Empowering Approaches with LGBTQ+ Youth in Foster Care

On July 20th, 2021, Gladney University was happy to hold a virtual presentation (via Zoom) that covered the ever-growing concerns of LGBTQ+ youths in foster care and how we can make changes to improve those issues. The event speaker, Adam McCormick, is an Associate Professor of Social Work at St. Edwards’s University. 

Overall, this presentation was meant to provide practitioners and the public alike with current knowledge of LGBTQ+ youth experiences in the foster care, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems in order to better understand why there is such an overrepresentation of them in these areas. Topics included the specific factors that contribute to the overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ youth, their personal experiences, the critical roles of family dynamics, the vulnerabilities of homelessness and trafficking for LGBTQ+ youth, and the intersectionality of the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth of color. 

This article is going to cover most of what was covered in the presentation, however I highly recommend you also watch it for yourself, as it is available here on YouTube. There were many heartfelt, personal moments from the speaker that just cannot be described, as well as some smaller points that may not have made it into the article, so if this interests you feel free to check it out!  Also, if you have any questions and want to contact the speaker, you can do so with this email: 

Adam McCormick: adamm@stedwards.edu 

Note: The acronym SOGIE is used throughout the presentation. It stands for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression. 

Addressing The Issue

Adam McCormick starts the talk with a quick welcome and the reason for this talk. He explains how he and his wife worked closely with the foster care system for a while, and that many of the youth that they worked with and cared for were part of the LGBTQ+ community. It quickly became clear to them, however, that there were some specific patterns that needed to be addressed. 

Of course, McCormick is not the first to notice this. Especially within recent years, many researchers and social workers have been tracking the percentage of LGBTQ+ youth in foster care systems (as well as other related systems) and have found concerning statistics. Looking further, they realized that not only was there a significantly higher percentage of LGBTQ+ youth in foster care, but there were also strong connections to LGBTQ+ homelessness and trafficking. 

– 20-30 percent of teens in the foster care system identify as LGBTQ+ (as opposed to the 10-12 percent of teens who were not part of foster care)

– 44 percent of LGBTQ+ youth in care reports say that the reason they were brought into foster care was directly related in some way to their SOGIE

– 40 percent of young people who are homeless are young people who have LGBTQ+ identities

– 60-75 percent of young trafficking victims had a history of child welfare involvement

– Homelessness is the most prominent risk factor for child sex trafficking

– 1/3 LGBTQ+ homeless youth have reported being approached by a trafficker within 2 days of becoming homeless, whether due to being kicked out, running away, or any other reasons 

– Durations of homelessness are twice as long for LGBTQ+ youth

– 46 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have juvenile justice history (as opposed to 15 percent of non LGBTQ+ youth)

– LGBTQ+ youth are 3-7 times more likely to engage in sexual acts in order to survive (having sex in exchange for food or security)

“I always look at this statistic… a lot of people don’t realize that LGBTQI+ youth, specifically those who have child welfare involvement or foster care involvement, are among if not the most vulnerable group in our society to child trafficking.”- Adam McCormick  

Are We Seeing Progress?

The movement for LGBTQ+ awareness and acceptance has been seeing a good amount of positive strides lately. Within the past few years, the level of acceptance has increased significantly. Just a decade ago, data showed that only 30 percent of Americans would support same-sex marriage. Now, that level of acceptance has raised to 70 percent. Another statistic often used is the average coming-out age, and we can see that this age has decreased over the years—which is a good thing. It means young people are slowly becoming more comfortable with themselves and more confident in telling the people around them. Ten or so years ago, the average person did not come out until they were 21, likely because they would be old enough to live on their own and provide for themselves if need be. Nowadays, the average person comes out at around 16 years old. Of course, I cannot forget the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states, which was a huge point of progress. 

These are all great achievements that need to be celebrated! It is proof that we are trying to take steps in a positive direction. 

