Creating a safe place: Supporting LGBTQ youth in foster care

By Bryan Samuels

Darryn entered the foster care system as an abused and frightened child. By the time he was 16, he was struggling with new fears and painful misconceptions about his sexual orientation. Fortunately, his foster mother treated him with unconditional love, creating an environment in which he could heal and feel free to explore his identity. The sense of self that his foster mother nurtured in him through her warmth and respect helped him emerge a strong, confident adult. Darryn’s experience shows how a foster family can change a life.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth must deal with a myriad of issues common to all adolescents, but their journey is often more difficult. We know that LGBTQ youth encounter a disproportionate amount of cruelty simply because of who they are. For youth in foster care, too often the system has been unable to respond to their needs for community, kindness, sanctuary and services that are specially designed for them.

That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families is urging child welfare programs in every state to train their caseworkers and tailor their practices so that they are maximally responsive to the unique challenges of every child--including LGBTQ youth. Our intent is to ensure that every single young person has the opportunity to lead a healthy, productive life with the support of loving, respectful caregivers. This past spring, the Administration for Children and Families wrote to state social service providers to remind them of the challenges these young people face. We outlined a series of supports that the federal government can provide to systems that serve foster children across the country, such as help with training caseworkers to better serve LGBTQ youth, recruiting and orienting foster and adoptive parents, addressing unique safety issues, and encouraging LGBT parents to adopt. And of course, we are also urging states to diligently pursue all forms of permanent placements, including reunification with biological parents and families, as long as these are in the best interest of the child.

A recent study that followed a group of young people as they moved from foster care into adulthood found that as many as 1 in 10 males and almost 1 in 4 females identified their sexual orientation as other than “100% heterosexual.” More often than not, these young people have experienced discrimination, bullying, scorn, and ostracism and have remained in foster care longer than their straight peers. They are also at higher risk of suicide, homelessness, and sexual exploitation on the streets. LGBT youth need our protection and they deserve our help. The practices we are encouraging states to adopt are designed to provide that. Overall, we are at a point of progress in the child welfare system.

During the last several years, states have consistently been able to reduce the number of children in foster care, finding permanent homes for many of them faster than ever before. This allows us to push the system forward to address the needs of children and youth for whom we struggle to find permanent families and homes. Our focus on LGBTQ youth is part of a larger mission to craft strategies that respond to the needs of children in foster care.

With a grant of almost $10 million, several child welfare systems are taking the lead, pioneering approaches that we hope will be suitable for replication across the country. Kansas is testing an innovative program with severely emotionally disturbed children; California and Arizona are both striving to speed up the placement of African American and native American children into permanent homes; Nevada’s Washoe County is targeting children with immediate safety risk; Illinois is targeting children exposed to serious trauma. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is working with LA Country to develop a model program to protect the health and well-being of LGBTQ foster youth and to eliminate the barriers that keep them from settling into permanent homes.

The child welfare system is moving forward in recognizing the specific needs of LGBTQ youth. As social service providers and as leaders who care about America’s future, we cannot afford to waste precious young lives. Instead, we look forward to a time when the success stories will outnumber the sad ones, when more youth have stories like Darryn’s to tell. That’s the outcome we want for all of our young people.

Bryan Samuels is the Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ACYF administers funding for a broad range of programs that serve vulnerable children and youth, including foster care, adoption, and shelters and outreach for runaway and homeless youth.

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