About three months after I first entered the foster care system at age 12, a foster parent uttered words that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
“Gay people are sinners who have no direction in life,” she told me.
That comment still lives with me today, deeply ingrained into my self-esteem more than 15 years later. As a well-educated gay man, I am able to recognize it has no bearing on who I am today as a person. But youth in the child welfare system still hear statements like these as they grow up in care.
Take a moment and try to imagine what it might be like to be a biracial gay male, born and raised in conservative Boise, Idaho. Idaho is a majority white state with an African-American population below 1 percent. Imagine then, being taken from your family to be placed in a random stranger’s home.
This was my life for the next six years: A constant search to belong to something, to someone.
My quality of life within the child welfare system would have been drastically more positive had there been individuals whom I could turn to during times of need. To feel support, rather than ridicule and judgment would have made all the difference in my development as a teenager.
Youth in care who identify as LGBTQ are over-represented in the child welfare system and face unique challenges. A recent study conducted in Los Angeles County found that nearly one out of every five youth in the foster care system identify as LGBTQ. That’s up to twice the rate of LGBTQ youth in society as a whole.
The experience of LGBTQ youth in foster care is often more difficult than their peers. They experience far more placements than non-LGBTQ youth, and according to a recent survey, 19.6 percent of LGBTQ youth in foster care were moved from their first placement because of a caregiver request, compared to 8.6 percent of their heterosexual peers in foster care.
During my six years in care, I lived in well more than 20 placements. I stopped counting after the 20th. While in care, I frequently felt I was treated differently because of my sexuality, even though I never openly stated how I identified.
None of my placements were with individuals who identified within the LGBTQ community, nor did they openly support this community to my knowledge. For example, one of my foster parents told me that my male friends couldn’t share a blanket with me in the living room due to a “hunch.”
Where foster youth are living matters a lot. LGBTQ youth are at greater risk of experiencing violence, and they are at higher risk of experiencing negative health and life outcomes, such as low graduation rates and mental health issues. With this knowledge, it is imperative that we support youth who identify as LGBTQ and make sure they develop in such a way that they are enriched, rather than being so disenfranchised. In child welfare, that starts with the foster care placement process, where we can surround children with supportive relationships and resources.
It’s important to know that LGBTQ youth enter foster care for many reasons, some of which are different than other youth in foster care. Sometimes these youth come to foster care after rejection by their families based on their sexual or gender identity. Others come from dysfunctional families and backgrounds that involve both abuse and neglect, causing them to be removed from their homes for their safety and well-being. LGBTQ youth come to foster care in a traumatic state, and they need foster families who are prepared to respond to their unique needs.
To improve the experience of LGBTQ youth in foster care, policymakers, advocates and advocate groups must improve foster care placement processes by screening youth entering care for sexual orientation and gender identity. If we allow youth to voluntarily disclose their gender identity and sexual orientation, I believe we are in a better position to provide them more meaningful and appropriate placements.
I also want to stress the importance of discrimination against potential foster parents who identify as LGBTQ, especially by private organizations that receive federal monies. And we need to require states to provide training for all professionals and foster parents working within the child welfare system on the special needs of LGBTQ youth.
Currently, there are no federal policies or statutes in place to encourage all-inclusive placements or trainings related to issues impacting LGBTQ youth for foster parents and professionals working with youth. But the federal government has acknowledged the unique needs of LGBTQ youth in foster care by making plans to collect data on this population through its annual survey of the nation’s foster care systems. In December 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) required state child welfare agencies to begin collecting and reporting data on LGBTQ youth in foster care.
Unfortunately, in March 2018, the HHS officials announced that it would delay the implementation of the final rule due to concerns about undue burden on states. This decision delays our chance to help LGBTQ youth feel comfortable if/when they have additional needs or questions that may arise while developing and emerging as adults within the community.
Had I been placed with families who identified LGBTQ or were allies of the community, my development and confidence level would have been significantly higher. None of my foster parents had education or training on how to support me during the discovery of my sexuality.
Although there have been some encouraging efforts to create policy change for young people in the foster care system in recent years, we still have quite a ways to go when it comes to placing LGBTQ foster youth in loving and supportive homes.
We owe it to the children of the present and future to do better. We should never lose sight of the goal of providing quality homes that are welcoming to all young people during an important time of adolescent development.
For LGBTQ young people who endure trauma when they’re removed from the only home they’ve ever known, having foster families who are prepared to understand their needs is the least we can do to create a better system for all children.
Terrence (Terry) Scraggins is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in family studies at Boise State University, and is also a U.S. Navy Veteran. Last summer he participated in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute’s Foster Youth Internship Program, working for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and the Senate Finance Committee.