Study: Gay, Lesbian Parents Still Face Bias in Custody Disputes

By Trudy Ring

Originally published on Advocate.com April 22 2014 3:04 PM ET

Judges in child custody cases often do not consider social science research that shows gay and lesbian parents to be as fit as heterosexual ones, says a new study from Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

This results, say researchers Emily Haney-Caron and Kirk Heilbrun, in decisions that discriminate based on sexual orientation, and do not always consider what is best for the children involved.

“By allowing the research to influence legal decision-making in this area, our society can help ensure that the best interest of the children whose custody is at issue will be served,” Haney-Caron, a graduate student in Drexel’s joint psychology and law program, said in a press release.

Haney-Caron and Heilbrun, a professor of psychology at Drexel, note that the research on gay and lesbian parents is limited, but it has indicated that they do not differ from heterosexual parents in key areas that affect children’s development. The Drexel study did not cover bisexual parents because there is little research focusing on them, and there have been few custody disputes involving them.

The researchers offer several recommendations for mental health professionals, judges, and legislators. Psychologists conducting evaluations for custody disputes involving a gay or lesbian parent, they say, need to understand the relevant law and research, ensure that personal biases do not influence the evaluation or conclusions, and consider how the nature of these cases may influence both the evaluation and the information provided to the judge in the case. Judges, they add, should consider the relevant research in formulating their decisions. And legislators can help fight discrimination against gay and lesbian parents by enacting laws that would prevent judges from considering parents’ sexual orientation in custody cases, along with other laws that would make it easier for same-sex couples to establish legal bonds with their children.

The study, titled “Lesbian and Gay Parents and Determination of Child Custody: The Changing Legal Landscape and Implications for Policy and Practice,” was published in the first issue of the American Psychological Association’s new journal, Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, released last month. Find an abstract and order the full article here.