Los Angeles’ Plan to Address the Overrepresentation of Black and LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care

Sheila Kuehl with foster youth advocates on Jan. 10, when the Board of Supervisors passed a motion regarding the rights of the county’s LGBTQ foster youth. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles County

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created a new office to address the high number of African American and LGBTQ youth in the county’s child welfare system.

A new Office of Equity within the county’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) aims to stem the overrepresentation of these youth in foster care and address the disparities these communities experience.

“We have long known that LGBTQ youth and young people of color are overrepresented in our foster care system,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, co-author of the motion that passed unanimously Tuesday, in an email. “We want to create the kinds of programs and systems that allow us to make the best, most culturally competent decisions we can for our 30,000 children in foster care.”

The Office of Equity would manage new and existing efforts to tackle disproportionality and marginalization, working to develop strategies to better serve affected communities by addressing “the unique needs of LGBTQ youth and Native American families, the empowerment of women and girls, the engagement of fathers, support of relative caregivers, and service disparities across LA County zip codes.”

As of now, there is no proposed budget or more specific mandates on the office in terms of actual services it will provide. Plans for the office’s function and infrastructure are to be developed over the next three months by DCFS along with the county’s Health Agency’s Center for Health Equity, and the county departments of Public Health, Mental Health, Health Services, Probation, and Public Social Services and then be presented to the board for approval.

African American youth are by far the most overrepresented racial group in foster care in LA County. While black youth make up a little more than 7 percent of the county’s child population, they account for more than 24 percent of the youth receiving services from DCFS, according to the department. White and Asian youth are underrepresented in the system compared to the overall child population; about 60 percent of LA youth are Hispanic, and they make up approximately the same proportion of the youth in care.

In 2015, African American youth were overrepresented in foster care nationwide at a rate of 1.7 times their share of the general population. California ranked among the top five states with the greatest disproportionality for this group, at a rate of 3.1.

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of California youth in foster care self-identify as LGBTQ, compared with 11 percent in the general population. The study indicates that LGBTQ youth in care report higher rates of mental health problems and victimization than their straight peers in the system. An earlier study out of LA County found that LGBTQ youth report poor treatment in the foster care system at more than double the rate of non-LGBTQ youth.

The motion points out that LGBTQ youth already experience health disparities, and the Pediatrics study indicates that these disparities, like higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and substance use, are exacerbated when LGBTQ youth are in foster care.

“This points to a need for protections for LGBTQ youth in care and care that is affirming of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” the study reads.

Marcellia Goodrich, a former foster youth and advocate for LGBTQ youth in the foster care system, called the move to create an Office of Equity focused on LGBTQ needs a “step in the right direction.”

“The youth need to know they have someone in their corner,” Goodrich said.

Marcellia Goodrich (Photo Credit: David Miller)

Now 28, Goodrich was in foster care in Los Angeles County off and on as a young child, and then consistently from age 11 until she emancipated at 19. During her teenage years, she lived with a foster mom who refused to accept Goodrich’s LGBTQ identity, regularly shaming her for it and using it as the basis for excluding her from normal teenage activities.

“She said she wouldn’t pay for a ‘gay prom,’” Goodrich said. “She used to say, ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’”

Goodrich believes one of the most important things needed to improve the system for LGBTQ foster youth is sensitivity and cultural training for both foster parents and system professionals. She thinks that without special provisions put in place to make sure this happens, the same destructive cycles of youth feeling unaccepted in their foster homes, acting out and then being moved to a new placement as a result will continue.

Bianca Wilson, one of the researchers behind the Pediatrics study, said the county needs to go beyond just basic cultural sensitivity trainings.

“Trainings are a starting place, but our findings suggest that ongoing coaching and support is needed to maintain the positive impact of training and to help staff know how to apply the skills,” Wilson said.

Wilson also conducted a qualitative study across all LA County departments assessing staff “knowledge, comforts, attitudes and experiences” serving LGBTQ youth. One of the areas where staff scored lowest was in their preparedness to be comfortable and knowledgeable in working with transgender youth.

The motion cites several strategies used by other jurisdictions around the country to reduce racial disparities. In Tennessee, the state child welfare system is doing so by offering subsidized guardianships instead of terminating parental rights and analyzing performance data by race. Nassau County, New York, is trying “blind removals,” where initial case assessments are made without information on race or neighborhood. The motion does not mention other examples of efforts to address disproportionate representation and outcomes of LGBTQ youth in the system.

“Though LGBTQ youth are similarly overrepresented, the reasons for their overrepresentation and their needs may be both similar and different from African American children, youth and families,” the motion says, listing data collection, safe and well-trained foster parents, overreliance on congregate care, mental health services, and permanency as key issues to be addressed for this particular group.

The motion instructs DCFS, in partnership with a handful of other child-serving county departments, to report back to the board in 90 days with an overview of the proposed Office of Equity and a preliminary data review to inform the new office’s priorities.

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