My work on adoption initially focused on news and film media accounts of adoption in regards to lesbians and gay men, though this has extended to include analyses of children’s storybooks written about lesbian and gay families formed through adoption. In 2012 I undertook interviews with Clemence Due with Australian parents who had adopted children from overseas. I have also written about experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster and adoptive families with Stacy Blythe. I have given testimony to senate inquiries on the topic of adoption. I have also written a piece for The Conversation on the topic of ensuring permanency for children removed from their birth parents. I have recently contributed to a new Australian Psychological Society information sheet on LGBT people and adoption, available here.
A full list of my research publications on the topic of adoption can be found further down the page, and are drawn on in the applications of research findings sections below.
In Australia, current onshore adoption rates are low, and are most likely to be ‘known’ adoptions (particularly by carers or step-parents). While some Australians adopt children from overseas, these current figures are also low. Laws relating to adoption for individual people, and same-sex couples differ between states and territories.
Applications of research findings for practitioners
My research findings indicate that families formed through adoption face considerable scrutiny and regulation. This is particularly the case in terms of government policies and laws when adopting a child, particularly when from a country outside Australia. However, scrutiny may be ongoing in terms of reactions to families in public, including invasive questions asked by strangers, including around the decision to adopt (and presumed infertility) and comments around children being racially different to their parents, when this is the case. These findings suggest that agency workers need to be aware of the scrutiny that families formed via adoption are likely to receive. Agency workers may be required to provide increased support when there are public/media debates over adoption, which can further increase scrutiny on adoptive families.
Another finding from my research is that adoption may be viewed as temporary, and extended families may not be supportive of adoption, particularly initially. It is important that adoption agency workers are aware of these issues, and assist by providing information and referrals for how a positive relationship can be built so that adopted children feel like part of the broader family and adoptive parents are treated like parents. However, it is also important not to presume that a negative reaction will always be the case.
My research findings also show that parents who have adopted children are more likely to emphasise living together and the social aspects of familial relationships when discussing what makes a family, and in so doing emphasising that genetic-relatedness is not particularly important. For some of my participants who had adopted a child, they reported very broad understandings of what constitutes a family, which for some meant that friends, such as other adoptive families, were viewed as family. These findings suggest that agency workers need to have a broad definition of what a family is.
The diversity of families who undertake adoption indicates that agency workers need to be inclusive of all family forms (e.g. individuals and couples, heterosexual and same-sex relationships, people who are already parents by adoption or other means), and not make normative presumptions about who makes up a family. At the same time, not all people can adopt in all circumstances (e.g. non-heterosexual couples generally can’t adopt from overseas). This means that agency workers need to be inclusive but also well informed about broader policy and legal requirements.
Finally, the research highlights that there are many ethical issues involved with intercountry adoption, including in relation to culture and the racial privilege of white Australians adopting non-white children from overseas. It is important for agency workers to be able to explore these complex issues with intending parents, including how they understand ‘culture’ and the implications of this for undertaking intercountry adoption.
Applications of research findings for (intending) parents and families
My research findings highlight the complexities for Australians who adopt children, particularly when these children are adopted from overseas. The research findings highlight that adoptive families can face considerable scrutiny and regulation, including in terms of government policies and laws, from their own families, from strangers, and from the media. These findings suggest that intending parents need to be aware of the challenges that may arise from adoption, and to seek information and support when needed.
Several of the participants in my research discussed ideas around children belonging to them, raising issues around the ‘ownership’ of children. Similarly, some participants explicitly said they preferred intercountry adoption to adopting or fostering a child from Australia, as intercountry adoption provided greater distance from birth families. While it may be important for adoptive parents to be able to tell others that their child isn’t temporarily placed with them and that they are the child’s parents, sometimes this framing is problematic as children may be positioned as objects which can be owned. This framing may often be unintentional, and reflects a desire to defend an adoptive family as being a family. Nonetheless, it requires careful thought and reflection on the part of adoptive parents, in order to ensure that where possible, children can be supported to remain in contact with their birth families.
In terms of birth families and cultures in the context of intercountry adoption, my research findings suggest that many adoptive parents in Australia pay only superficial attention to their child’s birth country/culture, such as via the occasional cooking of particular types of food. It may be useful for intending parents to reflect on the different ways in which they may engage with a child’s culture in ways which may be meaningful for the child.
My analysis of children’s books about adoption (specifically adoptive children from overseas living with lesbian or gay parents), highlights the problematic representation of birth families. In particular, birth families are viewed as a ‘ghostly’ presence, with birth parents typically represented as deviant in some way, and thus warranting the removal of their children. As these books explain adoption in narrow ways to children, it may help to develop more books which offer different explanations of adoption, and to more broadly talk about the diversity of family forms with children, without privileging certain forms over others.
Resources for practitioners
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – Adoptions overview
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2017). Adoptions Australia 2016–17 (Child welfare series no. 67. Cat. no. CWS 61). Canberra: AIHW.
