Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth placed in group homes and other congregate care facilities are significantly more likely to be subjected to harassment, discrimination and violence than their non-LGBTQ peers. Blatant hostility and verbal abuse toward LGBTQ youth are often an accepted aspect of institutional culture. Congregate care providers should be aware of these dangers and create a safe and welcoming environment for LGBTQ youth.
Ensure the safety of LGBTQ youth in congregate care. Child welfare and juvenile justice professionals have a legal obligation to protect the physical and psychological safety of LGBTQ youth in their care, whether these youth are placed in group homes, residential treatment centers, correctional centers or other facilities. As congregate care providers, you play an important role in creating an environment that ensures the protection of LGBTQ youth from harassment and discrimination. This includes intervening in situations between youth, or when other staff harass or disparage LGBTQ youth.
Take immediate steps to address anti-LGBTQ harassment in the facility. Send a clear message throughout the facility that anti-LGBTQ harassment will not be tolerated. Consistently model and communicate that message to all staff and residents. Never blame LGBTQ youth for being open about their identity if others subject LGBTQ youth to harassment or violence, and don’t allow others to blame them for their own mistreatment.
Provide or participate in LGBTQ sensitivity and awareness training. Inquire whether your agency offers training that prepares staff to work effectively and appropriately with LGBTQ young people. An ideal training program includes suggestions for creating and maintaining a safe environment for LGBTQ young people, as well as strategies for responding to harassment and discrimination. If your agency does not offer training on LGBTQ issues, seek out the information and support you need from resources in your community, the Internet, books and videos.
Adhere to consistent policies regarding age-appropriate adolescent romantic behavior. LGBTQ youth in congregate care should be afforded the same rights and privileges that non-LGBTQ youth have regarding dating, displays of affection and romantic relationships. It’s important for LGBTQ youth to be able to express age-appropriate romantic behavior, and to feel validated and worthy.
Make appropriate, individualized classification and housing decisions. Don’t make housing decisions based on myths and stereotypes about LGBTQ people. For example, never assume that all LGBTQ youth are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors than their heterosexual peers, or that they’re potential sex offenders. Conversely, don’t isolate or segregate LGBTQ young people, or prohibit them from having roommates, as an attempt to ensure their safety. While you may have good intentions, this will only deprive LGBTQ youth of opportunities to interact with their peers and will compound their feelings of isolation. In sex-segregated facilities, don’t automatically assign transgender youth to the girls’ or boys’ units based on the sex assigned to them at birth. Instead, make housing decisions on a case-by-case basis, considering the physical and mental well-being of the youth. Safety and privacy should be prioritized without resorting to isolating these youth from the general population. However, single occupancy rooms, if available, may be an acceptable alternative for transgender youth in sex-segregated facilities.
Be aware of the needs of transgender youth in congregate care settings. Transgender youth in congregate care settings are often subject to discrimination. Staff in congregate care settings should be aware of the needs of these youth and support them in their gender identity without requiring them to conform to traditional gender norms. Allow youth to express their gender identity through their attire, names, pronouns and grooming choices. Be prepared to advocate for transgender youth to receive competent and affirming mental health and medical services if recommended, including access to monitored use of hormones if deemed medically appropriate. For more information, see Working With Transgender Youth.
Display LGBTQ-supportive signs and symbols. By displaying LGBTQ-supportive symbols such as pink triangles, rainbows or safe zone stickers, you send the clear message to all youth and staff that you support and affirm LGBTQ youth and are open to discussing LGBTQ issues. LGBTQ youth are quick to pick up on these cues from their environment, and just displaying affirming signs and symbols often makes an enormous difference.
Help LGBTQ youth access community and resources. Reduce the alienation and isolation LGBTQ youth often experience by providing opportunities for them to interact positively with their LGBTQ peers and supportive adults, and by helping them realize that they’re not alone and that other people their age share their experiences. Consult our list of national and local LGBTQ resources or develop one of your own and distribute it to everyone in your agency, including to youth who may wish privately to contact community resources on their own. For more resources, click here, visit www.lambdalegal.org and www.cwla.org, your nearest LGBT community center (see the National Association of LGBT Community Centers's directory or visit www.lgbtcenters.org) or the local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (www.pflag.org).
For sample LGBTQ policies in out-of-home care settings, contact Lambda Legal at 866-LGBTeen (1-866-542-8336, toll-free) or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.
Adapted from Getting Down to Basics: Tools to Support LGBTQ Youth in Care, Child Welfare League of Am. & Lambda Legal (2006, revised 2012). This and other fact sheets for adults who work with or care for youth in out-of-home settings are available at www.lambdalegal.org/publications/getting-down-to-basics.