Of the more than 437,000 youth in foster care nationwide in 2016, nearly 55,000 lived in California. It is safe to assume that many of those kids are LGBTQ — while data is limited because there is no federal requirement to track this data, existing research indicates LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system.
Some LGBTQ youth enter foster care for the same reasons as their non-LGBTQ peers — abuse, neglect and parental substance abuse. But many have experienced further trauma stemming from family rejection or mistreatment and school bullying because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Presumably as a direct result of discrimination and its resulting trauma, LGBTQ youth in foster care have a higher average number of placements and a higher likelihood of living in group homes than their non-LGBTQ peers. The impact is highest on those who are of children of color, and more than 50 percent of children in foster care are non-white.
And once LGBTQ youth enter the foster care system, they’re less likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to be placed in a safe and supportive home; according to a 2014 Williams Institute survey in LA County, 12.9% of LGBTQ youth (aged 12-21) report being treated poorly by the foster care system, compared to 5.8% of non-LBTQ youth.
Placing LGBT youth in affirming foster placements is the obvious solution. In advocating for affirming placements at the national and state level, Family Equality Council cites Williams Institute findings that nearly two million LGBTQ adults have expressed interested in becoming foster or adoptive parents. Moreover, same-sex couples are six times more likely to foster children and at least four times more likely to adopt than non-LGBTQ couples.
Despite the willingness of prospective LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents to provide permanent and loving homes, far too many of the 111,000 youth who are eligible for adoption will “age out” of foster care, putting them at much higher risk for poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.
How can this be?
California law prohibits discrimination in the foster and adoption system, as do 22 other states and the District of Columbia. But states in about half of the country lack explicit non-discrimination policies and are silent on how prospective LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents of youth should be considered and evaluated. Although nationwide marriage equality has made adoption easier for married same-sex couples in some circumstances, a lack of clear guidance leaves children vulnerable to the individual biases of agencies and case workers and has resulted in being denied the many benefits of being placed with qualified, loving LGBTQ parents.
So-called “conscience clause” laws in a handful of states create additional vulnerability for both LGBTQ youth in foster care and for prospective LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents because they serve as licenses for child welfare providers — including private foster care and adoption agencies — to discriminate based on their own personal “moral” or religious objections. South Dakota and Alabama enacted new “license to discriminate” laws in 2017, and there were unsuccessful attempts in at least 9 other states to do the same.
Still, the majority of Americans, including those with strong religious beliefs, agree that every child deserves a family and that same-sex couples should have the legal right to adopt children. According to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, 64 percent of Americans see a same-sex couple with children as a family, including 60 percent of Catholics and 80 percent of Jewish people who favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.
Equality California’s Washington, DC office is working hard to advance two bills – one in support of LGBTQ foster youth and their adoptive or foster parents, and the other to protect LGBTQ students.
The first, the “Every Child Deserves a Family Act” (H.R. 2640), would prohibit any entity that receives federal child welfare funds from discriminating against prospective adoptive or foster parents on the bases of their sexual orientation, gender identification, or marital status. It would also bar discrimination against the child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Introduced by civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), the bill has been cosponsored a number of California Democrats in the House. Its Senate counterpart (S. 1303), introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), is supported by both Senators Feinstein and Harris.
Working in coalition with the Family Equality Council, the Trevor Project, PFLAG and a range of LGBTQ national organizations and child welfare groups, Equality California has been lobbying for the “Every Child Deserves a Family Act” and is also engaged in a parallel fight on other discriminatory legislative efforts to allow child welfare providers to cite religious beliefs or moral objections to LGBTQ parents or youth.
At the state level, we’re also cosponsoring a AB 2119 by Assemblymember Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), which would make it clear that make it clear that California’s foster care system must connect transgender and gender nonconforming youth to gender-affirming care when they ask for it.
Our second federal legislative priority is the “Student Non-Discrimination Act” (H.R. 5374), sponsored by two openly LGBTQ Members of Congress Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) of Riverside, and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO). This bill would explicitly prohibit public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also protect students who associate with LGBTQ people, including students with LGBTQ parents or friends. Almost every California Democrat is a cosponsor of this critical legislation.
Equality California is committed to working in coalition with national LGBTQ organizations and child welfare advocates to put an end to the restrictive state and municipal laws, policies and regulations that prevent LGBTQ youth from being placed in loving, affirming homes across the country.