Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.29.13

Can Gay Marriage Solve Our Adoption Problem?

So many kids in foster care are waiting for a forever home. Why not let gay couples adopt them?

During oral arguments over gay marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that there is considerable disagreement among sociologists about the effect of gay parenting on children.  Having looked into this question a bit myself, my take is that this is not correct: there is no legitimate grounds for disagreement among sociologists, because neither side has any decent empirical evidence upon which to base an authoritative pronouncement.  The studies of the subject showing that gay parenting is no different from--or even better than!--heterosexual parenting tend to be, as sociologist Mark Regnerus notes, "small, nonrandom 'convenience' studies of mostly white, well-educated lesbian parents, including plenty of data-collection efforts in which participants knew that they were contributing to important studies with potentially substantial political consequences".  

Meanwhile, the main study showing negative outcomes--authored by one Mark Regnerus--has better methods, but is not studying the children of stable, committed gay couples who chose to have a child together, because until recently, there weren't many such couples who were able to adopt.  So it's hard to disentangle any possible negative effects from the effects of divorce and other family instability.  Trying to study a tiny minority with a random sample--even a large one--is very difficult, and maybe impossible.

Thus it seems to me that any authoritative statement about the effects of gay adoption mostly reflect the normative committments of the people making the statements, not The Voice of Science.  There isn't enough evidence either way for Science to have a sound opinion.

But in some sense, what does it matter?  Arent' any parents better than no parents?  Ezra Klein notes:

According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, 400,00 children are living in the United States without permanent families — or, as they’re more commonly called by the children, “forever homes,” a term that breaks my heart every time I hear it.

More than 100,000 of these children are, right now, eligible for adoption, which means they can’t go back to their biological families. On average, these children will be in foster care for three years before being adopted. Twenty percent will be in foster care for more than five years.

Foster parents are, in most cases, genuine heroes. But being in the foster-care system is not easy for children, or good for them. A world in which more of these children can go to loving, stable forever homes faster is a better world.

The idea that there is something so wrong with same-sex households that it would be preferable for these children to go two or four or six years without permanent parents — an idea, again, that has little to no evidence behind it, and that is in fact contradicted by most of the evidence — bespeaks a homophobia so deep that it is hard for me to believe it could persist long among people who actually know any children in the foster system, and who actually know many gay couples.

I think even many rock-ribbed evangelicals could agree that most kids would be be better off raised by loving gay parents than by our incredibly screwed up foster care system.  Don't get me wrong: you foster parents out there are doing God's work.  But you're also probably aware of the foster parents who aren't--who take kids in to help make the rent, and then treat them pretty badly.  Or the foster parents who don't exist, so the kids languish in grim institutional homes.  Increasing the number of stable, naturally infertile couples who are willing and allowed to take in these needy kids would be great.  That said, let's not get our hopes up for a gay marriage adoption revolution.  

There are, to a first approximation, zero healthy adoptable babies in the US foster care system.  Of the 400,000 kids in the system, as Ezra points out, 300,000 can't be adopted because there's a relative still in the picture who hopes to get that kid back.  Of the 100,000 who can be adopted, very few of them fit the criteria that most couples (including gay ones) have for adoption:


1) They are young enough that they

a) will almost certainly bond with you as a parent

b) have not developed some severe behavioral problems as a result of their chaotic home environment

c) will not be stricken with such grief over the loss of their parent that they actively reject you in order to maintain their bond with their lost parent


2) They do not have a severe developmental disability


3) They do not come with several other siblings who have to be adopted out with them (or even worse, aren't yet available to be adopted out)


Take a look at what you get if you search for kids under the age of seven who are available for a single adoption at AdoptUSKids, a website that is sponsored in part by the US government:

1. Deniro, 7 year old boy, small stature, would do best with a strong male role model

2. Ke'Shaya, 2 year old girl, has a trach and gastrointestinal tube, on a ventilator 22 hours a day

3. Rayden, 6 year old boy, makes animal noises and is starting to make more sounds, cerebral palsy, seizures, asthma, ataxia, wears a helmet to protect him from falls.

4.  Jameer, 7 year old boy, is non-verbal but will sit on a beanbag and interact with his foster family or watch television.  Cerebral palsy.

5.  William, 4 year old boy, wheelchair bound, not clear on developmental level.

6.  Joshua, 5 year old boy, in speech therapy and now using words to communicate along with sign language. Requires constant supervision.

7.  Haisheem, 4 year old boy, non-verbal, cannot eat solid food but working on it, New York area only, being placed with infant brother who is not yet available for adoption.

8. Nashawn, 3 year old boy, in speech therapy, can recognize and name all his body parts, currently visiting with potential adoptive family

9.  Navinn, 5 year old boy, severely premature, developmentally delayed, under supervision of cardiologist and pulmonologist, fed through a g-tube, regularly uses nebulizer, agreement for ongoing contact with birth parents 

10. Trevon, 2 year old boy, chronic kidney disease, short gut syndrome, developmental delays, fed through g-tube, requires intense nurturing and support for medical and physical therapy

11. Heaven, 6 year old girl, medical and developmental delays, says a few words and simple sentences, uses a wheelchair

12. Zachary, 7 year old boy, speech delay, pervasive developmental day, requires supervision and gentle redirection that might seem suitable for a much younger child.

13. Jesus, 6 year old boy, communicates by groans, cries, and minimal eye movements. Responds minimally to sounds and sights.  Non ambulatory.  

14. Miguel, 4 year old boy, anoxic brain injury due to choking.  Seizure disorder, severe developmental delays and neurological impairment, feeding tube and tracheotomy.  Requires 24 hour care.

15. Stephen, 7 year old boy, slight speech impediment, strong willed and likes things to go his way, which has lead to conflict with peers and authority figures.  


I didn't cherry pick this list; it's the first page of search results for adoptable, relatively young kids.  Nor, checking through the other pages, does it seem like this was a skewed sample.  And while this website may only have the more difficult-to-adopt kids, this roughly tracks with what I've been told by adoption experts: it is easy to find an adoptive home for a child of any race who is basically healthy and under the age of five or six.  However, in this world of good birth control, legal abortion, and long-lifespans, there are very few children who meet that description.  The kids in the foster system are mostly the ones who are hard to adopt because they are older, come in a large family group, or have some sort of fairly severe disability or behavioral disorder.  Just to drive that point home: if you search for a single adoption of kids under seven, you get 114 results.  If you search for a single adoption of kids under sixteen, you get several thousand.

Like Ezra's, my heart breaks for every one of these kids; they all deserve a forever home to cherish them.  

But most are not lingering in the foster care system because of a shortage of infertile people who want to be parents.  They are in the foster care system because caring for those precious babies would be a difficult, heartbreaking job.  Most people apparently choose to abort their biological children if they know that the fetus has a severe disability, especially developmental delay; the number of Down's Syndrome children who are born has plummeted, even as risks factors (like older mothers) have increased.  It shouldn't be surprising--though it is heartbreaking--that so many special needs children are stranded in the foster system.

America has many more would-be parents than it does young, healthy children to be adopted.  That's why there are so many international adoptions.  More gay adoption may mean a few heroic couples taking on these special needs kids, but it mostly means more gay couples competing for the same pool of relatively healthy, young children.  That is not, to be crystal clear, an argument against gay adoption.  But we should be realistic about what the results will be.  Gay couples, like straight couples, are much more likely to choose international adoption, or articficial insemination, or a surrogate, than they are to adopt a child who needs the kind of patient love and care that these children require.