LGBTQ youth represent more than one-third of those in New York City’s foster care system, a higher share than previously understood, according to a first-of-its-kind survey released this week by the city’s child welfare agency.
The young people ages 13 through 20 also described an especially challenging experience in foster care: They were more likely than non-LGBTQ foster youth to be placed in group residential facilities rather than in family homes and were more likely to say they had “little to no control over their lives.”
Samantha’s experience a decade ago echoes the new findings. Abused and rejected by her mother, she was placed in a Brooklyn group home at age 14, only to find that her interest in girls resulted in scorn from the line staff caring for her.
“A lot of times they would bully me or make me feel really uncomfortable,” Samantha told The Imprint. Her last name is being withheld to protect her identity as a vulnerable young adult. “They would tell me stuff like, ‘You’re going to hell,’ or, ‘This is why your mom doesn’t love you — you need to give her grandkids and be with a man.’”
In the city’s survey, conducted in late 2019, LGBTQ foster youth reported similar rejection. Fewer reported having adults in their lives whom “they could rely on and who they felt supported by,” and they were less likely to be satisfied with their current living arrangements than their peers.
The terminology that a rising generation of young people use to describe their sexual and gender identities is rapidly evolving. That compelled the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to query youth not just for their status as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, but also as queer, questioning, agender, asexual or intersex — captured by the acronym LGBTQAI+ in the survey.
(The Imprint follows style guidelines of the national press, LGBTQ.)
Dr. Theo Sandfort, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University who conducted the survey and reported its findings, wrote that he hoped it would serve young people by building “the field’s capacity to strongly affirm their self-understanding and their hard-won progress in defining themselves in the world.”
But he said in a separate statement there are still-unanswered questions.
“Why LGBTQAI+ youth are overrepresented is unfortunately something that this study cannot tell us,” Sandfort said. “It is important to further understand what the specific needs of LGBTQAI+ youth in foster care are and how they can best be addressed.”
Sandfort’s findings show that New York City’s roughly 8,000 foster youth identify as LGBTQ at higher rates than the general population. Slightly less than one-quarter of all New York City youth and about 15% of youth nationwide identify as LGBTQ, according to the city data.
Nearly all survey respondents identified as either African American or Latinx. Yet, those who also identified as “LGBTQAI+” were even “less likely to be white and more likely to be Latinx.”
“This study provides new and powerful data on the representation of LGBTQAI+ young people in foster care, data which have not existed before,” said Children’s Services Commissioner David Hansell, in a statement. “ACS is committed to creating a safe and affirming environment where all young people can thrive, no matter their sexual orientation or gender-identity and expression, and that’s why the results of this groundbreaking survey are so important.”
In a 15-page action plan accompanying the survey, Hansell’s agency pledged to increase therapeutic services for foster parents and kinship caregivers, and more support groups through the Manhattan-based Ackerman Institute for the Family. Children’s Services is also forming an LGBTQAI+ Committee as part of its existing Youth Leadership Council.
The agency first created an office dedicated to LGBTQ policy in 2012, but the new action plan acknowledged the need for “intensified efforts to promote acceptance of sexual and gender diversity.”
Samantha said she eventually ran away from the group home where she had felt so ostracized as a young teen questioning her sexual identity. As a result, she spent two years with no stable home and no source of financial support and is now a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation. She also suffered from major depression and suicidal thoughts.
In her late teens, she finally found help through drop-in centers for youth who are LGBTQ, homeless or sexually exploited, and she began a long journey toward healing. When a mentor sat her down and asked what made her life worth living, Samantha remembers she wasn’t sure how to answer.
“I didn’t know much about me — all I knew was what I needed to do to survive on the streets,” she said. “I didn’t know a hobby I liked, or even what shows were on TV.”
New York City’s efforts to identify its foster youth and their challenges contrasts with the Trump administration, which recently canceled plans to collect national data on the sexual orientation of youth in foster care and their parents. Last May, citing potential costs and concerns about the disclosure of personal information, the Department of Health and Human Services narrowed an Obama administration plan to collect hundreds of new data points on children and families that included sexual orientation and gender identity.
The change generated outrage among some youth advocates and scholars, who say the data gathering is essential to best serve LGBTQ foster youth. A coalition of legal groups is currently suing the Trump administration over the issue.
New York City modeled its survey after a 2014 study of Los Angeles County’s child welfare system, which produced some similar results. The lead author of that study stated in an email that those two large cities’ efforts underscore the need for national counts.
“It is not reasonable to keep conducting these independent studies one district at a time around the country,” said Bianca D.M. Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. “The districts least open to supporting a study like the ones in Los Angeles and New York likely have many or more problems caring for LGBTQ youth than the districts that care enough to do the surveys.”
The response rate for the New York City survey was noteworthy as surveys go, with 659 respondents out of 2,397 young people asked to participate. All were currently living in foster care.
They answered questions about sexual and gender status, such as, “In general, how masculine do you act and behave?” They also described their placement in foster care, as well as social connections. When asked: “Do you feel that you have some control over your life in foster care, or do other people determine what happens to you?” almost one-third of the youth stated that other people “mostly determine what happens to them.”
Youth surveyed also said they had heard themselves described as “hard to place” more frequently than their non-LGBTQ peers.
Former foster youth Idris Swatts, 28, witnessed homophobia both as a teen living in a Far Rockaway group home and, more recently, from the perspective of a staff member. While working in an all-male facility, he said some of his colleagues insisted on calling transgender youth by their “deadnames” — the name a transgender person is given at birth and changes after transitioning. Others joked that boys who didn’t want to join a conversation about girls’ physical appearances were “gay.”
“If they weren’t completely 100% straight, the staff would make jokes and make them feel uncomfortable,” Swatts said. “And that perspective directly impacts the care they give.”
Swatts said he saw some youth getting more attention and check-ins than others who staff members had ostracized “because they’re the weird kid.” Supervisors also contributed to the culture of unprofessionalism regarding meeting the needs of LGBTQ youth, he said.
Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel of the New York City-based pro bono law firm Children’s Rights — which represents foster youth nationwide — said the Children’s Services survey “confirms the risks and the dangers that we expect to see and do see all over the country.”
Children’s Rights, along with other advocacy groups, including Lambda Legal and the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, recently submitted friend-of-the-court briefs to the Supreme Court for the high-profile case of a Philadelphia foster care agency that refuses to license same-sex couples as foster parents.
Too often, reads one brief lead authored by Lambda Legal, LGBTQ youth “experience rejection or abuse on account of their identity” at home, only to experience “the same harm” from their foster families, “including rejection and discrimination.”
Former foster youth Samantha knows just how hard it is for young people to find their way in the world alone, and she now advocates for vulnerable youth to get the support she once so desperately needed. She is struck by how much her life has changed since she first walked into a drop-in center and finally found herself among other young people who could understand her experiences.
“Having a place where I didn’t feel like the black sheep, I feel like it saved my life,” she said. “There are so many resources I didn’t know until I was already aging out of foster care, and I just wish that other youth could know, at 14 or 15, there’s someone you can call.”
Jeremy Loudenback and Chuck Carroll contributed to this story.