However, we, unfortunately, cannot ignore the issues that are still in front of us. Between 8-10 percent of teens identify as LGBTQ+, and roughly 40 percent of those youth will experience family rejection in some way—which just leads in to the previous statistics about homelessness, foster care, and trafficking. Not to mention that despite the same-sex marriage laws, states are still finding loopholes for that. States such as Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all have passed some form of exemption laws that allow for discrimination based on LGBTQ+ status (more on that here).

Thus, while we have been seeing progress in LGBTQ+ acceptance (and it is definitely still worth celebrating), we do need to take into account the abundant number of things that still need work. 

“So, on one hand, we are seeing a lot of progress, a lot more acceptance a lot more affirmation, in all facets of society, especially within the family.  But on the other hand, when we look at those systems like foster care, … when we look at rates of homelessness, when we look at rates of trafficking, when we look at rates of juvenile incarceration and juvenile detention involvement, those sorts of factors, we’re not seeing any changes in those systems. What that tells us as practitioners and certainly what that tells me as a researcher is that we still have a lot of work to do, despite these gains.”—Adam McCormick 

Why the Disproportionality? 

So why is this such a big problem? How is it that are there so many LGBTQ+ kids in the foster care system compared to straight and cisgender kids? And why do they seem to experience a disproportionate amount of abuse and neglect? McCormick starts with looking into the mental and family experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. 

Mental health experiences of LGBTQ+ youth:

Family experiences of LGBTQ+ youth:

We now know that the root cause of the disproportionality of LGBTQ+ youth in the foster care system is familial rejection and that this often leads to a disproportionality in foster care, homelessness, and trafficking, as well as an overall mental health decline. 

What Can We Do? (Family Acceptance)

How can we prevent these sorts of situations? How can we make sure that statistics like all of these go down? 

One of—if not the most—pertinent things McCormick talked about was the importance of family acceptance. He went over one particular study, in which LGBTQ+ youth were given certain questions and criteria and told to give scores that ranged from very accepting to very rejecting. The study wanted to show the relationship between how accepting a family is towards their LGBTQ+ child and the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. The results came in with overwhelming proof that the more accepting a family is, the better a child feels. That can feel rather obvious, but it can actually make huge impacts. 

– LGBTQ+ youth who are accepted by their families are 8 times less likely to attempt suicide

– They are 6 times less likely to be depressed

– They are 3.4 times less likely to engage in risky substance abuse

– They are 3.4 times less likely to engage in risky sex associated with HIV

“[What this study shows is] that in fact, it’s not a young person’s identity… that predicts suicide risk or depression risk or behavioral risk. It is what their family’s level of acceptance and affirmation is.”—Adam McCormick 

Taking steps towards parents and other family members coming to a place of acceptance is truly one of the best ways to help LGBTQ+ youth. Of course, for those who have beliefs that counter this, it is a process. We know it likely won’t happen overnight, and for an unfortunate few it may never fully resolve. But even just starting the conversation, allowing for openness and kindness for both sides, clearly shows an improvement that could mean the difference between a happy, healthy person, and a depressed, unhealthy person. 

Changes to The Child Welfare System

Now, how about the actual system itself? There are plenty of changes that need to happen to the overall child welfare system if we want to continue that move forward. This includes (but obviously isn’t limited to) gaining more accepting foster homes, changing how the system deals with interventions, and providing more training for LGBTQ+ trauma. 

When a decision is made that for whatever reason a child should be removed from their family and placed in foster care, the most common next step is to try and place them with another family member. But there are more issues with kinship placement when it comes to children that are LGBTQ+, since they likely come from a family where their identities are denied or punished even by extended relatives. 

McCormick acknowledges that the child welfare system overall isn’t doing a very good job at addressing the fact that, in many of these cases, the child’s identity and their family’s acceptance of them is the root cause of why they were separated. The services provided just aren’t enough to address the factor of family rejection. 

