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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Serving the rainbow youth
By David Thill
2016-11-30

This article shared 1200 times since Wed Nov 30, 2016
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Several Illinois agencies are taking action to reduce the problems that are specific to LGBTQ youth in the child-welfare system.

Renee Lehocky, LCSW, began her career in social services in 1989, a time when same-sex couples looking to adopt children faced obstacles in doing so, and the needs of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system were much less accounted for. Since then, said Lehocky—now director of strategic initiatives for the Lawrence Hall youth service organization in Chicago—"Foster care has come a long way."

Still, LGBTQ youth make up as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population in the United States, and a disproportionate segment of the country's child welfare population. While Lehocky's observation may be true, these and other recent findings suggest there is still progress to be made.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation review of literature

LGBTQ youth in the child-welfare system "are at a greater risk for many negative experiences, including being less likely to be placed with a permanent family," according to a new report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national philanthropic organization that serves youth affected by poverty and limited opportunity. "These young people face discrimination and conflict with their families of origin as well as harassment and violence in group placement settings," it continued. "To remove obstacles, service providers and families must acknowledge the barriers and seek effective strategies to address them."

The report, published in September 2016, serves as the first comprehensive review of research literature focusing on LGBTQ youth in the welfare system.

With help from the metrics firm Public Research and Evaluation Services, other child welfare specialists and professionals serving LGBTQ youth, and young LGBTQ people themselves, the Casey Foundation compiled its report to answer the question, "What strategies—evidence-based, evidence-informed or promising practices that contribute to improved permanence and decreased marginalization—do youth who are LGBTQ and have experienced the child welfare system receive from frontline staff and resource families?"

Five broad topics emerged from its review of 116 documents published between 1992 and 2016:

—Best and promising practices for serving LGBTQ youth in welfare;

—Legal and policy protections;

—The importance of parental and family acceptance;

—Harassment, abuse and negative treatment; and

—Resulting risks and vulnerabilities.

Also included is a special focus on gender nonconforming and transgender youth as well as LGBTQ youth of color—two subpopulations that the report acknowledges are particularly affected by disparities.

Revising Illinois state policy

Only 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have explicit laws or policies in place to protect foster youth from discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, according to a 2015 Human Rights Campaign report, "LGBTQ Youth in the Foster Care System," which is included in the Casey Foundation review. Seven other states have policies protecting foster youth from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity.

While Illinois was included in neither category, at press time the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ) was reviewing a new policy on LGBTQ youth that applies to DCFS wards of the state. "I'm very proud of it," said Claudia Mosier, PsyD., a consulting psychologist with Illinois DCFS who has worked in issues involving LGBTQ youth since the 1970s. Mosier confirms that the policy, which affects both the department and all agencies to whom it provides funding, will be approved shortly.

DCFS has had a policy in place addressing LGBTQ youth since 2001, but the one awaiting approval is more detailed, she said. It specifically addresses transgender and gender nonconforming youth, touching on issues such as clothing, pronouns, documentation and living situations.

Both Lehocky and Mosier agree that policies such as this are strong starting points for reducing the levels of LGBTQ youth in the welfare system. Without these measures, said Mosier, agencies and foster parents working with DCFS are not required to comply with recommendations by the agency. "But if I can say, 'This is our policy; you have to treat our LGBTQ kids with respect,'" they have to comply.

Promoting safety

More than half of the documents compiled in the Casey Foundation review noted that LGBTQ teens face negative treatment from at least one source, including peers and agency staff. The 2015 Human Rights Campaign report shows the results of a New York City survey of LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care. One hundred percent of the youth surveyed reported verbal harassment in group homes, and 70 percent reported physical violence in group homes.

Illinois DCFS—where to avoid common clinical names and acronyms, the LGBTQ wards form a group of "Rainbow Youth"—addresses these issues by providing LGBTQ-specific training to youth workers and residential staff.

At Lawrence Hall, every new staff member's three-and-a-half-hour introductory training includes a special focus on LGBTQ youth, said Lehocky. During this part of the training, an LGBTQ individual who received services at Lawrence Hall addresses incoming staff, recounting both the positive and negative aspects of their time with the organization.

To address peer-to-peer harassment, Lawrence Hall has a youth advisory board of current youth in the organization, several of whom are part of the larger Illinois Youth Advisory Board. This board serves as a group of leaders dedicated to addressing issues that the individuals in the organization face, including issues that might arise in group homes.

Further challenges arise when it comes to working with families, where young LGBTQ people—particularly those in the welfare system—often face rejection. This includes foster families, too.

Family connection

"We desperately need more adults in the LGBTQ community and allies to help foster our LGBTQ youth in care," said Jane Kelly, LGBT coordinator for Illinois DCFS, in a July Associated Press article. "Many of our youth come into care when they are told to leave their homes by their own families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity."

The Casey Foundation report notes that LGBTQ youth in the welfare system experience a decreased likelihood of achieving a permanent home placement. A 2012 article, entitled "Characteristics of Foster Parents Willing to Care for Sexual Minority Youth," presented the findings of a national study examining the willingness of foster mothers to parent sexual minority youth. It found that 40 percent of the respondents would not be willing to provide foster care to LGBTQ youth under any circumstances.

Lawrence Hall, along with nine other Illinois-based organizations, is currently taking part in a yearlong initiative to recruit foster parents for the state's homeless youth, which, according to a 2005 state-run study, number around 25,000. While the initiative—"Call to Action—Foster and Adopt Our Children!"—focuses on recruiting parents for all homeless youth, there is a growing effort to find housing for LGBTQ youth specifically.

Pride Action Tank and Windy City Times are partnering with the agencies on this initiative, along with AdoptUSKids.

The initiative held its first recruitment event in July at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where more than 170 prospective foster parents learned about their adoption options. Seeing so many agencies working together to help link foster parents with children was "awesome," Said Mosier, who was present at the event.

Furthermore, she said she believes the event was successful in attracting prospective LGBTQ foster parents from the community. "It was amazing … to have so many people come and say, 'Yeah, these are our kids.'" While all wards of the state face their own obstacles when navigating the child welfare system, adding factors such as sexual orientation and gender identity can create a complicated situation for an individual.

One of the things Mosier finds special about LGBTQ parents who foster LGBTQ children is that they provide an environment in which the child can relate to others close to them. For most other forms of minority status, when a child faces harassment or discrimination outside the home, another family member will typically have had a similar experience. This is rare for LGBTQ people, most of whom grow up in families where they are the only person with that particular trait.

But having a parent with whom to identify offers the child a touchstone, according to Mosier. "They're going to have some place [to go]. They'll feel accepted," she said.

Casey report link: AECF.org/resources/lgbtq-in-child-welfare

Lawrence Hall: LawrenceHall.org, or email RLehocky@lawrencehall.org

Pride Action Tank: prideactiontank.org/ . To get involved with PAT's work on foster care and LGBTQ youth, email Jackie Thaney at JThaney@aidschicago.org .


This article shared 1200 times since Wed Nov 30, 2016
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