Young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) enter the child welfare system for reasons similar to those of other children and youth—that is, their birth families cannot provide a safe, stable, and nurturing home. In some cases, families reject, neglect, or abuse young people when they learn that they identify as LGBT or are questioning their romantic/sexual orientation or gender identity. According to one study,1 about 26 percent of LGBT2 youth are forced from their homes because of conflicts with their families of origin over sexual orientation or gender identity. Physical violence is also a concern for LGBTQ youth. In another study, 30 percent of LGBT youth reported physical violence at the hands of a family member after coming out as LGBT.3 Furthermore, an estimated 43% of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are forced from their homes because of conflicts with their families about their sexual orientation of gender identity; 32% of homeless LGBTQ youth have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at home over their sexual orientation or gender identity.4
Several studies have found that LGBT young people are overrepresented in child welfare systems, despite the fact that they are likely to be underreported because they risk harassment and abuse if their LGBT identity is disclosed. For example, although approximately 4-10 percent of the total population is estimated to be LGBT,5 a study in Los Angeles estimated that LGBT youth represent 19 percent of those placed in out-of-home care.6 In other research on youth aging out of foster care, 34 percent reported a sexual orientation other than heterosexual.7 These data suggest that LGBTQ youth are at risk for overrepresentation in child welfare systems and are disproportionately likely to leave the foster care system without a permanent family.
Experiences of LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare Systems
LGBTQ youth may experience challenges under the care of child welfare systems. Unfortunately, a high percentage of LGBT youth continue to experience verbal harassment or physical violence after they are placed in out-of-home care due to conflicts related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.8 In the Los Angeles study, 13 percent of LGBT youth reported being treated poorly by the foster care system compared with 6 percent of non-LGBT youth.9
Many LGBT youth experience multiple disrupted placements, compounding the trauma associated with leaving their families of origin and increasing the chances of homelessness.10 For example, 78 percent of LGBT youth in one study were removed or ran away from foster placements because of the caregiver’s hostility toward their sexual orientation or gender identity.11 Furthermore, as noted in the homelessness and housing section of this topic, the streets are home to a disproportionate number of youth who are LGBT. Some estimates suggest that the percentage of youth who are homeless and LGBT could be as high as 40 percent.12 Other research has found that as many as 56 percent of LGBT youth in out-of-home care have spent some time without stable housing because they felt safer on the streets than in group or foster homes.13 One study found that 65 percent of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness had lived in group or foster homes and that 39 percent of these youth had been forced to leave their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.14 Furthermore, LGBT youth in foster care are less likely than other youth to find a permanent home, whether through reunification with their birth or kin families or through adoption.15 The resources at the end of this section can inform the efforts of child welfare systems to improve policies, practices, and outcomes for LGBTQ youth and their families.
Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare Systems
Professionals who work with youth need to understand the lives and unique challenges of the LGBTQ youth they serve and the implications of policies, practices, and organizational climates on their experiences and outcomes. Many resources are available for caregivers and others in the child welfare workforce to develop competencies and to understand what to expect and how to talk about and positively address issues that affect LGBTQ youth, including providing safe and supportive environments (with families or in group or foster homes). Like all youth, LGBTQ youth need a safe and stable place to live; freedom to express themselves; and structure and guidance to support them in becoming responsible, healthy adults.
Given this, for example, the Children’s Bureau of the Office of the Administration for Children & Families has invested funding in the RISE (Recognize Intervene Support Empower) Initiative of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which is one example of an approach for supporting LGBTQ youth in child welfare systems. RISE aims to improve permanency for LGBTQ children and youth in the foster care system by reducing heterosexism, anti-gay, and anti-transgender bias. RISE focuses on LGBTQ children and youth ages 5 to 19 with open cases at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (L.A. County DCFS), including those who are gender non-conforming and gender-questioning. RISE’s partners include the L.A. County DCFS and more than 20 community organizations. The initiative has three components so that LGBTQ youth in Los Angeles (1) find durable family connections; (2) achieve emotional permanency; and (3) obtain legal permanency in homes where they feel safe, nurtured and loved into adulthood. You can read more about the RISE initiative including its interventions on the Children’s Bureau website.
