What foster parents can do to affirm youth who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community

June 18, 2020

Nationally LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, so it is important that all youth in foster care have adults who are affirming in their lives. In addition to foster parents, youth need other adults such as teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends’ parents and Gay-Straight Alliance advisors who are comfortable discussing sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity and will help intervene if they are being mistreated or criticized. 

In the broadest sense, being affirming means allowing others to live authentically and accepting them for who they are, where they are and where their life has brought them. Regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, children in foster care need also to be affirmed and accepted for where they are developmentally and behaviorally and need parents who affirm their relationships with their biological family members. 

“If you have a child in your home who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, affirming them means you would allow them to participate fully, accept them for who they are, and advocate for who they are to your friends and family who might not be as supportive,” said Michelle Champagne, the Foster Care recruiter for the Adams County Department of Human Services. 

Research shows LGBTQ+ youth feel better about themselves if they have at least one person they feel they can share their identity with. LGBTQ+ youth who have an affirming adult in their lives also have much more positive outcomes overall, including better self-esteem and mental health than peers who don’t. A study published in the Journal of Child and Psychiatric Nursing found that youth with the least accepting families were more than three times more likely to consider and attempt suicide than peers with highly accepting families. 

“A lot of our kids struggle with mental health just from the trauma that they have experienced, so we don’t want to add additional trauma to children by putting them in homes that are not affirming and may demean who they are for a variety of reasons,” said Champagne. “Our role as child welfare workers is to ensure kids are safe and sometimes that even means being safe from themselves.” 

Foster and adoptive parents should create affirming family environments because a young person’s gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation may change over time. An inclusive and accepting family creates more space for a young person to come out and express their true selves. Champagne also emphasized that an important part of being an affirming parent is to treat all children in the home equally. 

“If you were to parent a 16-year-old straight young woman and allow her to date and you were to also parent a 16-year-old female who wanted to date another female you would allow her to do the same thing because that is what normal 16-year-olds do,” said Champagne. “To me that what being an affirming person or affirming foster home is all about.”

Like sexual orientation, it is also important for parents to allow children and youth to live authentically as it relates to their gender identity and gender expression. This could mean allowing youth to dress in gender-nonconforming clothing and using a name and pronouns that match their gender identity. 

“There are very young children who self-identify as a gender [that is different] from what they were assigned at birth, as young as four and five,” said Champagne who also discussed the importance of making child welfare professionals aware when a young person is in foster care so they can work together to support the young person.  

If young people have a trusted adult whom they can discuss their sexuality with throughout their development they will have greater confidence and self-awareness around their own sexuality. 

“We don’t know at what age they will start being attracted to others (same-sex or opposite-sex) so it is important to keep a dialogue open with kids at each developmental stage no matter what their sexuality outcomes are. This can also help us keep them safe.”

Although research shows LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, there is not a clear indication as to why. These children and teens experience foster care for many of the same reasons as other young people in care, but they potentially have the added layer of trauma that comes with being rejected or mistreated because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. 

“In general, young peoples’ sexuality is more fluid today and they are coming out at an earlier age because society is starting to accept LGBTQ+ people more than it did when I was growing up and even more than it did 10 or 15 years ago. Society is shifting and young people have more confidence about their sexuality,” said Champagne.

Adams County Department of Human Services is dedicated to inclusion. This year both the Adams County Department of Humans Services and CDHS Division of Child Welfare received the Innovative Inclusion Seal of Recognition – the highest possible tier - from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s All Children-All Families (ACAF) program. The 39 organizations that received the Innovation Inclusion seal met all 25 criteria set by the HRC and are going above and beyond to innovate their services for LGBTQ+ youth and families.

Resources for parents and professionals can be found here.

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