Australian Psychological Society – Psychological assessment of parents’ suitability for overseas adoption (by Lisa Chantler)
American Psychological Association – Building families, one adoption at a time (by Heather Stringer)
Child Information Welfare Gateway (US) – Working With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) families in foster care and adoption
National Resource Center for Adoption, the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, and the National Resource Center for Recruitment and Retention of Foster and Adoptive Parents at AdoptUSKids (US) Strategies for recruiting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender foster, adoptive, and kinship families
Resources for (intending) parents and families
Adoption – government sources
ACT Government – Community Services – Adoptions
Department of Immigration and Border Protection – Adoption of children from outside Australia
Government of Western Australia – Department of Communities, Child Protection and Family Support – Adoption and providing permanent care for a child
Health Direct – Adoption and foster care
NSW Government – Family & Community Services – Adoption
NT Government – Adoption
Pregnancy, birth & baby – Adoption and foster care
Queensland Government – Adoption
South Australian Government – Adoption in South Australia
Tasmanian Government – Department of Health and Human Services – Adoption services
Victoria State Government – Health and Human Services – Adoption
Adoption – additional sources
AccessAustralia – Australia’s National Infertility Network – Adoption
Anglicare – Foster care and adoption
Barnardos Australia – Adopt with Barnardos
Raising Children Network – Raising adopted children
Trauma & Grief Network – Foster care & adoption
Bubhub – Adoption/Surrogacy
Essential Baby – Adoption (log in to access)
Raising Children Network forum – Adoptive and foster parents
Adoption Council of Canada (Canada)
Child Welfare Information Gateway – Adoption (US)
Government of Canada – Adoption (Canada)
National Registry for Adoption – Child adoption (US)
New Zealand Government – Adoption and Fostering (NZ)
UK Government – Child adoption (UK)
Books/sources with personal stories
Health Talk Australia – Experiences of conceiving, IVF, surrogacy and adoption
Assisted reproduction: Books for Children – Adoption
Creating a Family: The National Infertility & Adoption Education Nonprofit – Best adoption books for kids and adults
My research publications
Riggs, D. W. (forthcoming). Diverse pathways to parenthood: Translating research to practice. Elsevier.
Riggs, D. W., & Blythe, S. (2017). Experiences of separation and divorce amongst foster and adoptive families: The need for supportive responses. Adoption and Fostering, 41(1), 75-81.
Bartholomaeus, C., & Riggs, D. W. (2017). Terms of endearment: Meanings of family in a diverse sample of Australian parents. In R. Harding, R. Fletcher & C. Beasley (Eds.), Revaluing care in theory, law and policy: Cycles and connections (pp. 182-197). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Riggs, D. W., & Bartholomaeus, C. (2016). Adoption and foster care discrimination. In A. E. Goldberg (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of LGBTQ studies. London: SAGE.
Riggs, D.W., Bartholomaeus, C., & Due, C., (2016). Public and private families: A comparative thematic analysis of the intersections of social norms and scrutiny. Health Sociology Review, 25(1), 1-17.
Riggs, D. W., & Due, C. (2015). White Australian adoptive mothers’ understandings of birth cultures and families. Adoption Quarterly, 18(4), 273-290.
Riggs, D.W. (2012). Intercountry adoption and the inappropriate/d other: Refusing the disappearance of birth families. Social Policy and Society, 11(3), 455-464.
Riggs, D.W. (2011). Let’s go to the movies: Filmic representations of gay foster and adoptive parents. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 7(3), 297-312.
Riggs, D.W. (2009). Race privilege and its role in the “disappearance” of birth families and adoptive children in debates over adoption by non-heterosexual people in Australia. In D. Cuthbert & C. Spark (Eds.) Other people’s children: Adoption in Australia (pp. 161-175). Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.
Riggs, D.W. (2008). Reading interrelationality: The racial politics of academic research. Dark Matters, 3.
Other research publications (selected)
Alessia, K., & Roufeil, L. (2012). “It’s quite a journey”: Australian parents’ experience of adopting older children from overseas orphanages. Children Australia, 37(4), 161-169.
Mateljan, L., & Priddis, L. (2010). Maternal experiences of inter-country adoptions: Implications and challenges. Australian Journal of Adoption, 2(2).
Quartly, M., Swain, S., & Cuthbert, D. (2013). The market in babies: Stories of Australian adoption. Clayton, Victoria: Monash University.
Averett, P., Nalavany, B., & Ryan, S. (2009). An evaluation of gay/lesbian and heterosexual adoption. Adoption Quarterly, 12(3-4), 129-151.
Brown, S., Smalling, S., Groza, V., & Ryan, S. (2009). The experiences of gay men and lesbians in becoming and being adoptive parents. Adoption Quarterly, 12(3-4), 229-246.
Eady, A., Ross, L. E., Epstein, R., & Anderson, S. (2009). To bi or not to bi: Bisexuality and disclosure in the adoption system. In R. Epstein (Ed.), Who’s your daddy? And other writings on queer parenting (pp. 124-132). Toronto, ON: Sumach Press.
Farr, R. H., & Patterson, C. J. (2013). Coparenting among lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples: Associations with adopted children’s outcomes. Child Development, 84(4), 1226-1240.
Goldberg, A. E., Kinkler, L. A., & Hines, D. A. (2011). Perception and internalization of adoption stigma among gay, lesbian, and heterosexual adoptive parents. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 7(1-2), 132-154.
Goldberg, A. E., & Smith, J. Z. (2013). Predictors of psychological adjustment in early placed adopted children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(3), 431-442.
Lavner, J. A., Waterman, J., & Peplau, L. A. (2012). Can gay and lesbian parents promote healthy development in high-risk children adopted from foster care? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(4), 465-472.
Ross, L. E., Epstein, R., Anderson, S., & Eady, A. (2009). Policy, practice, and personal narratives: Experiences of LGBTQ people with adoption in Ontario, Canada. Adoption Quarterly, 12(3-4), 272-293.