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Pride Month: Supporting LGBTQ+ Foster Youth in Your Home



Approximately 170,000 children, youth, and young adults ages 10 to 20 are in foster care in the United States . Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or other diverse identity (LGBTQ+) are overrepresented in foster care, with at least three studies estimating about 30 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ+ (Baams et al., 2019; Matarese et al., 2021; Sandfort, 2020).


Like all young people, LGBTQ+ children and youth in foster care need the support of a nurturing family to help them navigate their teenage years and grow into healthy adults. These youth face additional challenges, including the losses that brought them into care, as well as other possible traumatic events related to abuse and neglect. Often, these traumas are compounded by experiences they may suffer while in foster care or before entering foster care. LGBTQ+ youth also experience violence and other stressors unique to the LGBTQ+ community, including homophobia or transphobia (i.e., the hatred of or discomfort with people who are transgender) and the need to evaluate (often with little or no support) the safety of their communities, schools, social networks, and homes to decide whether to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity, when to do so, and to whom.


This article was written to help families understand how to provide a safe, supportive, and affirming home for an LGBTQ+ youth in foster care. It discusses the unique risks they face and the important role that foster parents can play in reducing those risks. Whether you identify as LGBTQ+ or otherwise, you may benefit from reading about the complex experiences of these youth, which extend beyond their identity and include, among other concerns, the trauma related to being in care. You will learn about specific actions that you can take to promote a youth's health and well-being at home and in the LGBTQ+ community. You will also find links to several resources for more information and support.


TERMS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

To help create an environment where LGBTQ+ children and youth feel safe, ask all young people how they identify and what their pronouns are. These questions will send a message of safety and LGBTQ+ competency to youth who are unsure of whether to disclose their identity. Some youth may choose not to use self-identifying terms. It is important that you honor their decisions.


Many terms and labels can be regional, generational, and cultural. Your familiarity with these evolving terms will help you recognize common misconceptions about LGBTQ+ youth and understand the youth in your care. Your familiarity with these terms will also show the youth in your care that you care about language and ideas that are important to them. As youth grow to trust their foster families, many will eventually share their feelings about gender identity or sexuality more openly.


ADDRESSING COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS

Misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity is harmful to youth. It is also harmful to foster families. Making assumptions based on your perception (for example, mannerisms are often not accurate indicators) and assuming the sexual orientation of the youth in your care can result in a traumatizing experience. The following responses to common misconceptions are important for you to know about LGBTQ+ youth in your home.


LGBTQ+ youth are like any other youth. Everyone has a sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTQ+ youth go through the same milestones as their cisgender peers, such as attending the first day of school, going on their first date, and earning their first paycheck. Most, if not all, youth in foster care have been affected by trauma and loss due to separation from their families; they require acceptance and understanding. Making sure your home is welcoming and affirming to all differences, including race, ethnicity, disability, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation, will help ensure that all youth in your home feel safe and grow into adults who embrace diversity in all its forms.


This is not “just a phase.” LGBTQ+ people are coming out (acknowledging their sexual orientation/gender identity to themselves and others) at younger and younger ages. Studies by the Family Acceptance Project have found that most people report being attracted to another person around age 10 and identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual by age 13 (on average) (HHS, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by age 4 (Rafferty, 2018). Someone who has reached the point of telling a foster parent that they are LGBTQ+ has likely given a great deal of thought to their own identity and to the decision to share it.


No one “caused” their LGBTQ+ identity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are the result of complex genetic, biological, and environmental factors. A youth's LGBTQ+ identity is not the result of anything you (or a birth parent or any other person) did. People who identify as LGBTQ+ come from families of all religious, political, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, including straight and LGBTQ+-dominant households. An LGBTQ+ parent does not "create" LGBTQ+ children. Experiencing childhood trauma or reading about, hearing about, or being friends with other LGBTQ+ people does not "make" a youth become LGBTQ+. Professional mental health organizations agree that LGBTQ+ identities are not mental disorders and are natural parts of the human condition.


