OPINION

National Coming Out Day: For many LGBTQ youth in foster care, 'coming out' isn't an option

Fear of the consequences is what prevents LGBTQ+ young people from celebrating their identity openly. And our foster care system doesn't help them.

Marlene Matarese and Angela Weeks
Opinion contributors

National Coming Out Day is a celebration of the power of living openly as an LGBTQ+ person. LGBTQ+ people have celebrated this day for 33 years under the premise that queerphobia thrives in silence and invisibility. However, for many young people living in foster care, celebrating their identity openly could have dire consequences.

It is fear of these consequences that silences LGBTQ+ young people and creates an invisible population that is overrepresented in foster care. It is the ethical responsibility of child welfare agencies across the country to break this silence by routinely asking about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

There are no federal requirements to collect information on young people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Without this accurate information on how many LGBTQ+ youth are being served by these systems, human service leaders cannot allocate the right resources and programs to meet the needs of this population.

Unknown, underserved nationwide

At The Institute for Innovation and Implementation, we conducted a survey of 251 youth in foster care ages 12-21 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, finding that 32% of them identified as LGBTQ+. A similar study in Los Angeles County found a rate of 19%, and another in New York City reported 34% in their foster care systems.

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This data shows a surprising number of LGBTQ+ youth in foster care, two to three times higher than estimated in the general population. These studies also found that these populations reported more mistreatment while in care, more frequent placement changes, and were more likely to need medical care for emotional reasons compared with their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Our Midwest study shows this is not just an issue impacting large coastal cities. It is an urgent problem facing child welfare systems across the USA.

In the Cuyahoga County study, LGBTQ+ youth were nearly twice as likely to report that they could never, or only sometimes, be themselves in the place that they were living. In these situations, child welfare agencies should immediately act to work with these families to help them be more supportive of the LGBTQ+ youth’s identity through therapeutic interventions, finding the youth a more affirming placement, or training the caregivers or residential staff. This all becomes much more difficult when we don’t know who these youth are and where they are placed. 

Drawing from a child in foster care

LGBTQ+ youth in the Cuyahoga County study were asked whether they had told their social worker about their sexual orientation. Respondents who answered “no” described “being worried about their social worker’s reaction” and “worried it will mess up placement," or another reason. Many staff remain unaware of how many LGBTQ+ youth they support.

Meeting the needs of invisible youth

When interviewed in June by the Buckeye Flame, an Ohio publication that amplifies LGBTQ+ voices, Karen Anderson of Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services stated, “When we were asking staff about LGBTQ+ youth they were working with, we were getting estimates back of 2-3%.”

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The fears of youth to speak out, and the lack of staff awareness, speak to larger issues that agencies take on around communicating safety and affirmation. Further, it speaks to the necessity of making sexual orientation, gender identity and expression questions part of standard practice. We cannot meet the needs of a population that we do not know or think exists.

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We also know that studies have found this population is at greater risk of depression, and that suicidal ideation may be related to the LGBTQ+ minority stress they experience. If we knew when youth entered care that they identified as LGBTQ+, we would be able to offer them programs and services that met their unique needs and potentially prevent them from slipping further into the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and from experiencing behavioral health disorders or dying by suicide.

Angela Weeks in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2019.

In 2016, under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families proposed a rule that would have required state child welfare agencies to collect and report sexual orientation and gender identity in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. This proposal was never enacted.

Marlene Matarese in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2019.

Today, most child welfare agencies do not collect sexual orientation, gender identity and expression data and do not provide protocols for asking about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

This year, as we celebrate National Coming Out Day, it is an important reminder that for many children experiencing foster care, coming out is not an option for them. They do not feel safe in sharing their identity to the workforce and caregivers funded to protect them.  We can change that and create LGBTQ+ affirming child welfare systems through training, accountability and requiring that child welfare agencies ask about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.   

Marlene Matarese is a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work and the deputy director for The Institute for Innovation and Implementation. Angela Weeks is project director of the National Center for Young People with Diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression at The Institute for Innovation and Implementation.