Texas’ faith-based foster care reforms could fail LGBT youth

Photo by Laura Buckman

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently unveiled a statewide initiative for faith-based organizations to recruit foster and adoptive families for children in state care.

While any effort to ease the strains on the foster care system and its charges should be applauded, this particular strategy will likely produce unintended consequences by adversely impacting the permanency outcomes of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in the foster care system.

In general, LGBT youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the foster care system. For reference, a recent study in California found nearly 18 percent of the teenagers in that state’s foster care system identified as LGBT, a rate that more than doubles the 8 percent of teens who are LGBT in the general populations. (While this data is not yet available in Texas, it is reasonable to believe that our state will have similar overrepresentation.)

Many LGBT youth enter care for reasons directly related to their sexual orientation or gender identity, such as family rejection, running away from hostile homes or physical abuse from rejecting caregivers.

These youths often go on to experience secondary rejection by their state-appointed caregivers. A straight child in state care experiences an average of two to three placement changes before permanency and is more likely to reunite with family. However, LGBT foster youth will experience approximately six placement disruptions before reaching permanency, and permanency for LGBT youth rarely involves being reunited with family members or adoption.

Because of the shortage of LGBT-friendly foster families in Texas, LGBT youth are often relegated to group homes, children’s homes and other congregate care settings, a dynamic that reinforces the idea that LGBT youth aren’t worthy of a family connection.

And in a faith-based system, there is an increased likelihood of prospective foster and adoptive parents’ theological and personal convictions directly conflicting with the acceptance and affirmation LGBT youth require, leaving them at higher risk of secondary rejection and higher placement turnover.

If the primary responsibility of the foster care system is to keep children safe and protect them from future risk, then Texas must take extra measures to decrease the incidents of maltreatment, discrimination and rejection among LGBT youth in foster care.

A recent study assessing the impact of family acceptance found that LGBT youth with accepting and affirming caregivers are nearly eight times less likely to attempt suicide and six times less likely to have depressive symptoms than youths whose caregivers reject their sexual orientation or gender identity.

If Texas proceeds with a faith-based approach to improving the foster system, then it should also purposefully seek foster homes specifically for LGBT youth.

It is imperative that the foster system update mandatory competency training for all CPS workers and foster families, regardless of their religious affiliations, on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

This screening process should also include assessment of a foster parent’s willingness to provide accepting and affirming care for LGBT youth prior to accepting placement.

Finally, Texas needs to consider anti-discrimination policies to protect its most vulnerable youth. Several states, including California, have implemented successful anti-discrimination policies to protect youth from harassment and discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

As we near our next legislative session, we must implore our officials to take a closer look at the safety and well-being of all children in state care, especially the overrepresented LGBT youth, because an inclusive and tolerant foster care system is safer for the children, and less expensive to the state.

Reduced turnover rates resulting from more tolerant caregivers means improved caseloads, less stress on social workers and reduced costs of external resources.

Ultimately, improving the permanency options for LGBT youth is a win-win for everyone.

Adam McCormick

Assistant professor of social work, St. Edward's University

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