An LGBTQIA+ kid on the stairs of a foster home
Annie Otzen, Getty Images

How COVID-19 Left LGBTQIA+ Youth In Foster Care Even More At Risk

by Amber Leventry

“When I was first placed in a group home, my biggest worry was, ‘Will people accept me? Will I have to fight?’”

This was Jessie, a young queer person who has experienced foster care, offering a testimonial for for “Fostering Inequity: How COVID-19 Amplifies Dangers For LGBTQ+ Youth In Care,” a June 2020 report issued by Children’s Rights. Jessie didn’t worry about the other kids placed in the same home, but about the adults.

“Adults have already learned discrimination,” they explained. “I even had one group home worker tell me I was going to be a prostitute when I grew up.”

Jessie’s experience is not isolated. LGBTQIA+ youth were one of the most unseen and at-risk communities in our country before COVID-19 struck. Rejection at home (only a third of LGBTQ+ kids are accepted by their parents, per The Trevor Project) and bullying and harassment at school increase mental health struggles, suicide, self-harming behaviors, and homelessness for queer youth. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+ and roughly 30% of kids in foster care systems identify as LGBTQ, according to figures from the Human Rights Campaign and Children’s Rights, respectively.

However, many uncounted queer youth live at risk of tumbling into the foster care and homeless systems. "Child welfare systems rely on networks of mandatory reporters and engaged community and family members to witness and report the signs of abuse and neglect," explained the report, warning that due to school closings and social distancing requirements, "the pandemic has removed youth from sight, rendering abuse and neglect nearly invisible to many." Since lockdowns began, the number of suspected abuse cases have dropped by as much as 50% in some areas, according to the authors' findings. But experts say that once they fall into the state and federal social systems, LGBTQIA+ youth are subject to higher rates of discrimination and abuse within child welfare systems.

Christina Wilson-Remlin, Lead Counsel at Children’s Rights and one of the lead authors of the Children’s Rights “Fostering Inequity” report says, “In the many conversations I have had with young people in group homes, I hear over and over again about the nightmares that COVID-19 has caused for [large] populations. In normal circumstances, group homes often lack effective oversight from state child welfare agencies. During the pandemic, this has not changed.” Now they’re also hotbeds for COVID-19 transmission.

Thanks to social distancing policies, in-person support groups and contact with supportive friends, teachers, or coaches has dropped away. Many queer teens access LGBTQIA+ centers for gender affirming clothing, prophylactics, and health screenings; the pandemic has closed the doors to those centers and their lifesaving provisions. The report states, "LGBTQ+ youth who relied on school and extra-curricular activities for respite from harmful home environments now find themselves with fewer safe spaces."

Quantifying the scope of the problem at this moment in time is difficult. “There is not comprehensive data about [queer youth’s] existence or their experiences across child welfare systems nationwide,” says Christina Wilson-Remlin. This is because a child may not be out, but it’s mostly due to the Trump administration’s elimination of data collection regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

Nasheedah Muhammad is the director of Lost-n-Found Youth, an organization in Atlanta, Georgia that serves as temporary housing, shelter, and food provider among many other resources for LGBTQIA+ youth ages 18-25. Muhammad says, “We had a young man [stop by], who was trans, and he was living under the bridge with a bunch of the other kids who come to our youth center, and we worked really hard to get him connected with safe and supportive services.” The rules require them to report him as abandoned after two days, which triggers a series of protocols.

Muhammed says the shelter has social workers who work with parents to help educate them to better understand LGBTQIA+ issues; in some cases the best support for a queer child is a parent who has support too through counselors and places like PFLAG.

But the cycle is repetitive and often toxic. When child welfare does get involved, children under the age of 18 are often sent back to their homes because the conflict between a parent who is not affirming and a queer child is often seen as just basic teenage angst, according to Wilson-Remlin. This means that when social workers are asked to do home visits their biases tend to get in the way, resulting in a child being left in an abusive home. “Child welfare systems are pretty hesitant and slow to bring in teenagers because teenagers are very hard to place according to their perspective,” Wilson-Remlin says.

But COVID-19 has reduced these in-home visits for both new and current cases in the child welfare system, removing what can be a way out, and forcing many young LGBTQIA+ people to choose safety over their true identity in order to live with unaccepting parents. Meanwhile, child welfare systems have cut back on other critical services, including family therapy, parent training, mental health services and substance abuse counseling.

Chris, who experienced homelessness, shared a friend’s reality in the Children’s Rights report. “I have a friend who is trans and homeless. They don’t have the best relationship with their family because they’re transphobic. But, because of COVID, they stopped their hormones so they could go home. They’re experiencing a lot of dysphoria right now. It’s really hard.”

The national fire alarm over the U.S.’ response to COVID-19 has also given cover to the states pushing to deny LGBTQ people and couples from adopting, as well as the Trump administration’s support of such discrimination. People who want to adopt queer youth are not allowed to do so or the process is made much more difficult because of ignorance and biases.

In the best of times, those who do manage to navigate the system as caregivers — foster parents and group home leaders — need training to better understand the dynamics of what it means to be LGBTQIA+, including the discrimination that happens within the system and this comes from ongoing and frequent training of staff and front line social works. Training is available through national and local advocacy groups and activists, however the “need” for trainings is subjective, based on the people making the decisions about budgets and professional development. Then there need to be policies in place that hold agencies accountable. Each state is different, but in New York part of the training to become a foster parent includes LGBTQIA+ education. That piece could easily be added to mandatory trainings already in existence throughout the country.

Wilson-Remlin says once safe and affirming spaces are in place within the welfare system, social workers can work with families so that they can support the goal of “family preservation” while also supporting the goal of fundamental safety for LGBTQIA+ youth.

Mary Katherine Samples has been a court appointed special advocate (CASA) for nearly 10 years in Alabama and Florida. “I have noticed positive changes in training and education sessions focused on the needs of LGBTQ youth,” says Samples. “But volunteers can only do so much, and these changes are evolving too slowly to keep up with the needs of LGBTQ youth, especially during the heightened impact of COVID-19.”

“It’s a difficult thing with foster youth because when they are in the system it makes it hard to support them,” explains Muhammad, who emphasized the need for queer workers within the child welfare system to advocate for those queer youth.

Government incompetence is making things worse all around for LGBTQ+ youths, and will have long-term effects, says Wilson-Remlin.

One bright spot has been the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It offers the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) $6.3 billion in extra funding, with $45 million to support the child welfare system.

In an ideal and just world, the queer kids in this system will see relief too.