The Crisis of America’s LGBT Youths in Foster Care

Research shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths are more likely than their heterosexual peers to be placed in the foster care system.
(Photo: Chris Schmidt/Getty Images)
Jun 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

Eleven years ago, Robert Rodriguez arrived in New York. He was 14 and had just gotten off a plane from Puerto Rico, where he’d been living with his abusive stepmother since his father’s death several years earlier. (Rodriguez’s mother died when he was four.) Rodriguez’s aunt met him at the airport, but they never went to her apartment. Their drive ended at New York’s Administration for Child Services, better known as the foster care system. His aunt was gone before he understood what was happening. “I had no clue,” he recalls. “They didn’t even let me say good-bye to her.”

To this day, it’s unclear why he was placed in the foster care system. Rodriguez was placed with several foster families, and he frequently endured sexual abuse. Some of his personal belongings were stolen, and, he says, one foster family member opened credit cards in his name. Rodriguez told his foster mothers that he was gay. One had him publicly shamed in front of their church. Another refused to take him to the hospital, or to the police, after a group of students from his high school assaulted him while yelling homophobic slurs.

Rodriguez’s experience isn’t unusual for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. LGBT youths are 1.5 to 2 times more likely than their heterosexual peers to be placed in the foster care system, according to a relatively recent report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, a leading authority on LGBT issues. Nearly 20 percent of foster youths surveyed identified themselves as LGBT. These youths had a higher-than-average number of placements and a greater chance of being hospitalized overnight or treated for emotional issues. They were also more likely to end up in a group home or on the streets.

Youth workers across the country say the Williams Institute’s research echoes their observations. Wes Ware, founding director of BreakOUT!, a New Orleans organization that works to end the criminalization of LGBT youths, says these youths “are disproportionately represented in all systems of care,” from child services to the juvenile justice system. He cites such factors as “homelessness, family rejection, substance abuse, school pushout, and general lack of access to social services or supports” as further limiting options.

After one assault, Rodriguez was able to find help at the Harvey Milk High School, which is managed by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York social services organization for LGBT youths. Lillian Rivera, the institute’s director of advocacy and capacity building, says about 6 percent of the youths she works with are in foster care. All too often, these youths are “placed in homes where they see homophobia and transphobia,” which does nothing to “ support their development as healthy adolescents.”

In the long term, Rivera says, this can lead to a host of negative outcomes, including mental health issues and homelessness. But where most would see obstacles, Rivera sees possibilities. If we can properly support these youths when they are in their time of most need, then “we can impact homelessness in LGBTQ youth” down the line, she says.

Rivera points to key things being done to help LGBT youths in foster care. For example, for the first time, New York City is trying to get an accurate count of LGBT youths in the system. She also believes that adults who work in the system must be educated about the particular challenges LGBT youths face. “We don’t need to be re-traumatizing people by placing them in unsupportive environments,” she says.

Rivera is perhaps most concerned, however, with what happens when these youths become too old for foster care. “The systems aren’t in place to support a healthy transition into adulthood—where they have employment, they’re economically stable,” she says.

Until better pathways exist in foster care, organizations like Hetrick-Martin and BreakOUT! are stepping in to help youths like Rodriguez successfully navigate a path to a healthy adulthood. Rodriguez graduated from the Harvey Milk High School in 2009 and went on to college—first in Chicago and then in New York. In what he described as a “silver lining,” one of his foster care coordinators got him an interview at the foster care department. Soon, he landed a job as a foster care youth advocate.

With help from people like Rodriguez, the system is changing. In the last few years, New York’s foster care system has created an office that handles LGBT issues. It has recommended that intake workers discuss sexual orientation with all youths ages 12 and older.

Rivera is hopeful about these changes. “Our system is working really hard to identify the areas that need to grow to ensure a strong safety net for LGBT youth in foster care,” she said. Hopefully, that safety net will benefit youths like Rodriguez, who works at the local YMCA and is writing a book about his experiences.