Meeting The Needs Of LGBT Families

Approximately two million children in the United States are being raised by lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents. These families not only have limited access to a range of health services, health insurance and equitable tax treatment offered to heterosexual married couples, but they also face stigma and discriminatory laws that make raising children more difficult. With LGBT family rights changing constantly, it is important that family social workers stay informed to best support LGBT families. Here is a look at issues LGBT families face and some of their needs that need to be addressed.

Health Issues

Most employers are not required by federal law to cover health benefits for LGBT partners or the partners’ children, even if the couple is legally married in the state in which they work or reside. This is because the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which does not recognize LGBT partners due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), regulates most employee benefits. If, however, LGBT families are able to receive benefits from their employer, they may be required to pay additional taxes.

With limited access to equal health care coverage, LGBT families are also at risk for spontaneously losing health insurance coverage if they lose their job. The federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) does not provide LGBT families with the same benefit as heterosexual married couples who can keep their health care and other benefits for 18 months following the loss of a job.

Other laws including the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) prevent same-sex partners from taking medical leave to care for their significant other, making family life more difficult to balance.

Financial and Economic Issues

In a tough economy, many LGBT families cannot file joint tax returns or claim relevant tax credits and deductions, which leads to an increased tax burden. A child with LGBT parents may be denied access to benefits such as safety net programs and post-secondary financial aid due to the consideration of only one parent.

In addition, LGBT families may need to pay hefty legal fees to protect their families. Rather than being granted automatic benefits through marriage, LGBT couples must go through a lengthy process of consulting with an attorney to form protective documents such as co-parenting agreements, domestic partnership agreements, health care proxies, living wills, hospital visitation authorization and power of attorney for financial purposes and to legally be recognized as a family.

Family Issues

While LGBT couples can certainly take steps to form legal ties between each other and their children, those who cannot afford the fees to pay for legal documents may face several issues that negatively impact family security and comfort.

For example, if the family is not legally recognized, then the child in an LGBT family will not be able to share in the same benefits (i.e., inheriting property or accessing Survivors and Disability insurance benefits if an LGBT parent becomes ill or dies), as children with heterosexual parents.

Additionally, parents looking to adopt a child may need additional documentation such as a shared-parenting agreement when moving out-of-state, where same-sex marriage may be recognized differently.

The Impact of Social Work

With all the issues LGBT families face, social workers are valuable advocates for change within the LGBT community and contribute in the following ways:

  • Support comprehensive parental recognition laws in various states, push to legalize and federally recognize same-sex marriage and support legal pathways to citizenship for bi-national LGBT families.
  • Advocate for equal access of LGBT families to health insurance and care, employment, and adoption and visitation of a child.
  • Conduct and expand research on LGBT families in order to fill gaps in the data. (There is limited research focusing on families with transgender parents, families of color and low-income families, and social workers can advocate for more research in these areas.)

The Future of LGBT Families

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA External link ). DOMA was passed in 1996 by Congress and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. Section 3 prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and denied them access to federal laws or programs. The Supreme Court recently declared that it was unconstitutional to deny these benefits to married same-sex couples based on their sexual orientation, because these couples should be covered by the constitution’s “equal protection” promise.

This victory has guaranteed respect for same-sex marriages and the equal protection of a federal safety net for these couples. What this means is that same-sex couples and their children who are living in states that recognize same-sex marriage will now be eligible to receive military family benefits, social security benefits, tax credits, hospital visitation rights and health care benefits. It is important to note, however, that married same-sex couples that live in states that do not provide equal protection will continue to be ineligible for marriage-based federal benefits.

As an advocate and a liaison to services for LGBT families, social workers are encouraged to stay educated on policy changes, making sure to thoroughly understand any and all policies and how they directly impact individuals and families in order to empower their clients.