Call for more LGBT foster carers as number of children in need tops 43,000

While the number of children in out-of-home care continues to rise in Australia, a shortage of foster carers remains across the nation. Agencies are increasingly targeting the LGBT community to meet the growing demand.

When Brendan came out as gay 25 years ago, he thought this marked the end of his dream to be a parent.

There was a sense of grief that what so many others found so easy to do, would prove so difficult for Brendan to achieve.

"Twenty-five years ago when I came out the only thing I ever grieved was the fact that I would not have a family," he said. "And until I met Paul I did not feel settled enough in a relationship with someone who was on the same journey."

Adjusting to parenting

Brendan and his husband Paul agreed early on in their relationship that they wanted a family.

"We looked at going straight to adoption, we looked at overseas adoption," Brendan said. "We spoke to a few of our girlfriends about surrogacy, we contemplated shared parenting.

"In the end we came back to fostering and it was full loop because of that ability to provide a home for someone who already existed who needed that help."

For Paul, who was adopted as a child, the choice was a clear one.

"I didn't have the best upbringing myself," he said. "I believe there are so many kids in the system that need help that fostering was the best way to go. There are 19,000 kids in NSW who need help. There needs to be more foster carers."

Being adopted

Across Australia there are more than 43,000 children in out-of-home care - a 15 per cent increase since 2011.

Family and Community Services NSW say the reason for the increase is that children are not returning home. In previous years children would be restored to their families more often than they currently are. The result, more children staying in out-of-home care for longer. This includes children from Indigenous and different cultural backgrounds as well as children who identify as LGBTI.

Government and non-government agencies are struggling to find carers and are continuing to target the LGBT community amongst others.

Nabil Youssef is a Case Work Manager for Family & Community Services. He says they actively try to recruit carers from many different backgrounds.

"I hope that nobody feels that they should be excluded because of their sexuality or what background they come from," he said.

There is no publicly available data on the number of LGBT foster carers in Australia and no law explicitly prohibiting this group from becoming foster parents.

But this does not mean the law comprehensively protects lesbian and gay foster parents.

While legislation varies from state to state, faith-based agencies can refuse applications to foster or adopt on religious grounds.

Associate Professor Damien Riggs, from Flinders University, has researched foster care in Australia.

"It's still possible for agencies and some agencies do use religious exemptions as a way to screen out," he said. "And it's not just limited to gay and lesbian foster carers, but of course it's related to needing to be married or perhaps having a particular faith."

Wendy Francis from The Australian Christian Lobby says any responsible adult should be able to provide short-term emergency foster care.

"At the moment we have over 200,000 reports of abuse of children a year, and we have over 40,000 kids in foster care," she said.

"If we need responsible adults and some of them are identifying a gay and lesbian and we need emergency situations than we need responsible adults."

But she draws the line at supporting longer-term placements with same-sex couples, saying they are not in the best interests of the child.

"I would maintain and ACL would maintain that it is still in the best interests of a child to experience the love and care of the complimentary nature of a mother and a father. And this is long-term care," she said.

Rainbow families

The shortage in carers means many agencies are shifting their approach, setting up stalls at events like Mardi Gras Fair Day.

Barnardos is one of those agencies. Jo Reece is with the agency.

"We have a number of wonderful same-sex couples and singles who are foster carers and I think it's important to add that we have successfully presented to the supreme court numerous adoption applications on behalf of same-sex couples and singles," she said.

Dr Riggs says foster care rates remain so low across all sections of the community because of a perception that children are damaged in some way and that foster care is only a short-term option.

"I think it's really important that people in general are aware that foster care in this country is very often a long-term option. It's not like in the United States where it's short term until an adoption is found," he said.

Dr Riggs adds rates are also low because of public attitudes that foster children all come with behavioural issues.

He says while this may be the case with many foster children, the unpredictability of life means any child can be affected by behavioural issues or a disability.

"No one knows when they get pregnant what's going to come their way," he said.

"It could be a child will be born with a disability or with learning problems. And that is the whole nature/nurture issue.

"It's not categorically well a child has had a bad or traumatic experience for the first year of their life and that's the end of the story. Children can come back from trauma if they have a supportive home life."

With longer placements come stronger bonds - and in the case of Paul and Brendan a community that supports them.

Community support

Paul says the couple, who live in regional Australia, have not experienced any discrimination or stigma because of their sexuality.

"It's just accepted," he said. "It's just unbelievable people don't seem to care. What they care about is they see these two boys getting what they need from two parents who love them."