By Dominic Uyeda
Imagine a 17-year-old, with long blonde hair, wearing a dress and makeup, being driven to a foster care group home. Once there, she will be sharing a room with two teenage boys, living in a house with all males.
This increasingly common situation could be changing completely in California.
Senate Bill 731, being heard in the Senate Human Services Committee on April 21, would change current child welfare practice by making it clear that foster children and non-minor dependents must live in homes based on their gender identity and not the sex listed in their child welfare and court records.
According to the bill, which was introduced in February by State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), current state licensure regulations for many foster homes and group homes prohibits children of the opposite sex from sharing the same room if they are under the age of five. These regulations can cause child welfare agencies to place transgender foster youth in homes on the basis of their biological sex rather than their gender identity. The bill goes on to say that there is already existing legislation that requires child welfare agencies to take into account a child’s gender identity when making placement decisions but it does not appear that this is happening.
While it is hard to pin down the number of transgender youth in foster care, a 2014 study conducted by the Williams Institute of Los Angeles found that nearly six percent of the 700 youth surveyed identified as transgender. If this estimate is reflective of the California foster youth population as a whole, that means there could be almost 1,200 transgender foster youth in California; enough to fill almost two hundred group homes.
Jill Jacobs, the executive director of Family Builders, based in Oakland, said that SB 731 clarifies what is already stated in another law, AB 458, the Foster Care Nondiscrimination Act, which states all foster youth have the right to fair and equal services and are protected from discrimination and harassment based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. But many child welfare workers do not know that a child’s gender identity could be considered when making placement decisions.
“Every child has a sexual identity, a gender identity, and it needs to be integrated in child welfare practice,” Jacobs said.
Shannon Wilber, the youth policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an organization that co-sponsored SB 731, said that the bill is endorsed by the Child Welfare Directors Association as well as many other advocacy organizations.
SB 731 will give social workers more direction in making placement decisions. When asked if it would make social workers have to place, say, a youth who was born a female but identifies as male in a male home, Wilbur said that child welfare workers should not place a child in a home they do not feel safe or comfortable in, but should look to find the right home to meet their needs.
“The core objectives of the child welfare system is safety, permanence and well-being, and this bill will help to achieve that for transgender foster youth,” she added.
Dominic Uyeda is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. He wrote this story while taking the Journalism for Social Change course taught at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.