Do LGBTQ kids in foster care count?

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Our Kids is a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative examining the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system.

Has the city done all it can for queer youth amid the Supreme Court’s decision to hear vital Philadelphia-based LGBTQ+ civil rights case?

Leigh Braden first sought to foster parent an LGBTQ+ youth a few years ago, out of a desire to help at least one person make the often-difficult transition from foster care to independence. The caseworker, though, from a Philadelphia child welfare agency, couldn’t seem to get past Braden’s LGBTQ status. “She didn’t like the idea of him moving into our home,” said Braden, who had married her wife 10 years earlier in France.  

“‘He needs parents,‘” Braden recalled the caseworker saying. “‘Will you just be his friends?’”

Braden had already given birth to a child she and her wife parent together. Braden was a social worker and understood this line of questioning as inappropriate. She stayed composed, though, explaining that there would be rules and boundaries — all the nuances of parenting. She won the case manager over and today enjoys a rewarding, ongoing relationship with her foster son. But she shared this story to illustrate how LGBTQ folks face barriers others don’t, and now those barriers might grow higher.   

In February, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which began two years ago, after an Inquirer article exposed two child welfare agencies that refused to accept LGBTQ people as foster parents. Mayor Jim Kenney quickly prohibited both agencies from taking in foster kids, provoking one, Bethany Christian Services, to end its discriminatory policies. The other, Catholic Social Services, dug in and sued, claiming the city’s decision violated its ability to freely practice its faith. That argument lost in federal district court and a subsequent appeal, as the city fought for its right to ensure contractors obey its nondiscrimination policies. Now the conservative Supreme Court could hear the case — with far-reaching consequences — as early as this fall.

“It’s horribly scary,” said Braden, who worries about which of her rights could be curtailed next. 

Acting Executive Director at The Attic, a nonprofit serving LGBTQ youth, Shawnese Givens, said, “A judgment in favor of Fulton would give institutions license to discriminate against LGBTQ people and deny foster children placement in loving, stable homes,” adding that agencies could discriminate in a variety of ways, including placing LGBTQ foster children with “disaffirming parents who could cause emotional harm” or fight against reunifying a family if the parents’ religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity doesn’t align with the agency’s religious beliefs.” 

The case is receiving extensive media coverage in great part because its implications are so vast, but the most immediate consequences concern the LGBTQ community. A closer look at LGBTQ foster youth reveals that they are ill-served by the foster care system in fundamental ways. Across most of the country, and right here in Philadelphia, LGBTQ youth are not even counted as a group with particular needs, despite a growing pile of academic research showing that LGBTQ youth are more likely than the general population to wind up in foster care and more likely to suffer harsh treatment when they do. 

“The city does not collect this data,” according to Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services Chief of Communications Heather Keafer, who followed up in a series of emails to say that the city is in “planning stages” for collecting LGBTQ data, specifically relating to foster care, with no timeline for completion, despite repeated requests from local advocates and even the President of the United States to begin compiling LGBTQ data. 

“It’s about 10 years ago that we started asking the city to ask this question and maintain this data to support these kids who have a very particular and challenging experience of foster care,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which recruits and trains volunteer lawyers to represent youth in court. “It ought to be a priority.”

Cervone is far from the most notable person to make such a request. In December 2016, the then-outgoing administration of President Barack Obama issued a new rule requiring local and state government agencies to collect LGBT-related data and gave a transition period to begin. In the interim, the Trump administration moved to withdraw the Obama-era order. In the two years that passed between the two directives, Philadelphia’s DHS didn’t add the new data fields.

According to LGBTQ advocates, however, making this change is vital. “It’s only by collecting data,” said University of Maryland Human Development and Family Science Researcher Jessica Fish, “that you can effectively formulate policy prescriptions at all and determine what’s working, develop fixes, and track results.”  

A study published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics determined that 30 percent of the foster care population is LGBTQ. LGBTQ foster youth also experience depression and attempted suicide at rates up to five- to eight-times higher than their cisgender, heterosexual peers, and are far more likely to be in state custody because of rejection by their families. One study found that 78-percent of LGBTQ foster youth had been removed from a foster home, or runaway, because of hostility from their foster families. 

Braden’s foster son, a gay male who asked to remain anonymous for this story, cycled through four foster homes in two years. One foster parent told him, “You can be gay, just not in my house.” 

Fellow foster kids in one home harassed him, and a social worker blundered through a conversation with him about his sexuality before concluding, “You understand that just because I am asking these questions doesn’t mean I want to f–k you, right?” 

Shana Williams, clinical coordinator at the Attic, said trouble finding a supportive home is common. Williams said one 13-year old Attic client has already been placed in 12 different foster homes­, a degree of upheaval it’s hard to fathom.   

These experiences of LGBTQ foster youth reveal that, in addition to allowing agencies to aggregate statistics and inform policy decisions, collecting data will have an additional benefit — requiring social workers to ask about sexual preferences and gender identity in the first place, which can help increase the chances of finding a supportive home. 

Keafer cautioned that not all LGBTQ youth want to divulge their status, writing in one email that  “…Social workers do document in their case notes when this information is available.” 

The problem is that these protocols leave the fate of LGTBQ kids up to luck: If the youth self-identify, if an enterprising social worker helps them to divulge and the social worker is able to find them a supportive foster parent, a match like Baden’s can happen. 

Industry standards around data collection and speaking with youth about their LGBTQ status are still evolving, but in 2013, a consortium of child welfare and pro-LGBT-rights groups, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, released best practices describing how questions related to gender- and sexual identity should be phrased at appropriate developmental stages. And today at least some agencies have taken this step: The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy and policy group, has even released a report encouraging child welfare agencies to look for possible models in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California for “having implemented LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies, adopted data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity, and mandated associated training… .”

“The city has been a great partner for us,” said Stephanie Haynes, executive director at Philadelphia Family Pride, a membership organization for LGBTQ+ parents, prospective parents and their children, noting that in the current administration DHS participated in her organization’s foster-related events and have taken recruiting in the community seriously. 

That said, when it comes to the fundamental practice of data collection Keafer said DHS is reviewing national best practices. They certainly don’t have to look far. Here in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County has been collecting this data since late 2017, after a two-year run-up to formulate a policy, build the capacity into their database and train staff — an experience LGBTQ Affairs Project Manager Shauna Lucadamo calls a “culture change” that remains incomplete.

Most of the youth in the county’s data system have no info listed in the new, LGBTQ-related data fields, she said, in part because DHS officials have not asked social workers to backfill information on pre-existing cases. Further, while kids in state care tend to be comfortable divulging their sexual preferences and gender identities, according to Lucadamo, some social workers are not, requiring “extra training and support” that can be difficult to provide in a field known for high caseloads and time constraints. 

Braden, the social worker who endured an awkward experience with a fellow social worker, provided an example of how a child might be asked about their status: “People get uncomfortable talking about sex,” she said. “And what they need to understand is that this isn’t about sex.”

This is a sentiment with which Williams, agrees. “Just ask the youth for their pronouns, a gender identity,” she said. “Ask ‘Is there anything you would like to disclose about your sexual orientation?’”

The questions can evolve, if need be, from there. And the information, once accumulated, could prove vital in driving change in individual lives and the entire system. “For years, this is what advocates have heard,” said Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute, an independent think tank at UCLA’s school of law. “They’d say, ‘There’s a problem here,’ and the policymakers would say, ‘Well, how big a problem is it, really?’”

That fight is still going on. As Wilson noted, “There are not a lot of agencies doing this data collection,” and for now Philly remains behind the leader’s pace, yet to show LGBTQ foster youth just how much they count.