LGBT youth and child welfare

I’ve written a bit about my work in child welfare. Part of my responsibilities in my prior job entailed coordinating placement for children needing out of home care. One of the really unfortunate things is that there are not a lot of options for placement of LGBT youth that are fully capable of accommodating their needs. While the needs they have are similar to cishet children, there are additional considerations. They are subject to the same types of neglect and abuse, but with the added layer of potential maltreatment due to gender expression and sexual orientation. Overall, they are over-represented in child welfare, meaning that

the percentage of youth in foster care who are LGBTQ-identified is larger than the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population. LGBTQ youth in foster care also face disparities – differences in experiences in care or treatment by the system.

Among the training and education they receive, caregivers are taught about the needs specific to providing care for LGBT youth. But, as is often the case in the field, it’s hard to say one way or the other how effective it is. With the innumerable challenges associated with working in child welfare, certain components of the whole may tend to be ignored.

For example, I was pretty stunned to learn that transgender youth are legally required to be placed in a facility that reflects their birth-assigned gender in the state of Wisconsin. So, for instance, a transgender female would not be able to go to a female group home (GH). If placement is unable to occur, for whatever reasons, in a mixed gender home, they would need to be placed in a male GH (assuming a lower level of care (i.e. foster home, or relative) is judged to be neither feasible nor desirable).

In my small way I was able to influence the process so that this largely did not occur, but it was patently obvious that the population was underserved, as well as potentially being placed in harm’s way. I should note, though, that I don’t recall any specific instances of maltreatment (which doesn’t mean, of course, that there haven’t been any), but I do know of cases in which it was obvious that needs weren’t being met. I don’t know how this differs state to state, but as of 2015, the issues facing trans youth in the child welfare system were considered widespread:

Transgender youth are often placed in housing situations where their gender identity and their gender expression are not respected. Consequently, they are at higher risk for physical, emotional, and sexual harassment, as well as bullying. For example, staff may force transgender youth to wear traditionally gender-conforming clothing and to use sex-segregated facilities (such as restrooms, living quarters, locker rooms, etc.) that do not match their gender identity. Additionally, staff may intentionally not use their transgender clients’ preferred pronouns and names. Transgender youth may also be denied medical care such as hormone therapy, prescribed by physicians and mental health professionals. Gender-affirming medical care may also be delayed, interrupted, or terminated for these youth. This creates an emotionally and physically unsafe space, which is harmful to their development.

What is described above would not rise to the legal definitions of child abuse or neglect in most states (and perhaps all of them). Allegations, to the extent that they are made, probably don’t trigger institutional responses. Research in this area is likely dependent on anecdotes, rather than documentary evidence. So, we have a ways to go in truly grasping and confronting these issues.

(One small anecdote: my colleagues were having trouble placing a transgender female and requested a specific GH that was heavily geared towards shaping upstanding Christian Men (it had the words “kings” and “priests” in the title). I was able, fortunately, to forbid this. It’s hard to tell what they would’ve done with the child, but I didn’t think it was worth finding out)


My hometown of Milwaukee is opening its first LGBT GH. I can’t tell if they will accept only children on CHIPS orders (which basically denotes children in the child welfare system), or children from the general population. The distinction is substantial for a number of reasons, but in general it is more difficult existing solely within the child welfare paradigm. There are many challenges faced by new GH’s. I’ve known of a handful that were either brand new, or new to the CHIPS population, and were not able to navigate the unique and ever-shifting suite of challenges. Subsequently they either scaled back operations or closed altogether.

Likely, this GH will fill up and admission will be hard to come by – Case Managers will know about this and surely advocate for placement for LGBT children on their caseload. A waiting list will be necessary, and the situation will be exacerbated further if non-CHIPS kids are admitted. Down the road, it’s possible the GH might determine that CHIPS kids aren’t worth the hassle.

But overall, this is a very positive development that I advocated for (surely this is why it happened) and I really hope it works out. Not only that, perhaps it may lead to a proliferation of similar beneficial programming. Though there are numerous challenges, it’s probably okay to have a tiny amount of hope that things are getting better in one small aspect of our dumpster fire of a world.

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