In September of 2023, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) proposed a new rule to protect LGBTQ youth in foster care. The rule would require that child welfare agencies ensure that each child in their care who identifies as LGBTQ receives a safe and appropriate placement and services that help them thrive.
It would also require that caregivers for LGBTQ children are fully trained to provide for the needs of the child related to the child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Although these are not final regulations, all child welfare agencies can choose to improve their practice for serving LGBTQ youth.
To get you started, this article outlines strategies you can use to help foster, adoptive, and kinship caregivers support and affirm the LGBTQ youth in their care.
Terms used in this article:
- SOGIE: This acronym stands for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression. All people have SOGIE identities.
- LGBTQIA2S+: This is an acronym that refers to a community of people that includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two Spirit people (within Indigenous cultures), and any other marginalized SOGIE identities. To improve the reading ease of this article, we use the shortened acronym, LGBTQ, though we are referring to all people within the broader LGBTQIA2S+ community.
LGBTQ young people are disproportionately represented in foster care (Baams et al., 2019; Matarese et al., 2021; Sandfort, 2020). Because we can’t be sure which youth will ultimately need LGBTQ-affirming homes, it’s critical for child welfare workers to prepare all families to support LGBTQ youth.
We interviewed Weston Charles-Gallo (he/him), a young person with lived experience in foster care and adoption, to hear about what he needed from caseworkers and caregivers as an LGBTQ youth.
Affirming and supportive caregivers are essential to children’s well-being
The presence of affirming and supportive caregivers is vital to any young person’s sense of safety and well-being. For LGBTQ young people, a supportive and affirming caregiver is especially important.
When LGBTQ youth have a caregiver who consistently takes “supportive actions,” it significantly reduces the risk that they will think about, attempt, or commit suicide. In a very tangible way, ensuring that LGBTQ young people have supportive caregivers is a matter of life and death.
According to the Trevor Project, supportive actions that caregivers can take to reduce the risk of self-harm include:
- Supporting the youth’s gender expression (e.g., helping them get clothes or a haircut that makes the youth most comfortable)
- Using the chosen name and pronouns of the youth
- Educating themselves about LGBTQ people and issues
- Asking the young person how they would like their LGBTQ identity to be discussed with other people
- Being welcoming and kind to the youth’s LGBTQ friends and/or partner
- Openly and respectfully talking with the youth about their LGBTQ identity
- Encouraging others to respect the young person’s LGBTQ identity
- Taking them to LGBTQ-affirming spaces, such as a local LGBTQ center or a Pride event
- Connecting the youth with LGBTQ adults as mentors or role models
- Standing up for them when they are being mistreated due to their LGBTQ identity
- Advocating for their needs as an LGBTQ young person (e.g., at school, in court)
So how can caseworkers better prepare caregivers to affirm and support LGBTQ youth in their care?
Increase your own knowledge
To inform others, we must first educate ourselves. Actively seek to improve your knowledge of LGBTQ issues, especially those facing young people. Good places to start include the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation and the National SOGIE Center.
By continuing to learn emerging best practices for working with LGBTQ youth, caseworkers will be in a better position to speak with caregivers about the needs of this population, even if a family doesn’t think they would ever have an LGBTQ youth in their home.
Lived experience perspective: Weston told us, “People might hear ‘LGBTQ’ and think ‘gay,’ but they don’t dive deeper than that. We need to know about sexual orientation and gender identity. What does that truly mean, and how do we help?”
Check your biases
We live in a society where gender norms are strongly intertwined with our culture. From an early age, we are taught what it means to be a girl or a boy, and breaking out from these reinforced norms is difficult.
When we work with LGBTQ youth, we must remain intentional in inspecting our own biases toward LGBTQ people, moving away from our assumptions so that we don’t cause harm to others. Stay informed through reading, seeking reliable sources from people with lived experience, and talking with those you trust to learn from their perspectives.
Learn about resources for LGBTQ young people in your community
Supportive referral agencies, mental health professionals, support groups, and helplines—stay informed about all of these ways to connect youth and caregivers. Keeping referral sources and references ready is critical since we cannot predict when LGBTQ youth or their caregivers may reach out for support.
National support agencies include the Trevor Project, Gender Spectrum, and Transforming Family. Be sure to also connect with your local LGBTQ center, which likely offers youth-centered gatherings, support groups, and caregiver resources.
Lived experience perspective: Weston shared a frustrating memory of being referred to a support group meant for parents and caregivers and not LGBTQ young people themselves. Though her intentions were good, by not doing her due diligence in researching that support group, this child welfare professional left Weston feeling further misunderstood by adults in his life and longing for connection with other young people like him. “From my experience, I think it was really hard for caseworkers to find resources and ways to help me be LGBTQ in a small town.”
Ensure caregivers have access to early and ongoing learning opportunities
Because a child’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not always known upon placement, all caregivers should receive SOGIE training as a standard part of the approval and continuing education process. This training should prepare caregivers to:
- Understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Show LGBTQ youth they are loved, even if the caregiver struggles to understand their disclosure.
