Finding the ‘invisible’ adopters

18 August 2020

Leanne McIver, Research Associate at CELCIS, takes a closer look at official statistics, how these don’t always provide the full picture, and why that matters

Children and an adult playing with toys on the floor

Pride month 2020 was a bit different from previous years. The restrictions in place in various ways around the world to address the ongoing coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic meant that many of the usual parties, parades, and protests were cancelled, postponed, or moved online. One constant however was the opportunity to reflect on how far the LGBT+ community has come – and importantly, how far there is still to go.

There are so many examples of both of these areas for reflection, and many bloggers, vloggers, and others have done so in various ways in the past month. One that’s of particular interest to me, however, is around adoption.

It’s caught my eye a few times lately, and particularly during LGBT+ Adoption and Fostering Week (in March) that statistics are often used to counter the myth that LGBT+ people can’t adopt, and to show that the number of families doing so is increasing. Promoting these messages is really important for local authorities and adoption agencies, who are trying to encourage more people to consider adopting.

Coincidentally coinciding with Pride month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published data on ‘Vital Events in 2019’. Vital events include things like births, deaths, marriages… and adoptions. I decided to have a look at these, expecting to find out more about LGBT+ adoptions in Scotland; but I got a bit of a surprise.

These ONS figures don’t actually say an awful lot about adoptions. That’s not really the surprise, though, as there are other sources of information like the Scottish Government’s annual social work statistics, and the data reports from Scotland’s Adoption Register, which say much more. The ONS report seems however to be one of very few to tell us something about who the adopters are, as well as about the children. And what it tells us about ‘type of adopter’ includes whether they’re a ‘male and female joint’ couple, ‘one male’, ‘one female’, ‘two males’ or ‘two females’. So in fact, these figures aren’t really telling us much about LGBT+ adoptions; they’re telling us about adoptive same-sex couples.

That’s important to know about, because it’s only in the relatively recent past that LGBT+ people have been legally able to adopt. A lot of the media focus has been on same-sex couples, perhaps because it seems the number of heterosexual couples applying to adopt in the UK has been falling. But if you’re a single LGBT+ adopter, or a ‘male and female’ couple where one or both partners is, for example, bisexual or transgender, you’re included, but invisible, in these stats. There are a whole lot of LGBT+ people in Scotland and the world who aren’t part of a ‘same sex couple’, and there’s a risk that LGBT+ people who don’t see themselves reflected in the news headlines and published statistics still don’t necessarily realise that they can. It may be that agencies and local authorities collect more information internally, but these published ONS statistics don’t show whether progress is being made in recruiting a broad range of LGBT+ adopters.

There has been a lot of progress, legally and socially, in improving the diversity of adopters. But there are still many, many children in need of permanent, stable, loving adoptive families. If statistics are going to play a part in finding those families, there is still more to do.

Read the related Beyond the Headlines briefing: Understanding Data here.

Read the briefing


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