In January, foster youth in Washington sued the state Department of Children, Youth & Families because of the unconstitutionally poor treatment they receive from the state. I am the “next friend” (or representative) for D.S., a named plaintiff in that class-action lawsuit. A Native American young woman who identifies as transgender, D.S. has been forced to stay in hotels and offices for more than a year. Equally troubling, since entering foster care a year and a half ago, D.S. has never been offered a gender-affirming placement.
The department’s response to the lawsuit must not only chart an end to this egregious practice of warehousing youth in hotels and offices, it also must recognize and meet the unique needs of LGBTQIA+ youth in its care.
Unfortunately, that is not what the state is doing. The federal court recently ordered Children, Youth & Families to develop a plan in response to the class-action lawsuit. Yet, shockingly, when the department presented its plan earlier in September, no specific mention was made of the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth in its care. Nor does the department mention their needs in its request for budget increases.
Moreover, the department, to this day, places children for adoption with agencies that are openly, virulently homophobic and transphobic. By relying on agencies such as Antioch Adoptions to identify adoptive parents, the state hurts children and forces them to grow up in homes that believe their very identities are “a sin” and contrary to the “just and proper ordering of society,” as Antioch Adoptions puts it.
A recent study found 30.4% of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ and 5% as transgender, compared to 11.2% and 1.17% of youth not in foster care. The study found that LGBTQ youth are more likely to suffer from consistent harassment and abuse in foster care, incidents that are particularly pervasive with transgender youth, whose very identities are often rejected in state care and who are often bullied and abused.
All of that is true in the case of D.S. The department has tried to place her in a boys group home and has frequently denied her access to gender-affirming items, like clothes and skin-care products. D.S. also tells me about the prejudice she has experienced: A Children, Youth & Families social worker told her she would not be “passable” as a trans person, that she would never go anywhere in life. Even though D.S.’s name has been legally changed, the state refuses to change it in its files until they get an official document from the Department of Health.
D.S. doesn’t think Children, Youth & Families will change because LGBTQIA+ youth are not their priority. Their priority, she says, are “normal” kids — white kids, straight kids, cisgender kids, young kids, kids with no criminal records and kids with no behavior problems.
But D.S., and all kids in state care, are kids who need love, respect and care. Last month, stakeholders who met with Children, Youth & Families officials offered concrete solutions: waiving its onerous home study process that too often disqualifies relatives and family friends who want to provide a home to youth whom they know and love; actively looking for placements with people whose children are connected to and who want to live with LGBTQIA+ youth; expanding the proven Mockingbird Society’s family model (and developing “hub homes” for LGBTQIA+ youth); and letting youth give information about themselves to prospective foster parents.
Most children who enter foster care are eventually returned to their parents. But LGBTQIA+ children are more likely than other children in foster care to be rejected by their families and therefore have a pressing need for appropriate options for long-term places to live, as well as trauma-informed care and supports. Rather than contracting with group homes or placements focused on “behavioral rehabilitation,” the department could work to develop community-led, community-run family-style homes.
It is worth noting that Children, Youth & Families did embrace one suggestion offered by advocates: to pilot and hopefully expand independent living placements that have the potential to offer additional options for LGBTQIA+ youth.
But if Children, Youth & Families only sees children as “hard to place,” as a constellation of behaviors, then it will always focus on finding more behavioral rehabilitation “beds” — not homes. D.S. says, “The state likes to act as if they care … Certain social workers may care, but at the end of the day queer people of color get nothing.” D.S. doesn’t believe Children, Youth & Families will ever change unless it is forced to change. Seeing the department ignore clear, concrete requests from LGBTQIA+ youth and their advocates, it is hard to argue with her.