- Keep communication open so the youth feels comfortable continuing to talk with their caregivers about their experiences and journey.
- Stand up for their child if they hear negative comments about LGBTQ people.
- Find ways to deal with their feelings and reactions to their child’s disclosure, including connections to community support.
- Prepare caregivers to support siblings and other family members in being LGBTQ-affirming.
Share the list of supportive actions above with all prospective caregivers
It’s critical to remember that any caregiver could end up caring for an LGBTQ young person.
Ensure all caregivers have the above list of supportive actions. That way, if a young person shares their identity with them, they are prepared to be supportive and affirming from the beginning.
Lived experience perspective: Weston said that the guidance about seeking out mentors for LGBTQ youth is especially important. “For me, it would have been really helpful to have a mentor. To have someone who was there to support me who understood what I was going through. Someone who could find me different avenues to help me feel seen and valued.”
Promote strong relationships between caregivers and youth
Strong connection and attachment between caregivers and youth is a protective factor for many different areas of youth well-being, including placement stability and youth mental health. Strong relationships with caregivers are also connected with reduced risk of self-harm and suicide for LGBTQ young people.
Learn more in this AdoptUSKids webinar about helping caregivers in intentional relationship-building with youth in their care.
Challenge myths and biases
Many harmful biases about LGBTQ people exist. This includes myths that LGBTQ people are more sexualized, that they sexually harm other children, or that they will cause others to become LGBTQ just by being around them. These myths are false and cause tremendous harm to LGBTQ children and youth, leading to negative identity formation, placement instability, and increased risk of mental health crises.
Some caregivers may believe dangerous myths about LGBTQ youth, and caseworkers need to be prepared to challenge those assumptions and help families learn why they are harmful.
Have tough conversations
If caregivers are adamantly opposed to supporting and affirming LGBTQ youth, workers—with support from their supervisors—need to be ready to have difficult conversations with them. This includes having tough conversations about whether this family can be approved to foster or adopt.
Any child can be LGBTQ, and if that child is placed in a home that does not affirm their identity, it puts them at risk for increased traumatic experiences, including rejection or verbal and physical abuse by a non-affirming caregiver.
Consider these 3 additional factors when working with LGBTQ youth
1: Don’t share a youth’s LGBTQ identity without their consent
Caseworkers may be the first safe people that a young person confides in about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sharing this information with others can be tempting, as you may think you are helping the young person get what they need from other adults. However, it’s vital that we not assume that a child’s SOGIE information is public. We must remain aware of the physical and emotional violence that children can experience when others learn of their LGBTQ identity.
If a young person confides in you about who they are, believe them and thank them for trusting you. Ask if other people can learn this information. Don’t assume that their caregivers already know this information, and don’t assume that their caregivers are safe people to tell. This information belongs to the young person. Ensure that they have access to affirming therapists and other care providers to help them explore sharing with others they trust.
2: Always consider how intersecting identities can increase the risk of harm to LGBTQ youth
LGBTQ youth who are also children of color are at an increased risk of harm due to their multiple marginalized identities. This is also true of LGBTQ youth with disabilities. Black and Indigenous children are disproportionately represented in foster care nationally, as are children with disabilities.
It is therefore vital that all caseworkers consider how a child’s intersecting marginalized identities might put them at increased risk of harm.
Lived experience perspective: Weston shared about his experience as both a Black and LGBTQ young person: “Being gay and being Black, and that intersectionality, life is already difficult on its own. To have support from people who are supposed to defend and care for me, they need to be able to meet me where I am and they need to be able to help me in situations where I might not have the resources or supports.”
3: Preparing resource caregivers to be LGBTQ-affirming has far-reaching impacts on safety and well-being outcomes
Safety and well-being outcomes—like those measured in Child and Families Services Reviews (CFSR)—are directly connected to our ability to provide supportive and affirming placements to LGBTQ young people.
Lived experience perspective: Weston said that being LGBTQ—and the limited support available to youth like him—negatively impacted his foster care experience, causing him to be moved farther away from his family and community. “I entered foster care in a rural town and I went through different places and group homes. I was in a residential facility for a month under an emergency shelter placement just because there was a lack of affirming placements. I had to move from my town to a completely new area just to find the supportive home and services I needed. There should have been people closer so that I could stay in contact with my siblings and friends.”
Even if you don’t understand, you can still support and affirm LGBTQ young people
All children deserve caregivers who can provide for their needs holistically. LGBTQ young people require culturally responsive care that affirms their identity. It’s our responsibility to prepare all caregivers to provide this care to prevent additional harm and compounded trauma from befalling LGBTQ youth.
Lived experience perspective: “When you don’t feel seen, heard, or valued,” Weston says, “you tend to feel hopeless. Caregivers don’t have to identify as LGBTQ to be good parents for LGBTQ youth. Though they will not have the personal experience to understand the struggles that come with being LGBTQ, they can still show support and affirmation.”
Learn more about supporting LGBTQ youth in foster care in this publication from Child Welfare Information Gateway, Supporting LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents.