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While transitioning out of foster care is difficult for any young person regardless of sexual orientation, LGBTQ youth may face special difficulties and hardships.
This is according to the report “Economic Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth Transitioning out of Foster Care” released in January by the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The report, which resurfaced during Foster Care Awareness Month in May, compared LGB youth to their heterosexual peers who have aged out of the foster care system. (The report did not address transgender youth.) While the study found many similarities between the two groups, including high rates of pregnancy and temporary homelessness, there were also significant differences. LGB youth earned a lower hourly wage, were more likely to receive Supplemental Security Income and food stamps, and had more trouble paying their rent.
LGB youth were also significantly less likely to be “food secure.” Food insecurity is when an individual doesn’t have enough money to buy food, frequently skips meals, or relies on handouts to receive adequate nutrition.
“We are not unfamiliar with these findings. We know it happens and it is a really important issue,” said Margaret Warner, interim director for the Ruth Ellis Center where long and short-term safe space and support services are provided for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan.
“Moving a lot and not having a place that feels like home is traumatic for kids. They’re changing schools, living with strangers, and some of those people are not good substitute parents,” said Warner. “I realize the tremendous problems, specifically within the school systems. It is a huge challenge to keep these youth connected with a school. After being placed in multiple foster homes, many LGBTQ kids develop serious emotional and behavioral issues. Schools don’t really understand and are not accepting of what these kids deal with when facing their problems.”
As a result, students feel threatened, and they are less likely to perform well in class or even attend class at all. Nearly one in every three LGBT students has skipped class or an entire school day due to feeling unsafe. LGBT youth have higher rates of mental-health issues and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers because of discrimination and societal stigma.
Earlier this month, the Student Non-Discrimination Act was reintroduced in the House of Representatives. If passed, the law would ensure that public elementary and secondary schools would be held accountable for prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Specifically, students who are bullied would be able to seek legal recourse, and the federal government could pull funding from public schools condoning this harassment.
The report continues to state that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Furthermore, each episode of victimization such as harassment or assault increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by an average of two and a half times. Youth subsequently attempt to cope with stress and discrimination through self-medication by way of tobacco, drug, and alcohol use.
LGBT youth are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Approximately 300,000 young LGBT people are arrested or detained each year. Though they represent five to seven percent of the overall youth population, they comprise 13 to 15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system.
“Without social skills or academics, they can’t find a job or become independent. We have served kids in the juvenile justice system. When coming to terms with their sexual orientation and also for income purposes, some have turned to sex work as a means to provide for their financial needs,” said Warner. “Achieving self-sufficiency as they transition to adulthood is often difficult without intervention.”
Professionals from the Ruth Ellis Center, DHS, Detroit-Wayne County CMH and other private child-placing and mental health agencies have been developing strategic plans and setting goals for the foster care community to meet the needs of youth who identify as LGBTQ in foster care.
A solution, according to Warner, is for private agencies to push harder to recruit LGBTQ-friendly families, and to focus their outreach on finding parents who are willing and ready to make children their priority.
“How fortunate most of us are to have families that encourage and accept us,” she said. “Organizations need to step up and help so our LGBTQ youth can experience the same.”
Spaulding for Children in Southfield is a private, non-profit foster care agency established in 1968 that recruits and licenses foster parents to care for abused and neglected children who have been placed in the Child Welfare system.
“In my 20-some years with Spaulding, I think I’ve only worked with one youth that we know for sure is gay. At the age of 12, 13, and 14, many youth are not very clear and are still exploring their sexual orientation. But regardless of how the youth identify, that does not stop us from reaching out to the LGBT community to recruit families who want to foster a child regardless of their sexual orientation. We are simply looking for good people that can parent and provide a good home,” said Cristina Peixoto, vice president of child and family services. “The gay community is very understanding of our needs and what we are trying to accomplish. What I find most pleasing about our outreach effort is that people in the gay community try to find a way to be a part of the work we do in different ways whether they can parent or not.”
In the last couple of years, Spaulding has placed children for adoption with three couples that are gay or lesbian. According to Peixoto, the children are succeeding with no major problems to report. “I don’t care about the color of your skin, whether you’re short or large. If you can do a good job with another human being, everything else is irrelevant. All you have to be is ready and have the child’s best interest at heart.”
In collaboration with Affirmations in Ferndale, the agency previously held a fundraiser to collect new or gently used backpacks, duffel bags and suitcases to help foster children when they need to move, rather than having to stuff their belongings into plastic bags. “It was a terrific weekend. Around 150 pieces of luggage were donated. The gay community really pulled together. There is an amazing openness and willingness to support local agencies,” she said.
For prospective adoptive parents, Peixoto suggests talking to other folks who have adopted or fostered kids. “Parenting a child in the system is more difficult. There are so many other parties involved and there is less control over the outcome of what’s occurring there. Attend an orientation with the agency and visit with a support group or go to a training session. They can be invaluable.”
More importantly, Peixoto believes anyone interested in adopting should become a foster parent first. “Learn the ins and outs of the system. Learn the challenges. You may have the opportunity to meet the child’s birth parents, which will give you so much more information to help fill in some of the blanks. The fact that these kids are not growing up with their parents creates lots of fantasy in their mind and questions. They may want help identifying themselves. If they are traumatized by abuse or neglect, that is an additional challenge, so parents need a good understanding of trauma and discipline. Fostering will get your feet wet and give you a much better chance to succeed when adopting. We all want to make a positive impact. Exposure to a child in foster care will give prospective adoptive families an opportunity to do that.”
For more information, visit http://www.Michigan.gov and click on the Department of Health and Human Services, or call 855-MICHKIDS.