‘Don’t bother’: fewer than five same-sex couples in Victoria approved for adoption since 2017

When Victoria changed the law to allow same-sex couples to adopt, the government heralded it as a pathway that would allow more opportunities for children to be matched with the best possible family.

Instead, fewer than five adoptions by same-sex couples have taken place in the state since 2017.

The convener of support group Gay Dads Australia, Rodney Chiang-Cruise, is blunt about his thoughts on the issue. “Honestly, my advice to same-sex couples seeking to adopt in Victoria has been don’t bother,” he tells Guardian Australia.

“The bottom line is it’s almost impossible to do adoption in Victoria, even if you’re a straight couple, let alone if you’re gay.”

The Department of Justice has confirmed there have been fewer than five placements involving same-sex couples since 2017, after the law was changed a year earlier to allow couples to adopt regardless of their sex or gender identity.

During the same period, there was an overall decline in adoption, with just 76 local and overseas adoptions occurring in the state.

According to the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare, adoption numbers have declined by 63% over the past 25 years – from 709 in 1996-97 to 264 in 2020-21 – the lowest number on record.

Related: Adopted people can have biological parents on birth certificates under Victorian bill

There is no publicly available national data on how many children are adopted by same-sex couples, nor how long it takes for local adoptions to be processed.

A Flinders University associate professor, Damien Riggs, has extensively researched foster care and adoption in Australia. He credits the decline to a combination of factors including the availability of contraception and abortion, the end of forced adoption practices and improved child protection systems.

“It’s sort of a pendulum,” Riggs says. “We had the 50s and 60s where we had forced adoption, we had children of single mothers being removed.

“Adoption was very high, then the pendulum swung the other way to foster care, shorter-term care, trying to do reunification but then we saw higher rates of abuse and neglect going on.

“Its swung somewhere in the middle now in Victoria, with permanent care much more common than adoption.”

In 2014 New South Wales introduced reforms to make adoption the preferred option for children who are removed by courts from their families when no other relative can care for them.

Victoria hasn’t followed suit. Chiang-Cruise says it has left many permanent carers – including LGBTQ+ couples – in limbo.

“They may be caring for a child for years and years but there seems to be a reluctance to allow couples to adopt,” he says.

“I’ve seen couples burn through money, through time and more importantly, emotional energy. So when we get asked about adoption we say, ‘Sure, you can go try that path.’ But it’s a it’s a bit of a fool’s journey. So most men opt for surrogacy.”

But with the war in Ukraine – a popular surrogacy destination for foreigners – and several countries prohibiting surrogacy for gay men, there are few options and the costs can pile up – to about $180,000 in the US, and $40,000 to $60,000 in Mexico.

Jonathan* lives in Melbourne with his partner of two years. The couple will be moving next year to the UK – where he is also a citizen – to adopt.

“I decided a long time ago that there are enough kids in the world who need a loving home, and I don’t care if they’re genetically related to me,” he says. “I’ve got that love in me ready to give and I’m ready to be a dad.”

Jonathan says he didn’t want to pursue the adoption pathway in Australia, after watching several of his friends begin the process and then, after several years, give up.

Some were subject to invasive questions about their “lifestyle”, others experienced more blatant homophobia. One couple, who began the process in South Australia in their mid-30s, “jumped through hoops” for six years, only to be told at the end that they were “too old”.

In the UK the average length of time for an adoption to be approved is about six months and one in six adoptive parents are in same-sex relationships.

“It’s kind of incredible that I can move to the UK, get settled for a year and potentially less than a year after that get to start my family, while in Australia I’d probably still be waiting,” Jonathan says.

Riggs says while adoption figures for same-sex couples may be on par with the population, their experiences navigating the system can differ greatly from that of straight couples.

This can include facing considerable scrutiny of their lifestyles, parenting ability and capacity to raise children or a resistance to matching them with LGBTQ+ children.

Riggs said some foster-care agencies reject applications from LGBTQ+ people on religious grounds, while bias could be implicit in others.

“It really depends on the individual assessment worker and what their own values and stereotypes are. Some people may believe a child really needs to be raised by mum and a dad.

“They may not consider, for example, a lesbian couple or a gay couple, not because they’re necessarily homophobic but they have heteronormative views about how children should best be raised.”

Riggs says this is particularly apparent for gay men: “Gay couples talk about this idea that women know what to do when it comes to children.”

“There can be a lot of scrutiny of gay men. Questions like, ‘Do you actually know what you’re doing? Do you know how to change a nappy? Or how to make a bottle [with] formula?’ Those sorts of gendered stereotypes can be really prevalent as well.”

Riggs says additional training is needed for child services workers to identify their implicit biases and how they affect their work and case decisions.

Related: Indigenous babies being removed from parents at rising rates, study finds

A spokesperson for Victoria’s Department of Justice, which assumed responsibly for adoption in 2019, says the government has taken “strong steps to ensure same-sex couples are not discriminated against throughout the adoption process”.

“All Victorians have a right to equality, fairness and full inclusion,” the spokesperson says.

They say the department takes into account a number of factors for local adoption, including the wishes of the birth parent. In facilitating overseas adoptions the department must comply with the requirements of the country involved, many of which exclude same-sex couples.

The Victorian opposition’s spokesperson for child protection, Matt Bach, began his life in foster care before being adopted. He is concerned the government has adopted a “reunification at all costs” approach to children in care.

“I’m only here because I was adopted by an amazing family. But I know it’s not for everybody. Reunification is the best option if you can do it, but sometimes it can’t be done.

“When you look at how low our adoption rates are as well as the ongoing discrimination against LGBTI people when they come forward to adopt, it’s clear the system is out of balance right now.”