Over the past year, LGBT foster parents in Michigan have cheered each other on in virtual support groups. Frontline workers have connected homeless teens in Chicago with gender-affirming health care and mentors. And in Los Angeles, court-appointed advocates have encouraged young people to embrace “their authentic selves.”
Despite pandemic hardships and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that landed as a blow to LGBTQ rights, there have been lesser-known successes over the past year in the fight against discrimination in foster care.
A new report by one of the country’s leading LGBTQ civil rights groups summarized the work of agencies collectively serving more than a million children and families nationwide. It found there are more people and more initiatives than ever before, working on behalf of young people who are often left desperately alone in the world.
The third annual report of its kind by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign Foundation found the pandemic opened up new opportunities for child-serving agencies to assess their internal efforts and increase engagement and education through virtual platforms. Thousands of people joined webinars, downloaded resources, wrote blogs, produced videos and participated in panels on everything from how best to ask about a young person’s pronouns, to coaching staff who discriminate and “putting intersectionality into practice.”
“When we say we support youth in foster care, that means we support every facet of their being, and intentionally affirming who they are through policy, programming and resources provided,” member Charity Chandler-Cole, CEO of the Los Angeles Court-Appointed Special Advocates chapter wrote in an email. “Youth in foster care experience many intersections of oppression that have historically been used to criminalize and punish them, from race to poverty and sexual orientation.”
As the new head of the organization, Chandler added: “We are collectively saying no more, it stops now and here is the road map to do it.”
The Fostering Futures group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, held its first virtual support group for foster parents this past year, and reported a “fantastic turnout.” Participants — half of whom are LGBTQ foster parents — told organizers they “loved being able to put kids to bed before it started, not having to stress with driving in bad weather, and if they wanted, they could have a glass of wine!”
A growing number of organizations — including public and private foster care and adoption agencies and court-appointed special advocates — have joined the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s All Children – All Families program. The national initiative trains participants to best serve the needs of LGBTQ foster children and families, by providing education, resources, training and technical assistance.
The number of participating organizations in the initiative grew from 100 in 2019 to 119 groups in 35 states in 2021. And a significant number progressed upward in a three-tiered range of benchmark policies and practices that recognize year-over-year achievements.
“Research demonstrates the crucial nature of this work,” the report released last month states. Recent studies show that as many as one in three foster youth identify as LGBTQ — a population that suffers higher rates of maltreatment and frequent placement disruptions.
“Too often these young people enter systems that further traumatize them due to a lack of inclusive policies and practices,” the foundation notes. “At the same time, the LGBTQ+ community remains an untapped resource when it comes to finding families for children and youth in foster care.”
The report cites survey data that found while 84% of adults who identify as LGBTQ+ would consider foster parenting or adoption, just 14% knew of an inclusive agency located nearby.
Many have had to find their own way.
After growing up in foster care, Manuel Padilla of Colorado wanted to give his nieces and nephews the safety and comfort of a loving home that he never found, according to his testimonial in the report.
As an openly gay man, he is now raising his siblings’ children and two trans teenage boys, teaching them not only basic life skills like understanding credit reports and creating a savings account, but educating them about sexual health.
“I was supposed to be a statistic,” he states in the report. “I was supposed to be dead, doing drugs, homeless or committed suicide. If I can teach kids to be able to make it out in the real world, then they may not be that other statistic.”
With more than three million members and supporters like Padilla nationwide, the 40-year-old Human Rights Campaign is the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization. Its foundation’s 2021 Change-Makers Report grouped participating child-serving organizations into three tiers — those building a foundation for inclusion, those achieving a solid foundation for inclusion, and those creating an “innovative” method of inclusion.
Some of the groups that signed on to the All Children – All Families program had still not made sufficient progress to rank in any tier, but the campaign congratulated them on their stated commitment to improvement as a first step toward change.
The Los Angeles branch of the Court-Appointed Special Advocates — a national organization known as CASA made up of volunteers appointed by family court judges to advocate for children in foster care — has adopted nondiscriminatory policies and trained its staff on LGBTQ-friendly practices. Although the group still has a way to go to be counted as having built a “solid foundation” for LGBTQ youth, supervisor Michelle Neumann said her organization aims to fulfill that long-recognized need.
“As a program that aims to provide advocates to children/youth who need it most within LA’s overburdened child welfare and juvenile justice systems,” Neumann wrote in an emailed statement, “we find it pivotal to spread awareness on such a disparity as well as actively work on being inclusive/culturally humble to the LGBTQIA+ community.”
The head of A Greater Hope, a Southern California-based private adoption agency, said she was proud to have achieved the “solid foundation for inclusion” rating by Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “A Greater Hope is committed to ensuring our programs are fully welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ+ clients,” CEO Helena Lopez wrote in an email.
A Greater Hope received the designation in part because 19% of its staff members are former foster youth or former foster parents, which helps ensure the voices of these youth and families are valued and included in the structure of programs and services. The organization also requires its leadership and staff members to complete 12 to 24 hours of training every year on topics including cultural competency in treatment and in parenting; serving people living with disabilities; sexual orientation; and gender identity and expression.
Her group “carefully considers the culture, values and primary language of all clients to effectively meet them where they are at and provide quality, compassionate, culturally responsive services,” Lopez wrote.
Few of the All Children – All Families participants in LGBTQ-friendly programming have a conservative religious affiliation, although a small number of groups include mention of a faith-based connection in their organization’s name, including a Jewish and a Lutheran group.
Conservative Christian groups celebrated earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia in favor of a religious-backed foster care agency. Catholic Social Services sued the city after its contract was suspended for refusing to approve same-sex couples willing to foster or adopt children, on religious grounds.
The city argued that due to its non-discrimination policies, it should have been able to require its grantees and contractors to serve all eligible couples. The court ruled unanimously that because those policies enable exceptions to be granted, “the City does not have a compelling interest” in refusing to contract with the religious organization.
Yet despite the Supreme Court ruling — and during a year in which in-person training was hobbled by pandemic-imposed restrictions — the Human Rights Campaign Foundation reported that its partners remained intent on overcoming religious objections to same-sex couples adopting children. The group’s most widely attended webinar was titled “Traditionally Religious AND LGBTQ+ Affirming: How Social Workers Can Help Families Be Both.”
At Lawrence Hall in Chicago, a woman identified as Victoria works as a trainer for the 150-year-old agency serving children and families.
Victoria came out as transgender when she was 10 years old, with the support of her mother. But by 17, she ended up in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She lived at a children’s shelter for a year and half before being placed in the transitional living program at Lawrence Hall.
In the foundation's report, she stated that at the time, 2004, she was the only out trans youth in the facility. But when she faced bullying, staff always intervened and she felt safe.
In 2011, Victoria returned to Lawrence Hall as a trainer. These days, during LGBTQ+ trainings for new employees lasting three and a half hours, she shares what was helpful and what was hurtful during her time at Lawrence Hall.
“We understand the harm that is done to youth at that early age if they're not affirmed and accepted,” Renee Lehocky, Lawrence Hall’s director of strategic initiatives, states in the report.
Victoria advises new employees to ask questions if they don’t understand something, and to build relationships with the youth, to prevent them from running away.
“For a lot of youth, the only way out is to go to the streets and sell their body or do drugs because they can't find comfort where they're supposed to call home,” she said. “If they're being tormented and talked down to — who wants to be there?”
But in a supportive environment, that can be avoided, she added: “Being at Lawrence Hall allowed me to become the person I am today.
“I'm alive today because of Lawrence Hall.”