Supporting Families in Child Welfare Systems
Child welfare systems can work with the families of origin of LGBTQ youth to support reunification. This may include, for example, connecting these families and youth to counseling services that help to address challenges the family may be experiencing.
Resources for Recruiting and Supporting LGBT Families
Furthermore, a growing number of adoption agencies and professionals are proactively welcoming LGBT adoptive families. These families represent a pool of highly motivated and qualified prospective foster and adoptive parents and expand the options for permanency for all youth. However, in many parts of the country, LGBT community remains a largely untapped resource for adoption services. Targeted efforts are necessary to reduce barriers to families who want to adopt youth, including those who are LGBT.
- Adoption by Family Type: LGBT Families — Many gay and lesbian families adopt children domestically and through inter-country adoption. This webpage of the Child Welfare Information Gateway provides information on and resources about adoption by LGBT families.
- Adoption Laws and Resources for LGBT Families — Offers links to state laws, policies, and best practices for child welfare agencies who work with LGBT families.
- LGBT Parents in Child Welfare — Provides resources to support child welfare professionals who work with LGBT-headed adoptive, kinship and foster families, also known as resource families, along with materials for LGBT resource parents. Resources include publications, PowerPoint presentations, research and reports, bibliographies and resource lists, webinars, webcasts, videos, and links to relevant websites.
- Promising Practices in Adoption and Foster Care — Produced by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation as part of its All Children — All Families project, this comprehensive and practical tool outlines best practices for welcoming all prospective adoptive parents, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
- Supporting and Retaining LGBT Foster and Adoptive Parents (PDF, 5 pages) — This practice brief from the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections describes practices for supporting and retaining LGBT foster and adoptive parents and providing post-permanency support.
- Tips for Child Welfare Professionals: Talking About LGBT-Headed Families (PDF, 2 pages) — This publication from the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections provides child welfare professionals with considerations and guidance for talking to and about LGBT-headed resource families to birth families about their child joining an LGBT-headed family, as well as for talking to children/youth about becoming part of an LGBT-headed family.
- Working With LGBTQ Families in Adoption — Developed by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, this resource for child welfare professionals provides tips for effectively recruiting and retaining LGBT adoptive families, overcoming challenges faced by LGBT adoptive parents, and creating a welcoming agency for them.
Resources for Birth Families, Foster Families, and Caregivers of LGBTQ Youth
- All Children — All Families — This project from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation promotes LGBT cultural competency among child welfare agencies through innovative resources, including an online agency self-assessment tool, comprehensive staff training, free technical assistance, and more. Agencies across the country recognize the importance of this work and use the project’s resources to improve their practices with LGBT youth and families.
- Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality — Developed by the American Psychological Association, this document provides information about sexual orientation and the impact of prejudice and discrimination on those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
- Answers to Your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression (PDF, 6 pages) — Developed by the American Psychological Association, this document provides information about the difference between biological sex and gender, as well as about gender identity/expression and transgender identity.
- National Center for Child Welfare Excellence: LGBT Parents in Child Welfare — This website provides various resources, including recommended practices and research, related to LGBT parenting and families.
- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) — This website provides resources, events, and information on local chapter support groups.
- Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Children (PDF, 24 pages) — This publication from the Family Acceptance Project provides information on how families can help to support their LGBT children. It is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese. The Family Acceptance Project uses a research-based, culturally grounded approach to help families decrease rejection of and increase support for their LGBT children.
- Supporting Your LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents — Developed by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, this fact sheet aims to help foster parents learn about LGBT and questioning youth in the child welfare system, addresses common misconceptions about sexual orientation and gender identity, teaches foster parents about the unique risks that LGBT and questioning youth face and the important role they can play in reducing those risks, provides tips for creating a welcoming home for youth, and includes links to additional resources.