LGBTQ+ youth are no more likely to have a mental health diagnosis or behavioral challenges than other youth. Although it is true that LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug use, and other mental health challenges than the general population, studies show that these rates are the result of the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ+ people experience from others and from navigating hostile environments and barriers to access mental health services. They are not characteristics of a person’s LGBTQ+ identity. Many LGBTQ+ people also fear being visibly LGBTQ+ because of the experienced and perceived stigma, harassment, or threats to safety, which can lead to negative mental health outcomes.


People who identify as LGBTQ+ are not more likely than heterosexual or cisgender people to sexually abuse or otherwise pose a threat to others, including children. Abusers are most likely to be family members or someone the family trusts.


Their LGBTQ+ identity cannot be changed. Medical and psychological experts agree that attempting to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity does not work and could result in higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. So-called "conversion therapy"—any method intended to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity—does not work and can be harmful to a person's health and well-being (SAMHSA, 2015).


You do not have to choose between your faith

and supporting their LGBTQ+ identity. Many religious groups embrace LGBTQ+ youth, adults, and their families. There are more and more affirming churches and religious groups that are providing affirming spaces to LGBTQ+ youth and their families. For more information on addressing misconceptions, see A Guide for Understanding Supporting, and Affirming LBGTQI2-S Children, Youth, and Families Poirier et al., 2014)


LGBTQ+ YOUTH AND THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM

LGBTQ+ children and youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system. Some LGBTQ+ youth enter the child welfare system for the same reasons that other children and youth enter care: Their birth families are unable to provide a safe, stable, and nurturing home for them due to a parent's incarceration, drug or alcohol use, mental illness, or other reasons unrelated to the youth's identity. Other youth, however, are rejected (and, in some cases, neglected or abused) by their families of origin when learning that they identify as LGBTQ+.


The good news is that rejection, maltreatment, and other traumas can be mitigated by foster and adoptive families who acknowledge, respect, and support LGBTQ+ youth in ways that nurture and protect the health, safety, and well-being of these young people. When child welfare agencies identify and ensure access to foster homes that provide stable, supportive, and affirming families for LGBTQ+ youth, these youth can develop the strength and self-confidence they need to become successful adults


CREATING A WELCOMING AND AFFIRMING HOME FOR YOUTH

All children and youth in care need nurturing homes that provide them with a safe place to process their feelings of grief, loss, and trauma; freedom to express who they are; and structure to support them in becoming responsible, healthy adults. Creating a welcoming and affirming foster home for LGBTQ+ youth is not that different from creating a safe and supportive home for any youth. In fact, youth in care may have difficulty trusting adults (many with good reason), so you may not know their gender identity or sexual orientation until they have spent time in your home and have grown to trust you. Avoid making assumptions about gender identity or sexual orientation. Any steps you take to make your home welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ+ youth will benefit all children and youth in your care—both by giving LGBTQ+ youth the freedom to express themselves and by helping heterosexual and cisgender youth learn to respect and embrace diversity. Respecting their gender identity and expression is very important. Behaviors that openly reject a youth's LGBTQ+ identity must be avoided and not tolerated. This includes slurs or jokes about gender or sexuality and forcing youth to attend activities (including religious activities, sports activities, and family gatherings) that are openly hostile or unsupportive of people with diverse identities.


As children and youth grow to trust their foster families, many will eventually share their feelings about gender identity or sexuality more openly. The more you can do to provide an authentically safe space for the youth, the earlier they could potentially feel comfortable being out.


Consider the following suggestions, whether or not a youth in your care openly identifies as LGBTQ+:

  • Make it clear that slurs or jokes based on sex assigned at birth, gender expression or identity, or sexual orientation are not tolerated in your house. Express your disapproval of these types of jokes or slurs when you encounter them in the community or media.

