When Marcellia Goodrich was growing up in Los Angeles County foster homes, identifying as queer was a source of friction. She recalls one foster mom refusing to send her to prom because she would have taken another girl as a date.
“She used to say God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” said Goodrich, now 28.
A new bill moving through the California state legislature aims to ensure LGBTQ foster youth won’t have to endure that kind of discrimination from their foster families.
Assembly Bill (AB) 175, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D), updates the state’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights, written nearly 20 years ago in 2001. The changes proposed by AB 175 add explicit protections and assurances for LGTBQ youth in the system, among other issues.
The bill would set an expectation of culturally competent care for LGBTQ youth, enshrine their right to be referred to by their chosen gender and name, allow youth to keep their sexual orientation private and add the right for LGBTQ youth to attend events and activities geared toward their orientation or gender.
“We want to provide children who already have trauma an opportunity to create a new narrative, to grow up to be whoever they choose to be and identify with. We should still love them regardless,” Gipson said during a hearing on the bill in March. “If we’re going to say we’re going to accept them, we should accept them as they are and not push them aside.”
The bill would lay out rights not related to sexual and gender identity as well, including the rights to attend independent living program (ILP) classes and activities, to work and maintain a personal income, to obtain a consumer credit report and get help interpreting and dealing with any credit issues identified and to be involved in the development of their own case plan and placement decisions.
Recent research suggests that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in foster care. One study of youth in the system in Los Angeles County found that 19 percent — nearly one in five — self-identify as LGBTQ. Another paper published in the Pediatrics journal earlier this year that looked at all of California found that 30.4 percent of youth in the system statewide identify as LGBTQ, compared with just over 11 percent of the state’s general youth population.
Research also indicates that LGBTQ youth in foster care face poorer treatment while in the system and lower rates of achieving permanency, as well as bleaker outcomes after they age out, including lower educational attainment and higher odds of homelessness and financial instability.
“Once in the system, the fact that LGBTQ youth were moved around more and reported feeling that they were treated more poorly suggests a barrier to helping LGBTQ youth getting into more permanent homes,” said Bianca Wilson, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change. Wilson is a senior scholar of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles and one of the researchers for the Pediatrics study
And, Wilson added, “We’ve seen it in our studies there are mental health disparities as it pertains to psychological distress.”
The research also suggests that LGBTQ youth in foster care have fewer connections with supportive adults that can help them navigate the unique challenges they face.
Goodrich, who these days uses her personal experience in the system to advocate for LGBTQ youth in care, believes that enshrining protections for these youth with AB 175 could create opportunities for them to build stronger support networks within the LGTBQ community, helping them to feel less isolated and unsupported.
There has been some vocal opposition to the portions of AB 175 that focus on the LGBTQ foster youth.
Some of the criticism focuses on the conflict the bill could create between the system and religious foster parents during a time when the state is looking to recruit and retain many more caregivers for foster children. Opponents have cited concerns that requiring them to accept and support a foster youth’s sexual or gender identity would be at odds with their belief system.
“Think of all the foster parents you will chase away if you sign this,” Greg Burt, a representative of the California Family Council, said at a March legislative hearing. “This bill sends the message that ‘We don’t want you’ to Christian parents. It forces them to violate their sincerely upheld Christian beliefs.”
Burt also invokes the U.S. Constitution in his argument against the bill.
“It is wrong to teach foster kids that they can force people to speak words they do not believe,” Burt said, referencing the bill’s requirement that transgender foster youth be referred to by the gender they identify with. “The First Amendment not only protects our right to say words that the government does not like, but prohibits the government from compelling us to say words we don’t want to.”
The bill is also opposed by the California Catholic Conference, Inc., the American College of Pediatricians, and the Pacific Justice Institute’s Center for Public Policy. It is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Anti-Defamation League, the County Welfare Directors Association (CWDA), the California Teachers Association and the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California.
The bill has had strong support from both Democrat and Republican state lawmakers.
“If someone cannot support a foster youth for who they are, they should reconsider whether or not they need to be foster parents,” Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D) said during the March 12 Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing.
Assemblymember David Chiu (D) even pushed back against the religion-based arguments.
“As a church-going Christian myself, the greatest commandment that we have is to love, and I think fundamentally, this bill is about saying that we respect and love children in the foster care system and we want them to have the opportunity to be who they want to be,” Chiu said at the Judiciary Committee hearing.
The bill has passed through the Assembly and is currently in committee in the state Senate. It has passed in both the Senate Judiciary and Human Services Committees, and is scheduled for a hearing in the Appropriations Committee on August 12. While there is no direct financial ask in the bill, the Assembly Appropriations Committee determined the bill would have some fiscal effect in that a few of the rights, such as the right to obtain certain records and the right to include youth in their case planning, could require additional staff time.
David Miller contributed to this story.