- Welcoming Schools — This is an LGBT-inclusive project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that addresses family diversity, gender stereotyping, and bullying and name-calling in K-5 learning environments. The project offers professional development tools, lessons aligned with Common Core State Standards, and many other resources for elementary schools.
Resources for Child Welfare Professionals Who Work With LGBTQ Youth
- Addressing the Needs of LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care (PDF, 8 pages) — The article discusses the importance of addressing the needs of LGBT and questioning youth in foster care and the challenges and risks these youth encounter in care. It also describes youth-serving agencies, such as Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children, are doing to support this population and what resources CASA volunteers can turn to when working with LGBT and questioning youth.
- All Children — All Families — This project from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation promotes LGBT cultural competency among child welfare agencies through innovative resources, including an online agency self-assessment tool, comprehensive staff training, free technical assistance, and more.
- Caring for LGBTQ Children & Youth: A Guide for Child Welfare Providers — This reference guide from the All Children — All Families project includes the information, tips, and terminology that providers must-know when caring for LGBT and questioning youth in out-of-home care. It also includes recommendations for promoting the safety, permanency, and well-being of LGBTQ children and youth.
- Creating Inclusive Services for LGBT Youth in Out of Home Care: Training Resources (PDF, 11 pages) — This training resource was designed by the Out of Home Youth Advocacy Council to assist child welfare trainers in conducting trainings for their own agencies and to create inclusive policies and services for LGBT youth.
- CWLA Best Practice Guidelines: Serving LGBT Youth in Out-of-Home Care — These best practice guidelines for providing competent services in out-of-home care are intended to improve the outcomes of LGBT youth. The guidelines are based on recommendations from the Model Standards Project, a collaboration between Legal Services for Children and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
- Getting Down to Basics: Tools to Support LGBTQ Youth in Care (PDF, 48 pages) — Developed in partnership with the Child Welfare League of America and Lambda Legal, this toolkit provides guidance on issues that affect LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care and information for providers on providing necessary support and services.
- getR.E.A.L — The getR.E.A.L (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love) initiative from the Center for the Study of Social Policy promotes the healthy development of all children and youth, with a focus on sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. getR.E.A.L challenges public systems working with children and youth to improve their policies and practices to support the healthy sexual and identity development of all children and youth in child welfare systems.
- A Guide for Understanding, Supporting, and Affirming LGBTQI2-S Children, Youth, and Families (PDF, 8 pages) — This guide is designed to support efforts to promote full and affirming inclusion of LGBTQI2-S youth and families in communities and provider settings (e.g., schools and child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health systems). This guide was developed by the National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and Their Families.
- Guidelines for Managing Information Related to the Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity and Expression of Children in Child Welfare Systems (PDF, 26 pages) — This publication proposes standards for sharing information on the sexual orientation and gender identity and expression of children and youth in child welfare systems.
- Information Memorandum: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth in Foster Care (PDF, 5 pages) — This resource from the Administration for Children and Families encourages child welfare agencies, foster and adoptive parents, and others who work with young people to ensure that all children are protected and supported while they are in foster care.
- LGBTQ Children and Youth in Child Welfare — The National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections developed this webpage to provide links to resources from the Administration for Children and Families, the Children's Bureau, Children's Bureau Training and Technical Assistance Network, and collaborating organizations and states. The resources are designed to support LGBT youth involved in child welfare systems.
- LGBT Foster and Adoptive Families: Finding Children Forever Homes — This publication highlights the compelling need to find adoptive families for waiting children, provides an overview of the barriers faced by LGBT families who want to foster and adopt, and includes targeted recommendations designed to ensure that LGBT families can help to fill the need for loving and stable foster and adoptive homes for children. This brief was authored by the Movement Advancement Project, Family Equality Council, and Center for American Progress.