  • Display "hate-free zone" signs or other symbols indicating an LGBTQ-affirming environment (e.g., pink triangle, rainbow, or ally flag .)

  • Use gender-neutral language when asking about relationships. For example, instead of, "Do you have a girlfriend?" ask, "Are you dating anyone?"

  • Celebrate diversity in all forms. Provide access to a variety of books, movies, and materials, including those that positively represent same-gender relationships. Point out LGBTQ+ celebrities, role models who stand up for the LGBTQ+ community, and people who demonstrate bravery in the face of social stigma.

  • Let youth in your care know that you are willing to listen and talk about anything.

  • Support their self-expression through their choices of clothing, jewelry, hairstyle, friends, and room decoration.

  • Insist that other family members include and respect all youth in your home.

  • Allow youth to participate in activities that interest them, regardless of whether these activities are stereotypically masculine or feminine.

  • Educate yourself about LGBTQ+ history, issues, and resources


If a youth in your care discloses their LGBTQ+ identity, you can show your support in the following ways:

  • Respond in an affirming, supportive way, such as "Thank you for telling me. How can I support you? Would you like others to know?"

  • Ask how they prefer to be addressed. Use the name and pronouns (such as he, she, or they) they want to go by.

  • Respect their privacy. Allow them to decide when to come out and to whom.

  • Avoid double standards: Allow them to discuss feelings of attraction and engage in age-appropriate romantic relationships, just as you would for youth who do not identify as LGBTQ+.

  • Connect them with LGBTQ+ organizations, resources, and events. Consider seeking an LGBTQ+ adult role model for them, if possible.

  • Reach out for education, resources, and support if you feel the need to deepen your understanding of LGBTQ+ youth experiences.

  • Stand up for them when they are mistreated or disrespected.


SUPPORTING YOUTH IN THE COMMUNITY

The support you give to youth in your care extends beyond your home. It is essential that you also prepare to advocate for them. This involves ensuring they feel safe in the community, receive appropriate child welfare services, benefit from physical and mental health care, and obtain education services to promote healthy development and self- esteem. To help create a plan and a network of communication and safety for the youth, meet with the principal and counselors at their school, the Parent-Teacher Association, and local community advisory boards that involve law enforcement. Parents can also help youth plan for how they will share their identity with friends or others, such as teachers and coaches. Connecting youth with mentors or staying personally involved in their social activities can also be supportive.


CONCLUSION

LGBTQ+ youth in foster care need nurturing homes where they feel safe and affirmed. They make up the highest percentage of children and youth in the child welfare and foster care systems, and they face serious risks beyond those experienced by heterosexual and cisgender youth. Disrupted placements and rejection by their families and other caregivers further increases the challenges and vulnerability they face. If LGBTQ+ youth are to reach their full potential and grow into healthy, happy adults, they—like all youth in care—need families who can provide permanent, supportive, and affirming homes during their critical teenage years. With a little additional education and training, your family can successfully provide a welcoming home to LGBTQ+ youth in need of a permanent and loving family.


HOW TO GET INVOLVED

Every facet of Quality Youth Services Treatment Foster Care model is designed to make Foster Parents feel confident in their ability to provide a safe, secure and nurturing environment for all family members including the foster youth.


Quality Youth Services provides short term foster care through our dedicated foster parents in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, please complete the foster parent application on our website at this link, https://www.qualityyouthservices.com/foster-care, and our Program Director will call to schedule an interview within two days.


Or if you would like more information before applying, check out our website page dedicated to Foster Parents at this link, https://www.qualityyouthservices.com/proctor-parents.


You may also request more information or get answers to specific questions prior to applying at this link https://www.qualityyouthservices.com/request-more-information

Quality Youth Services Foster Parents play a vital role in the mental health, well-being and future success of the vulnerable youth they serve in their homes. Please join us in being catalysts of positive change in our community by deciding to foster today!



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