CASA Deep Dive: Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care
In this CASA Deep Dive, we’re shining a light on the unique needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth in the Texas child welfare system – and looking at the many positive steps that advocates can take to affirm their identities, support their safety and help them defy statistics.
While we cannot know for sure how many youth in care identify as LGBTQ, recent national studies estimate that LGBTQ youth comprise 22.8 percent of children in foster care. In Texas in 2018, 52,397 children were in the legal care of the state. Based on this data, we can estimate that around 11,900 LGBTQ youth are living in foster care in Texas – likely even more if we consider those youth who have not disclosed their identity.
Each of these youth needs an affirming ally who will walk with them, work to remove barriers and advocate for their well-being.
The Scope of the Challenges
To understand the landscape, there are several factors to consider. First, LGBTQ youth are far more likely than other youth to enter the child welfare system – 2.7 times more likely, according to research. Like other children, they enter the system because of things like abuse, neglect and parental substance use, among other factors.
Many also suffer from family rejection. As sad as it is to imagine, 30 percent of LGBTQ youth reported physical violence by their family members after disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity, and according to one study, 39 percent of LGBTQ youth in care had been forced to leave their home because of their identities.
Unfortunately, the systems designed for their protection can often fail to keep them safe – once in the child welfare system, these youth report more maltreatment by caregivers. They’re also moved from placement to placement more often than other youth and have a poorer shot at permanency.
They also face far worse outcomes than other youth across a broad range of measures. They report worse school functioning, higher rates of juvenile justice system involvement and poorer mental health than their heterosexual peers, with elevated risks for depression and suicidality.
The story of disproportionality is even starker when we look at race as a factor. Approximately 57 percent of all children in out-of-home care who identify as LGBTQ are children of color. Being LGBTQ or a youth of color is not the source of the disparities in their outcomes. Rather, they are a result of bias, bullying, discrimination and systemic inequality.
Every time that a caring adult has the chance to stand up for a youth’s rights, they can promote well-being and help shift this landscape.
What Can Advocates Do to Help?
As of June 2019, only 13 states have laws and policies in place that protect youth in foster care from harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Texas is not one of these. It falls to individual caseworkers and advocates to ensure that LGBTQ youth receive equal and fair treatment, and have safe daily lives.
Become educated on issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Seek continuing education opportunities and gain knowledge of concerns relevant to LGBTQ youth. The Human Rights Campaign All Children-All Families Webinar Series is a good place to begin.
Ask about and call youth by their preferred names and pronouns, and encourage other adults in their lives to do the same. For those who select a different name than was given to them at birth – particularly for transgender and gender non-conforming youth – use of their chosen name and pronouns signifies acceptance. It can also save lives by reducing depression and overall suicide risk. To learn more, visit GLSEN.org.
Ensure placements are affirming of youths’ sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Have conversations with all the adults who have a role in a case to determine if they will be supportive of a youth’s identity. Help educate them and/or strategize alternatives. Childwelfare.gov has published a guide, “Supporting Your LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Families,” that can be shared with caregivers as a good place to start.
Stay aware of placements that require participation in religious activities that condemn LGBTQ identities. Being LGBTQ does not impact a person’s ability to be spiritual or religious any more than being non-LGBTQ, but be aware that many LGBTQ youth have had non-affirming faith experiences. As foster families are in high demand and short supply, the “right fit” can be a challenge. However, if a young person is in a placement that openly condemns LGBTQ identity, they are at risk of physical and emotional harm.
If a youth discloses LGBTQ-related mistreatment or discrimination, take the report seriously. Validate the youth for sharing their story. Bring the issue to the attention of leadership and advocate for any changes that need to be made.
Connect youth to LGBTQ-affirming services and support, both locally and online. This can include support groups, community centers, affirming faith communities, school-based GSAs (Gender and Sexuality Alliances) and pride festivals. Youth deserve safe spaces and nurturing environments.
Connect families to services and support, both locally and online. Advocate for kin and families of LGBTQ youth to get support accepting their child. This includes foster families. PFLAG offers support groups for families and has 21 chapters in Texas.
Encourage LGBTQ adults to serve as CASA advocates and foster families. While anyone can learn to serve an LGBTQ-identified child well, LGBTQ adults are likely to offer important cultural connections, empathy and pathways to access resources within the community.
Despite the many challenges ranged against them, LGBTQ youth in foster care demonstrate remarkable resiliency and creativity. They can heal and thrive when offered love, acceptance and safety. CASA volunteers have the opportunity to help make life better for each youth they advocate for, and this month and beyond, we invite you to expand your awareness of how to work well with LGBTQ youth.
References & Recommended Reading
- The Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report
- LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care
- The Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Out of the Shadows: Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare through Cross-System Collaboration