Family values: Same-sex couples and the Catholic adoption agency

With same-sex adoption now a legal right, a Catholic agency’s days are numbered if it refuses to accept gay couples, writes Dani Garavelli

With same-sex adoption now a legal right, a Catholic agency’s days are numbered if it refuses to accept gay couples, writes Dani Garavelli

ANGELA beams with pride when she talks about the way her three adopted children, siblings aged six, four and three, have flourished since she and her civil partner Sophie took them into their home around 15 months ago. “The oldest, he has some learning difficulties, but he’s starting to read and write,” she says. “His sisters are at nursery and doing ­really well. They’ve gained so much self-confidence in the time they’ve been here.”

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Angela and Sophie are amongst the first same-sex couples in Scotland to co-adopt since a change in the law made it possible and they’ve had a positive experience. “We were fortunate to be given a really excellent social worker who understood a gay couple were more than capable of parenting a child,” ­Angela says. “It was a slow process, but there was no discrimination. In fact, because we were willing to take on three, we were seen as a valuable commodity.”

Nor have the pair encountered much hostility from ­other parents, though they feared they might. “We were concerned about how we would be treated, but Sophie, who has given up work, has already made friends at the school gate,” Angela says.

From those who already knew them, the reaction has either been “you must be off your rocker” or “you’re doing a wonderful thing”. But almost everyone has been accepting. “There’s a lot of ­empathy for children in care. People who can think these things through say: ‘Do you know what – you’ve kept these three kids together when they were on the point of being split up.’ ”

Not every same-sex couple who want to adopt or foster has fared as well. ­Until 2009 (2006 in England), gay or lesbian people could only adopt individually, with their partners given no legal parental rights, and they often ­encountered entrenched homophobia.

The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act, which allows same-sex couples to adopt together, made things easier. Those who have been through the system say much still depends on the attitude of the social worker involved, with some still questioning the likely longevity of a gay or lesbian relationship in a way they might not question a heterosexual one. But at least today the rights of same-sex couples to be ­assessed on an equal basis is recognised and enshrined in the Equality Act 2010.

Local authorities are also beginning to recognise same-sex couples as a valuable untapped resource for the thousands of children still in the care system. And a same-sex couple can have something specific to offer. If a child has had a particularly horrific time with a birth mother, for example, there may be advantages to placing him or her with two men, or vice versa. Angela believes same-sex couples also approach adoption from a different perspective. Perhaps because they know from the outset they will be unable to produce a biological child, and haven’t experienced the sense of loss that comes with unsuccessful IVF, they are more likely to take older children, siblings and children with ­special needs.

Yet not all agencies see gay and lesbian adopters as assets. Last week, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) ruled that the St ­Margaret’s Children and Family Care Centre, a Glasgow voluntary adoption agency part-funded by the Catholic Church, was continuing to discriminate against same-sex couples and said it would be stripped of its charitable status unless it changed its ways by 22 April.

The decision has caused a stir, not only in the Catholic community, within which some will no doubt see it is further evidence of undercurrents of anti-Catholic sentiment, but also, unexpectedly, within the Scottish government, with education secretary Mike Russell describing the ruling as “disappointing” and pledging to seek an “urgent solution”.

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St Margaret’s points out it has unrivalled links with the Catholic community (and is therefore in an ideal position to recruit potential adopters) and has accrued decades of expertise. The quality of its aftercare service means its disruption rate (the proportion of adoptions that go wrong) is also lower than that of many other agencies. If it is forced to close, it says, the 20-odd children it successfully places every year may lose out.

On the other hand, gay lobby groups argue: “Why should a state-funded agency be ­allowed to discriminate against a group of ­people who are protected under the law?”

So is St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Centre right that, with 30-odd other adoption agencies in Scotland, it should be allowed to deliver a specialised service to one specific group? Or – since it receives public funding to deliver a public service – should it be forced to comply with the Equality Act? And what about the interests of the country’s cared-for children? Are they better served by allowing a well-respected agency to continue to operate in accordance with its own religious convictions, or by ensuring the ­opportunity to adopt is offered to the greatest and most ­diverse range of ­couples able to offer a ­secure and loving home?

The St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society has its roots in the 1950s when heavily stigmatised unmarried mothers were expected to hand over their newborn babies for adoption. As contraception and abortion became more readily available and the stigma of being an unmarried mother diminished, the nature of adoption changed and the agency transformed into a small, professionalised organisation with a particular ability to find parents for hard-to-place children.

When the Equality Act 2010 came into force, most Catholic adoption agencies north and south of the Border either closed down or severed their links with the Church (often losing the Church’s financial support in the process) and rewrote their constitutions to comply with the law.

