The legislative attacks on LGBTQ youth in the Texas foster care system began years ago.
In February 2017, the state rewrote its Foster Care Bill of Rights, removing all mentions of protections for LGBTQ youth and others, including religious minorities. Language entitling children to “fair treatment whatever [their] gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, medical problems or sexual orientation,” was replaced with a far more vague promise that foster youth would be “be treated fairly” and “have their religious needs met,” the San Antonio Current reported.
Shortly thereafter, a state law was enacted permitting faith-based foster care providers to discriminate against LGBTQ foster parents, single parents and families whose faith does not match the providing agency’s.
In August, the head of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) publicly declared certain gender-affirming care as child abuse, and the department abruptly removed a resource page from its website that offered specialized mental health resources for LGBTQ youth after a political opponent of Gov. Greg Abbott disparaged it in a campaign stunt.
And last month, a child welfare work group that focuses on LGBTQ foster youth announced that it had created a resource guide to help caseworkers better serve this population but that DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters has been sitting on it for a year and a half without approving its use or suggesting edits.
“All of these equal an eradication of the identity of these kids,” Will Francis, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ Texas chapter, told The Imprint. “It’s terrifying.”
State officials did not respond to repeated requests by The Imprint for comment on this story.
Recent studies in New York City and Ohio have found that more than 1 in 3 foster youth identify as LGBTQ. These young people are more frequently moved, have higher rates of ending up in group care and struggle with higher rates of mental health disturbances than their peers, researchers have found. A pair of 2021 studies by the Trevor Project found that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide last year, and those who had experienced foster care were three times more likely to report a recent suicide attempt.
Following recent attacks on this vulnerable population in Texas, a group of civil rights advocates and child welfare professionals is calling on child protection officials to act, condemning them for shirking their duty to LGBTQ foster children and demanding better care.
In a Nov. 1 letter, members of the LGBTQ+ Child Welfare Work Group allege that the agency has established “a pattern of categorically treating LGBTQ+ youth differently than other children in DFPS’s care and basing decisions on stigma and prejudice.”
The political backdrop in Texas is aligned with the child welfare agency’s actions. Members of the state Legislature have introduced dozens of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including more than 30 in this year’s legislative session alone. Thirteen of the bills specifically targeted transgender children and teens, according to the nonprofit Equality Texas: A proposed ban on trans schoolchildren joining sports teams that match their gender identity and two bills that would criminalize parents and doctors who provide gender-affirming care to trans minors.
While none of this year’s bills became law, several passed the Senate, signaling lawmakers’ widespread support.
In early August, in letters made public by the Office of the Governor, Masters responded to a query from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), confirming his position that department policy considers gender reassignment surgery on a minor — referred to by both Masters and Abbott as “genital mutilation” — to be child abuse and fodder for a CPS investigation.
The recent targeting of LGBTQ foster youth continued after a tweet by a far-right Texas politician ended up on national news broadcasts. On Aug. 31, gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines posted a video describing a gender and identity resource page on the state-run Texas Youth Connection website as “promoting transgender sexual policies to Texas youth.”
“They’re talking about helping empower and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allied, non-heterosexual behavior,” Huffines said in the video, reading from a printout of the webpage. “I mean really? This is Texas.”
Within 24 hours, the state child welfare agency removed the web page Huffines referred to, replacing it with a note stating that the contents are under a “comprehensive review.” Emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests first reported by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the department’s decision to remove the webpage was in direct response to Huffines’ tweet.
“FYI. This is starting to blow up on Twitter,” department spokesperson Marissa Gonzales wrote on Aug. 31 to communications director Patrick Crimmins, under the subject line “Don Huffines video accusing Gov/DFPS of pushing liberal transgender agenda.”
About a half-hour later, Crimmins alerted the department’s web and creative services director that “we may need to take that page down, or somehow revise content.”
More than three months later, the web page remains disabled.
“The series of events that have unfolded are really at odds with the agency’s responsibilities to the kids in their care,” said Currey Cook, who directs the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project for Lambda Legal, a national nonprofit focused on protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people. “While everybody knows Commissioner Masters is a political appointee, she still has an obligation to achieve the mandates of DFPS, which at a minimum is to support the well-being of kids in their care.”
Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ-focused suicide prevention program, said the department’s decision to remove these resources is “particularly harmful” because of the overrepresentation of LGBTQ children and youth in the child welfare system and the suffering they experience. “Restricting access to LGBTQ suicide prevention resources isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous,” she said.
To better protect foster youth and ensure they get the support and services they need, in May 2020 members of the state’s LGBTQ+ Child Welfare Work Group submitted a resource guide to the Department of Family and Protective Services for its approval and distribution to social workers. Members of the group who compiled the information included attorneys, advocates and employees of the Texas’ child welfare department.
But that effort has been dismissed by state officials appointed by the Republican governor.
“The guide was presented to you by DFPS staff via the normal approval process over a year and a half ago,” the November letter to Commissioner Masters states. “You have not indicated whether you have suggestions or edits or whether the guide will be approved, nor have you offered a justification as to why you have taken no action.”
Authors write that the guide is “similar to others DFPS produces internally,” and contains guidance for social workers on how to treat LGBTQ youth fairly and support them when they face discrimination. It also provides vetted community-based resources that caseworkers can refer youth to for addressing trauma and mental health needs.
Without specific policies and practical guidance for social workers, LGBTQ youth have no guarantee that their caseworker will be supportive and respectful of their identity and specific needs, Cook said.
“You may get somebody who totally gets it, is aware, has done their homework, and is going to have your back,” he said. “And then you could get somebody who absolutely does not, and also may have their own personal beliefs or biases and isn’t actually putting their professional obligations first.”
The guide, he explained, is about “leveling the playing field, so every young person has some reasonable expectation that they’ll be treated well and supported and not just be rolling the dice about who they get.”
Members of the work group said they have received no response to the Nov. 1 letter, which requested a meeting with the commissioner as well as immediate action. They also said they don’t anticipate a response from a state department that they consider inappropriately partisan. Cook, whose work supporting LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care spans the nation, said it’s uncommon, even in other conservative states, for the political leanings of those in leadership to so strongly influence the day-to-day care of foster youth.
“What is the soul of Texas?” said Francis of the National Association of Social Workers. “And does y’all really meet y’all? And if it does, and the governor is wrong, we need to fight back against this.”