“I’ve interviewed over 140 young people who have lived in or aged out of the Texas foster care system just in the last 5 years and asked them ‘what did the cps intervention look like with your family?’ And for many of them I heard there was very little or no intervention with the family, or the intervention didn’t really address any of those factors around family rejection.”—Adam McCormick

Since kinship placements are often off the table, traditional foster care is usually the next step. However, there aren’t nearly enough foster homes that are equipped to be accepting and affirming for them. McCormick shares the story of one of the kids he was placing, in which the foster parents were obviously disapproving of the kid’s sexual orientation. After polling multiple groups of foster parents, it was clear that not enough homes were immediately accepting and that there was little to no training on how to provide affirming and accepting care. 

The final option for most in child welfare situations like this is a placement in group homes or congregate care. Unfortunately, this is where over 70 percent of LGBTQ+ foster care youth end up. While McCormick acknowledges the benefits of group homes (he did run one, after all), he also sees the reality that a more beneficial placement would be with a family. 

   “…but the reality is that for most young people, a more ideal placement, a less restrictive placement would be with a family. A traditional placement with a family, with maybe fewer kids instead of 8 or 10 other young people in the home. And the simple fact is we’re just not doing that for LGBTQI+ youth. It becomes much easier—and don’t get me wrong. There’ve been many instances when I was a social worker where I placed an LGBTQI+ person in a group home because it was clearly the best placement option for them because I couldn’t find any other family placements for them.”—Adam McCormick 

We need to expand our way of thinking and listen to young people when they talk about their family and who their support system is. For example, some agencies have been allowing placement with fictive kinship families, which are families that the youth created through their own social means. It may be a trusted friend’s parents, a teacher, a coach, or any other people that the child trusts. But also, we need to be thinking of ways to add more acceptance training so we can prevent them from coming into a system that isn’t quite ready to provide them with the care that they really need. 

Speaking of which, what else does the system need to implement? LGBTQ+ related trauma-informed care. The specific traumas experienced by the LGBTQ+ community (see the aforementioned statistics) often require their own brand of care. But, as said before, that kind of training is rarely if ever available to foster parents or even a lot of child welfare agents in general. 

McCormick emphasizes that in order to understand these children, to create more accepting and affirming homes for them, there is a growing need for fostering communities to gain a knowledge and understanding of survival circuits. It is disheartening to think about, but danger and safety are often core concerns for these children. 

Seeing that so many of their decisions are based on survival can give us the perspective we need to help and empower them. Not that all their decisions are the best ones for them, of course not, but being able to see why they made those decisions and how we can actually help will enable us to take things so much further. 

Our system addresses the behavioral side of things so much more than the emotional side. Survival-related emotions elicit survival-related behaviors, so to improve we must focus more on the emotional side of things via trauma-informed work that develops skills regulating stress and rejection. 

The last element that McCormick touched on was quick, but it seemed to resonate with the audience (including myself). He reviewed everything, from the family rejections, the foster care system disruptions, the dangers of living on the streets, and then simply quoted: 

“Kids prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”- Bruce Perry 

We are all wired to make things understandable and predictable and controllable. When we get the rug ripped out from under us, we sometimes make decisions we aren’t proud of. We end up in situations that seem like a never-ending loop. However, the little changes we can still celebrate and the ones we hope to make are pushing us forward. 

“If there was one thing I wish that every caregiver and every case worker out there could understand when it comes to kids in the foster care system, it’s the lengths and the extent that they will go to to try to gain some sense of control over both their internal and their external world. Once we understand that, once we have a grasp on that, all of their behaviors make so much more sense to us. Not only that, but we understand those behaviors in a way that can be so much more empowering and so much more strength-based. Because we can essentially say ‘hey not only do I know why you might be doing the things that you’re doing but I think it says a whole lot about you. And how resilient you are, and how resourceful you are, and everything you’re doing to try to survive a world that has been unfair to you and unpredictable to you and so far out of your control.’”—Adam McCormick If you would like more information on how these changes are being implemented and how you can help, click here.

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