For LGBTQ Kids, the Foster Care System Can Be an Unfriendly Place
Finding a foster home can be a difficult experience for any child, but a new study reveals that if that kid is LGBTQ, they may face a whole host of added problems and pressures.
The study, which was conducted by the UCLA’s think-tank the Williams Institute, aimed to get a snapshot of the country’s largest foster youth population which resides in Los Angeles County. The study, called the Los Angeles Foster Youth Survey (LAFYS), was funded by a $13.3 million grant awarded to the Los Angeles LGBT Center. It is the first population based survey in the country that attempts to look at the experiences of LGBTQ kids in the foster care system, and what it has found is illuminating.
Firstly, the survey data revealed that there’s a relatively high number of LGBTQ kids in LA’s foster care system, at about 1 out of every 5 or, in more real terms, 1,400 children out of the 7,400 youths aged between 12 and 21 that the county is currently responsible for. That’s a higher rate of LGBTQs than the rate among children not in the foster care system, which is thought to be around 1 out of every 10. Having said that, the racial and ethnic backgrounds and heritage of those children is roughly what would have been expected in the county: the majority of the kids are people of color, with over 86 percent of them Latino, African American or of Asian/Pacific Island descent.
When looking at how often and where these LGBTQ kids were placed, the researchers found that LGBTQ youth were about twice as likely to be put into group foster care homes, and were far more likely to be placed in several different homes than the average for non-LGBTQ identifying youth.
When in the foster care system, 18 percent of youths reported experiencing discrimination directly related to sexual orientation or gender, even if they didn’t identify as LGBTQ. Furthermore, LGBTQ youth expressed being treated poorly in the foster care system at a rate double that of non-LGBTQ identifying children.
There was some good news, though. LGBTQ children were less likely to be hospitalized for physical health complaints. However, when it came to emotional problems, about 13.5 percent of LGBTQ kids would require hospital treatment — that’s triple the figure for non-LGBTQ kids.
That latter figure is particularly concerning, and we have to ask why that might be. A simple answer is that social workers, while doing so with the best of intentions, may be waiting for children to come out to them, rather than offering proactive care. This may underestimate the pressure that children feel to keep their identities a secret. For instance, some children may believe that in order to stand the best chance of finding a home, they must hide who they really are. This of course then adds pressure to the children to keep their identities a secret while in placements, creating emotional tension and distress (for all concerned).
Of course, this isn’t about blaming foster care workers who are doing their absolute best to manage a severely under-resourced system, but rather stresses the need for specific training to understand LGBTQ youth and their particular needs.
That said, there were a number of youths in the study who had been kicked out of their foster homes or felt forced to leave for reasons relating to their identity. There’s also the risk of some (thankfully a minority) of foster care workers trying to impose their religious views on LGBTQ children. There are measures in place to deal with this, and since they were introduced, and since the service started collecting data on the sexuality of the young adults in its care, that kind of discrimination has lessened. This once again demonstrates that while asking people about their sexuality might seem intrusive, it can have value for preventing discrimination.
Often we find that our legislatures and local authorities are reluctant to offer increased funding levels for foster care agencies, but as Curt Shepard, Director of Children, Youth and Family Services, is quoted as saying, we have to think about the price of not properly investing:
“The cost to society of a foster care system that doesn’t properly serve LGBTQ youth isn’t just measured by the number of young people who are mistreated, discriminated against, and bounced from home to home. It’s measured by all the associated costs—monetary and otherwise—to care for the psychological disorders, homelessness, and other issues that so many experience when they age out of the foster system at 18. Those are the issues youth are much more likely to experience after having lived in a group home, rather than with a loving family. There’s no question that the best thing we can do for foster youth, and for society, is to take better care of them while they’re young.”
The next step for this research will be for those involved to create a manual to explain the methodology behind this survey. While it is representative of the LA County, the data can only speak for this particular region and so other foster care services will need to conduct their own research to get a proper snapshot of the make up and issues facing LGBTQ children in the foster care systems across the United States. As LGBTQ children are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, this is vital research to make the foster care system as accepting and nurturing as it can be.
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