Alarming Data Shows LGBTQIA+ Youth in Foster Care Face Severe Barriers

By Desiree Lindsay, Treehouse Public Relations Coordinator

Those in foster care who identify as LGBTQIA+ face higher rates of homelessnessplacement changes and trauma than their peers, often from a lack of affirming and supportive communities  

As Pride Month gives us an opportunity to drive empowerment for our LGBTQIA+ population, it’s also a stark reminder that many of our systems still perpetuate discrimination and homophobia.  

Existing policies and procedures still drastically affect youth and adults with non-dominant gender and sexual identities within the foster care system. For these individuals, living at the intersection of many barriers creates severe consequences compared to their peers, those both in and out of foster care.  

Systemic and Longstanding Issues 

One of the starkest examples of how this discrimination plays out is that while non-foster care LGBTQIA+ youth face higher risks of suicide than the general population, these youth who’ve experienced foster care are three times more likely to have attempted suicide within the past year than their non-foster care peers. Further, if they’re placed in unsupportive and unaffirming homes, the harm caused is so great that they would rather live on the streets. 

You don’t have much choice in where you’re placed and you’re often stuck there for a long time. There’s no way to know if you’re going to be safe and accepted. It’s easier to live on the streets than living in fear of not being accepted,” said Connor, a Treehouse Launch Success participant. 

Connor experienced this firsthand and he is far from alone. While the data is likely underreported because there are few legal mandates to track sexual and gender identity in child welfare systems, one study found that as many as 56 percent of LGBTQIA+ youth in care spent time unhoused. 

In many states throughout the U.S., it is still legal to refuse foster parent licenses to LGBTQIA+ adults and placements to LGBTQIA+ youth. In other states with some legal protections, there are still exemptions for religious beliefs.

recent study in New York found that 78 percent of LGBTQIA+ unhoused youth were physically removed from, or ran away from, their foster care placement because of abuse or discrimination. This further creates a cycle where these youth face significantly higher rates of placement instability than their cisgender foster care peers.  

Connor is a staunch advocate for investing in more LGBTQIA+-identifying adults within the foster care system. When he was paired with his new Treehouse Launch Success Coach, Alex Cornell, it was life-changing and a critical source of healing.  

“Being paired with Alex made everything easier. I didn’t have any relationships with adults who were LGBTQ or who understood what I was going through. It’s just different when you’re talking with someone who understands,” said Connor who laughed and added, “we’re just on the same wavelength.” 

When hearing Connor explain what contributed to his time living on the streets, Alex said, “Connor is such an amazing and loveable young man. To hear he ever felt that unsafe breaks my heart. When you are an LGBTQ adult working in the system, it’s so much more heartbreaking.” 

The need for investment in LGBTQIA+ adults in the foster care workforce 

Connor spent many years in a system where he was under the control of adults who didn’t understand or support him, despite good intentions. There were even times he was forced to misidentify himself in order to receive services because the foster care system hasn’t adapted to adequately serve LGBTQIA+ youth. 

These issues are nationwide and compounded by a serious over-representation of LGBTQIA+ youth in the foster care system. Recent studies have shown that 30 percent of youth in care identify as LGBTQIA+, while only 5 percent of the general population identify as LGBTQIA+.   

A long-term case management worker at the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) in Tacoma, Jarel Sanders identifies as LGBTQIA+ and speaks to the need to increase recruitment of adults across the gender and sexuality spectrum at all agencies in the child welfare system. At the very least, he said they should be investing in increased training so that cisgender adults can be better allies to the youth they serve.   

“Children really need to have adults in their life they can trust. And if you can’t understand what they’re going through or what those special needs might be, they aren’t going to be able to form close relationships with you. The ones where you can really make a difference in their life,” Jarel said. 

This is why we must invest in developing a child welfare system that can provide supportive and affirming communities for our youth. These relationships save lives and make a difference. 

As a former LGBTQIA+ foster parent, Dawn Rains, Treehouse Chief Policy and Strategy Officer, looks forward to seeing the foster care system adapt to be more equitable and supportive of LGBTQIA+ populations. Without this essential step, these unacceptable statistics will remain prevalent.   

“We need accepting and affirming organizations and adults in this system.” she added.  

To learn more about Launch Success and how we partner with young adults in foster care, visit: treehouseforkids.org/launch-success.

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About the Author

Desiree Lindsay is the Public Relations Coordinator at Treehouse, where she elevates the voices and experiences of the youth we serve.

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