Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #7: Federal Data Collection, Training Mandates, on LGBTQ Foster Youth

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund.

Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of David Rivera, 21, a student at College of the Sequoias.

The Proposal

Rivera would have Congress include a new requirement in the collection of state data in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). He would also have LGBTQ Competency Training become a federal requirement for IV-E agencies and foster and adoptive families.

The Argument

Rivera argues that “the collection of reliable data on a nationwide scale” about LGBTQ youth in foster care “is a vital step to properly address the full scope” of challenges for youth in this population.

David Rivera, 21, a student at College of the Sequoias

And at the moment, he points out, there is no national data, let alone reliable data. A Los Angeles study estimates that one in five foster youth in the county are LGBTQ; other limited studies cited by Rivera put the national figure between 5 percent and 22.8 percent.

Agency and caregiver training, he argues, is made evident in a 2016 study that finds LGBTQ foster youth experience twice as many placements as straight youth. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Wellbeing found that 20 percent of LGBTQ youth saw their first placement disrupted by foster families asking for them to be moved; that compares with 8.6 percent of straight youth.

In His Own Words

“I entered the foster care system at birth and have spent nearly all of my 21 years in foster care, including 18 different foster home placements. Much of the instability came after the age of 14 when I was ‘outed’ as gay by a peer.

When the news reached my foster family, I was abruptly told to leave their home. My social worker came to pick me up and so began a series of unstable placements …”

The Chronicle‘s Take

The Los Angeles study Rivera references – Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Foster Care – was done in part to demonstrate on a relatively small scale that such personal information could be shared in a safe, private way. The authors’ hope was that larger research efforts could be informed by the study.

According to the authors, future research should include assessments of “whether there are confidential strategies for integrating assessment of sexual orientation and transgender status into public data systems in ways that protect youth.”

And that is the challenge, whether you want to use surveys or AFCARS: How do you collect reliable data about something some youth are afraid to share, or haven’t figured out for themselves?

2016 participants in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program

Our fear is that using AFCARS, on some level, means the information will be based on caseworkers asking a kid, “are you LGBT or not?” And then recording the answer, and entering it into a state information system that will forever mark that youth in one box or the other.

But if you read the “Personal Reflection” section of Rivera’s recommendation, which we quoted from above, it’s pretty clear we need better policy on the placement of LGBTQ youth, and it does not need to wait for more supportive data.

Without question, Rivera is right on that LGBTQ issues should be a mandatory part of competency training for child welfare workers and foster parents. So if that’s not already clear in the law, we agree that it should be.

But Rivera’s own experience convinces us that more should be done, now.

The federal government is not in position to require of states that foster parents who object to homosexuality care for a LGBTQ youth. And honestly, we’re not sure we’d want them to. LGBTQ youth should always be placed with a family that is genuinely accepting of them, without coercion.

In fact, we could be sold on a federal requirement that states must make efforts to ascertain from foster parents whether they are intolerant of homosexuality before a youth is placed with them. More than any other act, it seems this would curb the placement of kids with parents who might go on to reject them in a painful way.

But that still leaves a sticky hurdle. Such a requirement would wall off intolerant foster homes from LGBTQ youth, but that still puts a youth in the position of telling a case worker their sexual preference. Not ideal.

What about a federal requirement that states allow a child to select a preference for a home that is tolerant of any sexual orientation? Saying yes to that question puts no pressure on the youth to discuss their own orientation with a case worker; they’d just be indicating the type of home they’d prefer.

In any case, Rivera’s calls for better data and training on LGBTQ issues should be heeded, and should really just be the starting point for a significant increase in attention to how systems operate.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at