Of the more than 437,000 youth in foster care nationwide in 2016, nearly 55,000 lived in California. Among California’s foster youth population, nearly 20 percent were LGBTQ.
LGBTQ young people often enter foster care for the same reasons as their non-LGBTQ peers — abuse, neglect and parental substance abuse. But many have experienced further trauma stemming from family rejection or mistreatment and bullying because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. LGBTQ youth in foster care also have a higher average number of placements and a higher likelihood of living in group homes than their non-LGBTQ peers. The impact is highest on those who are children of color — and more than 50 percent of children in foster care are non-white.
The obvious solution is to place LGBTQ kids in affirming foster homes, which — at least in theory — are plentiful. According to the Williams Institute, nearly two million LGBTQ adults have expressed interest in becoming foster or adoptive parents. And same-sex couples are six times more likely to foster children and four times more likely to adopt than non-LGBTQ couples. Despite the willingness of prospective LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents to provide permanent and loving homes, however, far too many of the 111,000 youth who are eligible for adoption will “age out” of foster care, putting them at much higher risk for poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.
California law prohibits discrimination in the foster and adoption system, as do 22 other states and the District of Columbia. But states in about half of the country lack explicit non-discrimination policies and are silent on how prospective LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents of youth should be evaluated. Although nationwide marriage equality has made adoption easier for married same-sex couples in some circumstances, a lack of clear guidance leaves children vulnerable to the individual biases of agencies and caseworkers and has resulted in being denied the many benefits of being placed with qualified, loving LGBTQ parents.
So-called “conscience clause” laws in a handful of states create additional vulnerability for LGBTQ foster youth and prospective LGBTQ parents because they serve as licenses for child welfare providers — including private foster care and adoption agencies — to discriminate based on their own personal “moral” or religious objections.
Kansas and Oklahoma just enacted some of the most egregious laws in the country in just the past few weeks. Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer signed a law that would prohibit the Kansas Department for Children and Families from blocking any foster or adoption agency from participating in its programs solely because it refuses to adopt or place children with LGBT individuals. And in the bordering state of Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin ignored pleas from 120 faith organizations and child welfare advocates by signing a bill into law that would allow agencies to not place children in certain homes if it “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.” As pointed out by the Family Equality Council, if an agency were approached by the child’s biological aunt who happens to be a lesbian, Oklahoma’s law would shield the agency from state or local penalties if they refuse to allow the aunt to adopt simply because she is LGBTQ.
Equality California’s Washington, DC office is working closely with the Family Equality Council, the Trevor Project, PFLAG and a range of LGBTQ organizations and child welfare groups to advance a bill pending in Congress called the “Every Child Deserves a Family Act” (H.R. 2640). Introduced by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and cosponsored by more than a dozen California Democrats, the bill would prohibit any entity that receives federal child welfare funds from discriminating against prospective adoptive or foster parents on the bases of their sexual orientation, gender identification, or marital status. It would also bar discrimination against the child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill’s Senate counterpart (S. 1303) is supported by both Senators Feinstein and Harris.
We’re also engaged in a parallel fight to block discriminatory legislative efforts to allow child welfare providers to cite moral objections to LGBTQ parents or youth.
At the state level, Equality California also co-sponsoring AB 2119 by Assembly member Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), which would require California’s foster care system to assess the health needs of all young people in foster care and to connect transgender and gender non-conforming youth to gender-affirming care when they ask for it. Equality California is co-sponsoring this bill along with the ACLU of California, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
We know that every child deserves a loving, supportive family. It’s neither pro-child, nor pro-family, to deny them one. So we’ll keep fighting for pro-equality, pro-family legislation — until the work is done.