- Moving the Margins: Curriculum for Child Welfare Services With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth in Out-of-Home Care (PDF, 156 pages) — Developed in partnership with the National Association of Social Workers, this train-the-trainer manual from Lambda Legal provides training to build the capacity, awareness, and skills of social workers and other child welfare practitioners to better serve and respond to the needs of LGBT and questioning youth. The curriculum includes information on risks, challenges, and strengths specific to LGBT and questioning youth and their caregivers. This resource addresses practices related to managing confidential information; enhancing skills to intervene with biological, adoptive, and foster parents; addressing differential treatment in child welfare agencies; and addressing the needs of transgender youth.
- National Center for Child Welfare Excellence: LGBTQ Children and Youth in Child Welfare — This website provides various resources — including recommended practices, research, and training materials — related to LGBT and questioning young people in child welfare systems.
- Opening Doors for LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care — This website from the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law provides the legal and child welfare communities with tools, resources, and other supports for improving outcomes for LGBT and questioning young people in foster care. The site includes information on the rights of LGBT and questioning young people in care and offers recommendations for balancing personal beliefs with professional responsibilities.
- A Practitioner's Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children — This resource from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers information and resources to help practitioners in health and social service systems implement best practices in engaging and helping families and caregivers to support their LGBT children.
- Providing Services and Supports for Youth who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex or Two-Spirit (PDF, 8 pages) — This practice brief from the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University’s Center on Child and Human Development is intended for policymakers, administrators, and providers across all systems of care who are seeking to learn more about LGBT youth and system-level strategies for providing more culturally and linguistically competent services for these youth.
- Recommended Practices to Promote the Safety and Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth and Youth at Risk or Living With HIV in Child Welfare Settings (PDF, 20 pages) — Intended for child welfare agencies, this resource from the Child Welfare League of America offers guidance about ensuring safe and appropriate care when addressing the unique needs of LGBT and questioning young people in the child welfare system.
- Working With LGBTQ Youth and Families — This webpage from the Child Welfare Information Gateway provides information about serving children, youth, and families in child welfare systems, as well as resources for youth and their families.
Resources for LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare Systems
- It’s Your Life: Improving the Legal System’s Approach to LGBTQ (PDF, 32 pages) — This handbook and website are intended to help LGBT youth in foster care navigate child welfare systems. It includes tools and supports to understand their rights and what they can expect from child welfare professionals. The handbook was developed by the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law as part of the Opening Doors project.
- Know Your Rights: LGBTQ Youth and Youth Living With HIV in Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems — This guide informs LGBT youth of their rights in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, including their rights to feel safe, to be treated equally, and to access services and supports without discrimination.
- National Resources for LGBTQ Youth (PDF, 32 pages) — This resource sheet from Lambda Legal summarizes various national resources (e.g., schools and organizations in the child welfare, health, and mental health systems) for LGBT youth.
1 Sullivan, Sommer, & Moff, 2001
2 Some research and literature does not include youth identified as questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. Hence, “LGBT” and not “LGBTQ” is used in these instances so that this webpage is consistent with the information sources.
3 Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, 1996
4 Durso & Gates, 2012
5 Gates, 2011; Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1991
6 Wilson, Cooper, Kastanis, & Nazhad, 2014
7 Courtney, Dworsky, Lee, & Raap, 2009
8 Courtney, Dworsky, Lee, & Raap, 2009; Mallon, Aledort, & Ferrera, 2002
9 Wilson, Cooper, Kastanis, & Nazhad, 2014
10 Wilson, Cooper, Kastanis, & Nazhad, 2014
11 Feinstein, Greenblatt, Hass, Kohn, & Rana, 2001
12 Sullivan, Sommer, & Moff, 2001; Feinstein, Greenblatt, Hass, Kohn, & Rana, 2001
13 Mallon, 1998
14 Berberet, 2006
15 Sullivan, Sommer, & Moff, 2001
16 Helfgott & Gonsoulin, 2012
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