008. Amazon will sell you a copy at this link for only £ST 48.95. No legitimate open access version is available. If you are seriously interested in this topic, you will need a copy.

Goldberg has also published a more recent review – Goldberg AE, Gartrell NK. LGB-parent families: the current state of the research and directions for the future. Adv Child Dev Behav. 2014;46:57–88, parts of which are accessible here. The most accessible of the recent reviews is a report for the Williams Institute at UCLA, Goldberg A, Gartrell NK, Gates G. Research Report on LGB-Parent Families, which can be found here.


For a variety of reason, the specific issue of adoption has occupied a major role in the debate in Ireland. For this reason, I have sought to identify a number of recent papers on adoption. The studies fall into a number of groups.

US First child adoption study

This is a series of papers on a set of couples adopting a first child from Abbie Goldberg, JuliAnna Smith and colleagues. These studies recruited a group of parents adopting their first child through adoption agencies across the US. To be included in the study, couples had to be adopting their first child and both partners had to be first-time parents. Adoption agencies in the United States were asked to provide study information to clients who had not yet adopted. Census data were used to identify states with a high percentage of same-sex couples, and effort was made to contact agencies in those states. More than 30 agencies provided information to clients, often in the form of a brochure that invited them to participate in a study of the transition to adoptive parenthood. Clients contacted the researcher for details. Both heterosexual and same-sex couples were targeted through agencies to facilitate similarity on geographical location and income. Because all same-sex couples may not be “out” to their adoption agencies, parents were also recruited through gay and lesbian organizations.

Couples were interviewed on two occasions, just after completion of their assessment of suitability for adoption (the home study), and three to four months after the placement. They were asked to complete questionnaires after each of the interviews, and again 12 months after the placement. A very reasonable looking set of instruments were used to explore the various research questions over time. The methods used for data analysis were appropriate. The number of parents taking part varies slightly between the papers. This is, at least partly, because couples had to start a placement before the second and third interviews could be done, and this took varying amounts of time.

1) Goldberg AE, Smith JZ. Perceived Parenting Skill Across the Transition to Adoptive Parenthood Among Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Couples. J Fam Psychol. 2009 Dec;23(6):861–70.

In this paper 47 lesbian, 31 gay, and 56 heterosexual couples took part, for a total of 134 couples. The parents were asked about their perception of their skill as parents, and how this had changed over time.

On average, all new parents perceived themselves as becoming more skilled, although gay men increased the most and lesbians the least. Participants who were male, reported fewer depressive symptoms, expected to do more child care,and reported higher job autonomy viewed themselves as more skilled pre-adoption.

With regard to change, parents who reported more relational conflict, and parents who expected to do more childcare, experienced lesser increases in perceived skill. These findings suggest that regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and route to parenthood, new parents experience similar, positive changes in perceived skill, thereby broadening our understanding of parenting skill in diverse groups. The findings also highlight the importance of examining how gender, sexual orientation, and the family context may shape perceived skill across the transition to parenthood.

2) Goldberg AE, Smith JZ, Kashy DA. Preadoptive factors predicting lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples’ relationship quality across the transition to adoptive parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. 2010 Jun;24(3):221–32.

In this paper 44 lesbian, 30 gay, and 51 heterosexual couples took part, for a total of 125 couples. The study examined a range of pre-adoptive factors as predictors of relationship quality (love, ambivalence, and conflict) among these couples across the 1st year of adoptive parenthood.

As you might expect all new parents experienced declines in their relationship quality across the 1st year of parenthood regardless of sexual orientation, with women experiencing steeper declines in love. Results in the literature for birth parents are very similar.

Parents who, pre-adoption, reported higher levels of depression, greater use of avoidant coping, lower levels of relationship maintenance behaviours, and less satisfaction with their adoption agencies, reported lower relationship quality at the time of the adoption. The effect of avoidant coping on relationship quality varied by gender. Parents who, pre-adoption, reported higher levels of depression, greater use of confrontative coping, and higher levels of relationship maintenance behaviours, reported greater declines in relationship quality. An interesting finding was that the groups showing the greatest rise in ambivalence after the adoption were lesbian women, and heterosexual men.  Overall, there were few substantial differences between the three groups of couples.

3) Goldberg AE, Smith JZ. Predictors of psychological adjustment in early placed adopted children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents. J Fam Psychol. 2013 Jun;27(3):431–42.

This study looks at outcomes in the adopted children. A total of 120 couples took part, 40 female same-sex, 35 male same-sex, and 45 different-sex couples. All of the children in this study were placed in their adoptive homes under the age of 18 months.

Aspects of children’s preadoptive and postadoptive contexts (measured at 3 months post-placement) were studied in relation to children’s externalizing and internalizing symptoms (measured at 2 years post-placement; mean age 2.33 years).

Key results were that lack of parental preparation for the adoption, and parental depressive symptoms, were associated with higher parent-reported levels of both externalizing and internalizing symptoms. Additionally, parents’ relationship conflict was associated with higher levels of parent- and partner-reported internalizing symptoms. None of this is very surprising.

