AT the age of 52 and with a newborn in her arms, former school teacher Helen Gourlay is getting to grips with being a new mother. And as one half of a same- sex relationship – she lives with her 47-year-old partner at their home in Leith – the baby boy in her arms can gaze up into the caring eyes of two “mums”.
Yet while Helen employs all the care and devotion of any devoted new mum, she knows that soon he will leave – just like the three babies she’s already cared for – probably never to be seen by her again.
Helen and her partner are among a still small yet growing number of LGBT couples and individuals to answer the call to help some of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable children, battling past old-fashioned prejudices and opening their homes to provide loving shelter for youngsters at their most desperate time of need.
Soon they will become temporary “mum and mummy” to slightly older children, looking after them while their own families wrestle with difficulties or until more permanent care arrangements – such as adoptive parents – can be found.
The job is vital: for a relentless shortage of foster carers in Edinburgh means many vulnerable children are living with uncertainty and instability, desperate for the security of a long- term, loving home. Yet despite the need for foster carers from all kinds of backgrounds, fear and prejudices often mean many loving same-sex couples don’t even consider taking on the job.
According to research revealed to coincide with LGBT Adoptation and Fostering Week this week, one in three people belive being gay rules someone out of being able to foster children. The survey, by Action for Children and New Family Social, adds that half the LGBT community in Scotland regard sexuality and gender identity as barriers to their hopes of becoming parents.
Perhaps those attitudes are no great surprise – last month Welsh Secretary David Jones sparked outrage when he claimed that gay couples “clearly” could not provide a “warm and safe environment” to raise children.
“There are still prejudices in society,” sighs Helen, who quit teaching over a year ago to become a foster carer. “It constantly surprises me. We live in the 21st century but people still have strange ideas about gay people.
“Of course you care what other people say. You just do the job hopeful that society will continue to improve and become less worried about gay people and less homophobic.”
She adds: “People should want kids to be safe, healthy and happy and do their best to make sure that happens.”
Edinburgh City Council needs to recruit at least 25 new foster carers from all backgrounds every year to take into account people who decide – perhaps through retirement – to move on. They are needed for children of all ages, from birth up to 18-year-olds.
“The most important thing a carer can provide is a secure loving home,” says Councillor Paul Godzik, children andfamilies convener. “A recent survey showed that many in the LGBT community believe that their sexuality is a barrier to adoption and fostering but this is not the case. The law has changed and we want to get the message out that the City of Edinburgh Council is looking for a diverse range of carers.
“All sorts of different people have the skills and qualities for fostering, which is a hugely rewarding and really important job. It benefits some of the most vulnerable children in our society, helping them build a bright and confident future.”
Edinburgh City Council social workers and foster carers will be at LGBT Health in Howe Street today from 6pm-8pm. To find out more about becoming a foster carer, visit www.edinburghfostering.org.uk