St Andrew’s Children’s Society in Edinburgh was one of those which chose to distance itself from the Church, and Cardinal Keith O’Brien agreed to step down as president. Only two, Catholic Care in Leeds and St Margaret’s, which receives £100,000 in Church funding and £300,000 from inter-agency fees, decided to carry on as before. In November, Catholic Care lost its five-year battle against complying. Now St Margaret’s is deciding whether or not to fight its corner.

Some Catholics have suggested that the disparity between the approaches taken by St Andrew’s and St Margaret’s is indicative of the greater degree of control exerted by the Church’s hierarchy in the west than the east. But while there is undoubtedly a disconnect between the laity and the hierarchy when it comes to social issues such as abortion and ­homosexuality, Glasgow church-goers do have a genuine emotional attachment to St Margaret’s, not only because some of them will have had personal involvement with the service, but also because some of the funds raised are through the “crib collection”. In an annual ritual, Catholic children drop coins into a St Margaret’s donation box as they stand looking at their parish’s nativity scene after mass on Christmas day. “If St Margaret’s closes there will be a genuine sense of hurt in Glasgow parishes,” says one regular attender.

The Church has also been quick to point out that the investigation into St Margaret’s was prompted not by a complaint from the gay community, but from the National Secular Society, which it perceives as having a particular axe to grind.

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It is true that groups such as Equality Network and Stonewall Scotland have received no direct ­allegations of discrimination. But the OSCR inquiry was pretty conclusive; although it was hard to get a clear picture of its exact ­assessment procedures, it said, the society explicitly ­favoured applicants who had been married for at least two years. As the option of marriage is not yet available to same-sex couples, they were less likely to be approved as adopters. OSCR also looked at the ­exemptions that allow some charities to cater for specific groups and decided they did not apply to the service carried out by St Margaret’s.

The OSCR ruling was welcomed by National Secular ­Society. “This kind of crude discrimination is no longer acceptable in our society – and that goes double where the discrimination is, in effect, being largely financed by the public purse,” said Scottish spokesman Alistair McBay.

Colin MacFarlane, director of Stonewall Scotland, said he believed St Margaret’s was providing a valuable service and hoped it would continue to do so without discriminating against same-sex couples. “The welfare of children is of paramount importance and we know there are same-sex couples out there able to offer loving and secure homes,” he said.

St Margaret’s is currently consulting lawyers and the Scottish government to see if a compromise can be found that would allow it to comply with the legislation while still retaining its Catholic ethos. Mike Russell’s intervention may have raised their hopes, but it is unclear what he can do if the agency is contravening the law. And it is difficult to see how a compromise could be struck which would both satisfy the provisions of the Equality Act and appease Archbishop Philip Tartaglia.

But while those who support the adoption society lament its possible passing, others are asking why it can’t just follow in the footsteps of St Andrew’s Children’s Centre which, having severed its last formal links with the Church, has continued to provide a service to the Catholic community while also accepting same-sex couples.

“We still think of ourselves as offering the Catholic community an adoption service because any prospective adopters who are Catholic, and who have that as their as an important part of what they offer, will still be assessed by us,” says its director Stephen Small. “We have found many people of other faiths also want to come to an organisation which values their faith background because they feel some social work organisations view it as a negative rather than a positive.

“But what we’ve realised is the kinds of children who need adoption now are usually those with very poor early life experiences and that the kinds of families that will help them recover and grow have to be of a lot of different make-ups and hues. I think we have seen that it’s about the quality of the parenting skills that people offer and not about their sexuality or their marital status.”

Whether or not St Margaret’s stays open, the number of gay and lesbian partners adopting is likely to rise significantly over the next few years. As an increasing number of same-sex couples embrace adoption as a viable option, agencies are pouncing on them as one answer to their problems. The Edinburgh-based Scottish Adoption, the only voluntary adoption agency in the country which has always been non-denominational, completed four successful placements (out of a total of 33) involving same-sex couples last year. At the beginning of March it is holding its first ever event specifically for prospective same-sex adopters as part of the LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week.

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Andy Leary-May, director of New Family Social, the UK charity for LGBT adopters which is organising the week, says things are improving.

“It’s taken a while for practitioners and agencies to gain the positive experience of ­assessing and placing children with lesbian and gay people – there was resistance and uncertainty in some cases,” he says. “That’s moved on as more and more people come forward and agencies can see the positive results so they are keen to place children with them. The better experience those lesbian and gay people have had encourages more to come forward, so it’s been a steady progression.”

In the meantime, Angela and Sophie are testament to just how much same-sex couples have to offer. “It’s the most rewarding, enriching experience because you feel you’re giving something to these children that’s pretty much priceless – you’re giving them a real shot of a good ­family life,” Angela says.

“And it’s also given us that one thing that was missing: before we felt we were always on the outside looking in, but now we are that family in the park or in the soft play. Adopting has changed our lives – it’s completed us and it’s completed our family.” «

• Some names have been changed to protect children’s privacy

• Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

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