June is LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, when we celebrate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities and the movement for LGBTQIA+ equality and dignity, and consider what work still remains undone.
To be sure, we have much to do to ensure that LGBTQIA+ youth can grow and thrive with the safety, support, and equality of opportunity they need and deserve to reach their full potential. Most notably, conservative legislatures across the country are moving aggressively to prevent transgender youth from participating in organized school sports or receiving necessary medical care, and to ban affirmative discussions about LGBTQIA+ issues in schools. Fortunately, Massachusetts isn’t among these states.
LGBTQIA+ youth face challenges that put them at greater risk for contact with the child welfare and foster care systems, such as an elevated risk for suicide related to anti-LGBTQIA+ bullying, family and community rejection, and discrimination. Research by the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to LGBTQIA+ youth suicide prevention, shows that LGBTQIA+ youth who reported having been in foster care were three times more likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year compared to LGBTQIA+ youth who had not been in care. LGBTQIA+ youth of color and trans/nonbinary youth in foster were each more than twice as likely as their counterparts not in care to have attempted suicide in the past year. A 2011 study by Boston Children’s Hospital published in the American Journal of Public Health found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students were much more likely to be homeless than their heterosexual peers: “Less than 5 percent of students overall identified themselves as [gay, lesbian or bisexual], yet they accounted for 19 percent of those who identified themselves as homeless.”
Family rejection also appears to play a big role in the placement of LGBTQIA+ youth into foster care. The Trevor Project found that LGBTQIA+ youth that had been in foster care were nearly four times likely to have been kicked out, abandoned, or run away because of treatment based on their identity compared with those LGBTQIA+ youth who had never been in care. Transgender/ nonbinary youth and LGBTQIA+ youth of color experienced even higher rates of expulsion, abandonment, or running away than their LGBTQIA+ peers and white LGBTQIA+ peers respectively. The New York Times illuminated this issue quite well in a story last November that we posted about on Facebook.
It should come as no surprise then, that experts and advocates widely believe that LGBTQIA+ youth are overrepresented in foster care—although data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of foster youth is limited as such information isn’t uniformly collected in the U.S. A 2019 study of California youth found that while less than one percent of the 593,241 youths surveyed reported living in foster care or unstable housing, more than 30 percent of those who did live in foster care identified as LGBTQIA+. Another study found that 34 percent of youth in foster care in New York City identified as LGBTQAI (the “A” denoting asexual; the “I” standing for intersex).
“This is substantially higher than the proportion of LGBTQIA youth in the general population,” the researchers noted in their report. And the numbers only get higher when we’re talking about Black and Hispanic LGBTQIA+ youth.
It’s difficult to be precise about whether LGBTQIA+ youth are overrepresented in the MA foster care system due to differences in data collection between state agencies. In the latest Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (MYRBS), 13.9 percent of high school students identified as LGBTQIA+. According to data collected by the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), about 7.6 percent of children (aged 0-17) in foster care are LGBTQIA+. While the comparison of these numbers is not exact, it indicates that LGBTQIA+ youth are not overrepresented in the MA foster care system.
Regardless of why they are placed in care, LGBTQIA+ youth all too often face maltreatment in the very system tasked with protecting them. In New York City for instance, LGBTQIA+ youth were more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings such as group homes and residential care than in foster homes and more frequently heard staff and other people refer to them as “hard to place.”
Often, foster parents are unwilling or unprepared to support an LGBTQIA+ child in their care, which can further destabilize the child. In its foster parent guidebook for supporting LGBTQIA+ youth, the Child Welfare Information Gateway notes that “a high percentage of LGBTQIA+youth in foster care experience further verbal harassment or even physical violence” resulting in “multiple disrupted placements, compounding the trauma associated with leaving their families of origin.” It doesn’t help that all too often, child welfare workers lack knowledge of the LGBTQIA+ community, its unique needs, and existing resources to help their LGBTQIA+ clients.
Given concerns for the safety and stability and of LGBTQIA+ youth in care, LGBTQ activists—including current and former LGBTQIA+ foster children—have long advocated measures such as uniform data collection on LGBTQIA+ youth in care, cultural competency training for foster parents, service providers and child welfare practitioners; state laws that explicit preventing discrimination in foster care based on LGBTQIA+ identity, the recruitment of more LGBTQIA+ foster parents and other structural reforms.
As Nakiya Lynch, a youth ambassador for the national LGBTQIA+ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC), has said, “People who work in foster care need to learn about gender identity, sexuality—all of that. It’s life or death.” After Lynch’s mother died of cancer, child welfare authorities placed them in the care of Lynch’s maternal aunt (what is known as “kinship care”). But when Lynch came out as a genderqueer lesbian, their aunt had them placed in a residential facility instead.
Lynch faulted child welfare agencies for rushing to house youth without considering all of the safety issues that may need to be addressed. “They always feel like…we have to hurry up and house these kids so they don’t end up homeless,” they said. “It doesn’t matter if they have somewhere to stay if that person isn’t going to be affirming of their identity. You put this queer foster kid in this situation where they have to choose between safety and validation, which are both safety issues.”
Similarly, Weston Charles-Gallo, a former HRC Youth Ambassador who was adopted from foster care at age 14 by a married same-sex couple, has spoken about the importance of having affirmative LGBTQIA+ role models in his life: Were it not for his parents “helping me embrace my sexual orientation, the color of my skin and who Weston is, I wouldn’t be here to share my story,” he said.
HRC is working to reform the child welfare system through its “All Children – All Families” initiative, which promotes LGBTQIA+-inclusive policies and affirming practices in child welfare agencies through resources including an organizational self-assessment tool, LGBTQ trainings, and technical assistance. According to its latest annual report, the project has partnered with 100 agencies across the country, many of which have made strides toward improving service delivery to LGBTQIA+ children and families.
In Massachusetts, DCF is also taking steps to better meet the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth. Its 2020 annual report states that the agency is looking to improve its data collection on LGBTQIA+ youth by developing a training that aims to teach staff the skills to engage the children under their custody and supervision in conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Most important is the ability to understand and respond to the unique challenges LGBTQIA+ children face in their biological families, in care, and in the community,” the report states. “DCF will continue to strengthen training for staff and foster families and work with community partners that can provide specialized supports.”
That is as it should be. All children—including LGBTQIA+ children—deserve to grow up in a secure, stable home with loving parents or caregivers.