LGBT+ Youth in Foster Care: 7 Simple Actions You Can Take To Make Youth Feel Safe and Promote Acceptance

Xavier had been separated from so many people- first from his parents at age nine and then from his two brothers as they were moved from placement to placement. He had already lived in six different foster homes and attended three different schools. But even as a sixteen-year-old who desperately wanted permanency and family, he could not call his foster placement home because his foster parents refused to adopt a child with a “gay lifestyle.”

Ebony knew that she was a girl since she was four years old, but none of her caretakers accepted this fact. Like many transgender youth, she struggled with depression, and her mother refused to take her back home from a mental health facility after a suicide attempt. Ebony’s first foster home refused to call her by her name and emotionally abused her when she tried to wear women’s clothes, so she ran away and slept on the streets.

How can we prevent stories such as these and instead provide loving homes for children like Xavier and Ebony? There are LGBT+ people in all parts of the child welfare system- clients, parents, foster parents, caseworkers, court employees, and of course the children themselves. We will discuss LGBT+ foster and adoptive parents in a later blog entry, but today we’ll focus on the welfare of LGBT+ children.

Before we begin, what exactly does “LGBT+” mean? These letters stand for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and many more.” Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are attracted to members of their own gender. Transgender people live as members of a different gender than that which they were labeled at birth. For example, a doctor may declare “it’s a boy!” when someone is born, but that person could grow up knowing that she is a girl. It might take that transgender girl years or even decades to be in an environment where she can fully live and be recognized as her gender, but she is indeed a girl.

Caring about children in foster care requires caring about LGBT+ issues and needs. A 2018 study conducted in California found that 30.4% of youth aged 10-18 living in foster care identified as LGBT+, compared to the average rate of LGBT+ identification, which is 11.2%.[1] While 1-2% of the general population is transgender, 5.6% of youth in care were transgender, according to another study.[2] Sadly, LGBT+ youth are twice as likely as their peers to report being treated badly while in foster care, and on average they experience a greater number of disruptions.[3] In one study, 70% of LGBT+ youth who lived in group homes reported being physically assaulted, and 100% reported being verbally assaulted in group homes.[4]

Homelessness is also a huge concern for LGBT+ youth, especially those with involvement in the foster care system. To begin with, LGBT+ youth are 120% more likely to become homeless than their peers because of a lack of understanding and acceptance.[5] They may enter the foster care system for reasons of general neglect or abuse like any children, or they may enter the system due to homophobia and rejection from their caregivers. Four out of ten homeless youth identify as LGBT+,[6] and 56% of LGBT+ youth who were homeless after involvement in the foster care system said that they chose to live on the street because it felt safer than remaining in homophobic foster or group homes.[7] There is obviously a desperate need for more affirming homes for LGBT+ youth. We need to educate ourselves and become prepared to support our LGBT+ youth and make sure their placements are safe and supportive.

So what can we do to make youth feel safe and welcome? We don’t want or need to immediately ask personal questions about a youth’s sense of identity and attraction to others. We typically need to build relationships with youth and model acceptance before they are comfortable coming out to us. Even if your child isn’t LGBT+, your words and actions will help them be more accepting of LGBT+ people themselves and feel less bound by stereotypes about gender and relationships. Fortunately, there are simple actions you can take to make any youth feel safe and promote acceptance, whether your child identifies as LGBT+ or not.[8]

  1. If you see anti-LGBT+ content or jokes, speak up and challenge them. It can be as small as softly making a suggestion like “wow, that sounds mean,” or “I bet that’s not really true of all lesbians.” If you remain silent, youth may assume that you agree with homophobic ideas and be scared to come out to you.
  2. Use gender-neutral terms when asking about relationships. For example, you can ask a boy “are you seeing anybody?” instead of “do you have a girlfriend?”
  3. Support youth in expressing their personal style and participating in activities, whether their chosen clothes or activities are typically male or female. If your child expressed interest in wearing makeup, take him to Walgreens and let him know that your home is a safe place to experiment in.
  4. Require that your friends, family, and professionals treat your child with respect and inclusion. This lets the youth know that you are ready to be their champion, no matter what the rest of the world might think. If your daughter is being bullied at school because she’s a lesbian, be ready to talk to her teachers and principal to make sure she’s safe.
  5. Talk about and provide access to materials about diverse people and history, whether LGBT+ or not. Here is a list of LGBT+ books for all different ages, and here is a short sampling of kids’ TV shows with LGBT+ characters.
  6. Learn about LGBT+ history, terminology, and current events, especially any local LGBT+ news or topics. Share the cool things you learn with your child! If, for example, you comment on how great it is that LGBT+ friendly laws were passed in another state, your child will now know that you are accepting and supportive.
  7. Foster a relationship where the youth feels comfortable talking to you about a variety of topics. The same trust required to help a child heal from trauma can open up conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation. To foster this trust, relate with your child in a PACEful way (full of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy). To learn more about being PACEful, see our previous blog post about it.

As part of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition’s ongoing commitment to helping children in care, part of our 2018-2021 strategic plan seeks to tailor services to underserved populations such as LGBT+ youth.  To better serve our LQBTQ+ youth, we sought accreditation through the Human Rights Campaign’s All Children – All Families program. This program offers us education about best practices for working with LGBTQ+ youth and parents, opportunities for self-examination, and recognition for our inclusivity. On May, the Coalition was awarded the Building Foundation for Inclusion Tier of Recognition by Human Rights Campaign.

But of course, our work is not over. The Building Foundation for Inclusion level is a solid beginning from which we will continue to grow. We hope to embark on this journey with all of you alongside us.

Stay tuned for a later discussion of foster parents who are LGBT+!

If you want to learn more now about LGBT+ people and youth, here are some starting points:

By Athena Kern

Pronouns: they/them/theirs

[1] “LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care,” by Laura Baams, PhD, Bianca D.M. Wilson, PhD, Stephen T. Russell, PhD.

[2] “Safe Havens: Closing the Gap Between Recommended Practice and Reality for Transgender and Gender-Expansive Youth in Out-of-Home Care” by Christina Remlin, Esq, et. al.

[3] “All Children – All Families 2019 Report: Celebrating Everyday Change-Makers in Child Welfare” by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

[4] “LGBTQ Youth in the Foster Care System” by the Human Rights Campaign.

[5] “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America” by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

[6]  “Safe Havens: Closing the Gap Between Recommended Practice and Reality for Transgender and Gender-Expansive Youth in Out-of-Home Care” by Christina Remlin, Esq, et. al.

[7] “CWLA Best Practice Guidelines,” by Shannan Wilber, et. al.

[8] List adapted from “Supporting Your LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents,” by the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

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