The governor’s recent directive to officials at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to ramp up their efforts to protect endangered children in the foster care system has placed the spotlight on some of the systemic flaws that impact our state’s most vulnerable youth. Perhaps there is no population of youth more vulnerable to the problems with the state’s foster care system than LGBT youth.
While it is unknown just how many LGBT youth are placed in foster care across the state, a recent study in California found that nearly 18 percent of teenagers in that state’s foster care system identified as LGBT. Hostility and abuse that LGBTQ youth encounter from their rejecting parents often contribute to their overrepresentation in the foster care system. Roughly 40 percent of youth and young adults who seek services from homeless and runaway programs identify as LGBT. Homeless youth programs tend to have a heightened sense of awareness of the presence of LGBT youth and tend to have a much more affirming and competent response when compared to the foster care system.
Once in the state’s care, LGBT youth often encounter rejection at the hands of their foster parents and many end up in more restrictive placements such as group homes or treatment centers due in large part to the shortage of families willing to provide an affirming home. Across the nation, LGBT youth experience more than twice as many placement disruptions than the general population of foster youth. Furthermore, nearly half of LGBT youth suggest that their sexual orientation or gender identity was the most important factor in their most recent placement disruption.
State officials have unveiled a plan to work side by side with churches and faith leaders to recruit foster families to address the backlog of children in need of safe and nurturing homes. Some fear that such a heavy reliance on churches and faith communities might have an adverse impact on LGBT youth, making them even more vulnerable to rejection and placement disruption. Considering the platform state lawmakers have given reparative and conversion therapy efforts in recent years, it would be very easy for foster families to force youth to take part in these dangerous practices.
Perhaps the state should consider a recruitment effort that is equally as aggressive in targeting progressive families who have the capacity and willingness to provide safe, accepting and affirming homes to LGBT youth. Furthermore, all foster families should be provided with training that addresses the impact that rejection can have on LGBT youth. A seminal study assessing the importance of family acceptance found that youth with rejecting caregivers are nearly eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to be depressed, and three-and-a-half times more likely to engage in risky sex associated with HIV infection than those youth with accepting caretakers.
At the very least, overhaul efforts should address placement practices that assure that an LGBT youth isn’t placed with caregivers who are rejecting or unwilling to provide an inclusive and affirming home environment. Efforts should also combat the overreliance on group home placements that reinforce the idea that LGBT youth are not worthy of family connections. Such settings should only be used when family settings are not available as opposed to being the first place that caseworkers look to when placing LGBT youth.
The widespread attention that has been given to efforts to overhaul CPS has largely overlooked the experiences and needs of LGBT youth. The top priority of CPS is to protect vulnerable children and youth and that priority should extend to one of the most vulnerable populations of youth in the Texas foster care system.
McCormick is an assistant professor of social work at St. Edward’s University. Francis is government relations directorfor the National Association of Social Workers Texas Chapter.