LGBTQ Kids More Likely to Be Mistreated in Foster Care, Wind Up Homeless
Giovanni Fernandez was three years old when he entered the Los Angeles County foster care system. His mother tried to drown him before he was even a toddler. He’s never met his biological father.
Fernandez was in a group home before landing in two foster houses, the second of which he remained in through high school. As a teenager, Fernandez came out to his Catholic foster mother, who responded by telling him all gay people would “burn in hell.” At Thanksgiving dinner, he was sent to sit in his room alone so he wouldn’t influence her grandchildren or give them the AIDS she assumed he had.
She made him attend counseling and group therapy in an attempt to fix his “problem” of being gay.
“I felt like maybe there was something wrong with me,” said Fernandez. “I ended up moving out because I couldn’t live with that kind of spiritual abuse.”
Fernandez is now 38, but when it comes to the experience of LGBTQ kids in foster care, his story is timeless.
There are almost 1,400 LGBTQ foster kids in L.A., which accounts for about 20 percent of the foster population that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, according to a study released Wednesday by UCLA’s Williams Institute. These LGBTQ kids are twice as likely to report poor treatment in foster care than heterosexual youths and are more likely to end up hospitalized for mental health issues, such as depression.
One of the most effective ways to help LGBTQ youths feel less alienated and alone is by better training the social workers who are responsible for them, said Fernandez. Although a system is in place to try to do that, some social workers and foster parents are resistant to it or say it violates their religion.
“My social worker was not supportive, and to this day, I never knew if she was homophobic or just didn’t want to deal with it,” said Fernandez. “She’s supposed to be my No. 1 advocate.”
Fernandez is now in school working to become a social worker, so he can use his own experiences to help gay kids coming up through the foster system.
UCLA’s study was commissioned by the L.A. LGBT Center, and authors say it’s the first of its kind to assess the sexual orientation and gender identity of kids in the child welfare system. The research was conducted through telephone interviews with 786 randomly chosen people between the ages of 12 and 21 who were living in foster care in L.A.
The authors found that the foster system has almost twice as many LGBTQ kids as the general population and that these individuals were more likely than their heterosexual peers to have been homeless at some point. L.A. County has the largest population of foster kids in the U.S.—about 7,400 between the ages of 12 and 21—so researchers hope they can use this localized study to create a model that can be applied to cities across the country.
“The cost to society of a foster care system that doesn’t properly serve LGBTQ youth isn’t just measured by the number of young people who are mistreated, discriminated against, and bounced from home to home. It’s measured by all the associated costs—monetary and otherwise—to care for the psychological disorders, homelessness, and other issues that so many experience when they age out of the foster system at eighteen,” said the center’s Curt Shepard in a statement.
Creating a more welcoming foster environment for LGBTQ youths is an effort being adopted by many cities. Last year, in an act of sensitivity, the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees the foster care system, launched a campaign to attract more LGBTQ-affirming foster parents.
New York City’s foster care system has approximately 13,000 total children, and although the city doesn’t keep numbers on how many are LGBTQ, officials and experts say they make up a disproportionate number of foster youths (much like in Los Angeles).
But while metropolitan cities are taking strides to better care for gay youths, some states don’t even allow gay individuals to serve as foster parents. In Nebraska, Utah, and Mississippi, gay parents, by policy or law, aren’t allowed to adopt or foster any of the thousands of kids in need.