However, crucially children’s adjustment outcomes did not differ by family type. This shows the importance of considering the adoptive family context (including parent and couple subsystems) in predicting later adjustment in early placed adopted children, in the whole range of family contexts.

4) Goldberg AE, Smith JZ. Predictors of parenting stress in lesbian, gay, and heterosexual adoptive parents during early parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. 2014 Apr;28(2):125–37.

This study looks at outcomes in the parents. A total of 148 couples (50 lesbian, 40 gay, and 58 heterosexual) who were first-time parents took part in this study. Little work has examined parenting stress in adoptive parents, particularly lesbian and gay adoptive parents. The current longitudinal study examined parent-reported child characteristics (measured post-placement) and parent and family characteristics (measured preplacement) as predictors of post-placement parenting stress and change in parenting stress across three time points during the first 2 years of adoptive parenthood, among 148 couples (50 lesbian, 40 gay, and 58 heterosexual) who were first-time parents. Children in the sample were, on average, 5.61 months (SD 10.26) when placed, and 2.49 years (SD .85) at the 2 year postplacement follow-up.

Findings revealed that parents who had been placed with older children and parents who perceived severe emotional/behavioral problems in their children reported more post-placement stress. In addition, parents who reported fewer depressive symptoms, more love for their partners, and more family and friend support during the pre-placement period had less post-placement stress. Parenting stress decreased for parents who perceived severe emotional/behavioural problems in their children, but it increased somewhat for those who reported developmental problems in their children. Findings highlight vulnerabilities and resources that may shape adoptive parents’ experiences of stress in early parenthood, and have implications for both researchers and professionals who wish to support adoptive family adjustment

The high risk adoption study

Goldberg A, Moyer AM, Kinkler LA, Richardson HB. “When You’re Sitting on the Fence, Hope’s the Hardest Part”: Challenges and Experiences of Heterosexual and Same-Sex Couples Adopting Through the Child Welfare System. Adopt Q. 2012;15(4):288–315.

This is a study of parents, fostering children, with a view to adopting them, through US Child Welfare Systems. 84 people took part, from 42 couples, (17 lesbian, 13 gay, 12 heterosexual), who were interviewed 3–4 months after they were placed with a child whom they intended to adopt. This was a qualitative study.

It is well known that the challenge of fostering a child, with a view to adoption, is considerably greater than that of the more common adoptions. Again, there were few differences between the three sets of couples. All identified issues with the legal system, with social services, and with the child’s relationship with their birth family. For the same-sex couple and added stress was the variable legal recognition for them both as adoptive parents. In some US states only one member of a same-sex couple can legally adopt a child. A second stress was anxiety about the views of the birth parents about a placement with a same-sex couple. Neither of these was raised as an issue by the heterosexual couples.

The Los Angeles study

There are two reports from a study of children adopted by 82 families in Los Angeles (60 heterosexual, 15 gay, and 7 lesbian) all  self-identified on a demographic questionnaire) who took part in the UCLA TIES for Adoption service. This is an add-on service to routine pre-adoption support for people adopting high risk children. Parents were recruited between 1996 and 2001.

Lavner JA, Waterman J, Peplau LA. Can gay and lesbian parents promote healthy development in high-risk children adopted from foster care? Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2012 Oct;82(4):465–72.

Adoption is known to promote cognitive and emotional development in children from foster care, but policy debates remain regarding whether children adopted by gay and lesbian parents can achieve these positive outcomes. This study compared the cognitive development and behaviour problems at 2, 12, and 24 months post-placement of 82 high-risk children adopted from foster care in heterosexual and gay or lesbian households. On average, children in both household types showed significant gains in cognitive development and maintained similar levels of behaviour problems over time, despite gay and lesbian parents raising children with higher levels of biological and environmental risks prior to adoptive placement.

Overall this study showed that high-risk children had similar patterns of development over time in heterosexual and gay and lesbian adoptive households.

Lavner JA, Waterman J, Peplau LA. Parent adjustment over time in gay, lesbian, and heterosexual parent families adopting from foster care. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 2014;84(1):46–53.

This is a second study of the same group of 82 adoptive families and children in Los Angeles, this time focusing on the experience of the parents. The researchers examined parents’ adoption satisfaction, depressive symptoms, parenting stress, and social support at 2 months, 12 months, and 24 months post-placement. They compared mean levels at each time point and patterns of change over time among heterosexual and gay and lesbian adoptive parents.

Overall very few differences were found between heterosexual and gay or lesbian parents at any of the assessments or in their patterns of change overtime. On average, parents in both household types reported significant increases in adoption satisfaction and maintained low, nonclinical levels of depressive symptoms and parenting stress over time. Across all family types, greater parenting stress was associated with more depressive symptoms and lower adoption satisfaction. Results indicated many similarities between gay or lesbian and heterosexual adoptive parents, and highlight a need for services to support adoptive parents throughout the transition to parenthood to promote their well-being.

One comment on “Children adopted by same sex couples – a review of the evidence

  1. Andras Dotsch says:

    None of these studies are representative and/or followed these children until their adulthood. Parenting is not about taking care for a few months/years, these studies only covered that.

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