Safe Havens: Executive Summary

Glossary

The authors use the term transgender—a person whose gender identity (i.e., their innate sense of being male, female or something else) differs from the sex they were assigned or presumed to be at birth—to include youth who identify at all points along the gender spectrum, including youth who identify as non-binary or gender fluid. As an example, the authors use the description transgender girl to describe a girl who identifies as female, but was assigned the sex of male at birth.

Gender-expansive is a broad term referring to aspects of gender expression, identity, and interests that go beyond cultural binary prescriptions of behaviors and interests associated primarily with boys or girls. Gender-expansive includes young people who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth as well as those who do, but may nonetheless find themselves barraged with questions based on their dress, appearance, or interests, such as, ”Are you a boy or a girl?“ or ”Why do you play with that? It’s a boy/girl toy!“ Other words with similar meetings include gender diverse and gender creative. Nat’l Ass’n of School Psychologists & Gender Spectrum, Gender Inclusive Schools: Overview, Gender Basics, and Terminology(2016).

”Gender Non-conforming or Gender Variant—a person whose gender expression differs from how their family, culture, or society expects them to behave, dress, and act.” Substance Abuse & Mental Health Servs. Admin., A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children (2014), at 3

The authors use the abbreviation TGNC in this report because it appears most frequently in the literature and research. The authors emphasize that every individual is unique and there is no “correct” way to identity or express oneself. Here, the authors use gender-nonconforming to convey that cultural norms around gender still negatively impact youth who express themselves outside of those norms.

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LBGT people and people living with HIV.

Child advocates and experts from a host of disciplines have documented for over a decade the overrepresentation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ+)1 youth in child welfare, juvenile justice and runaway and homeless youth systems2 (“out-of-home care systems”) compared to the general population.3 Further, transgender,4 gender-expansive5 and gender-nonconforming6 (TGNC)7 youth, who may identify across the sexual orientation spectrum,8 are overrepresented in these systems at even higher rates than youth who identify as LGBQ.

Data are scarce regarding the particular experiences of TGNC youth in out-of-home care.10 However, extraordinarily high rates of family rejection, societal discrimination, and victimization of TGNC people11—including staggering rates of violence against transgender women of color12—and anecdotal evidence suggest that TGNC youth in out-of-home care are exposed to even harsher and more abusive treatment than LGBQ youth in these systems. Most out-of-home care placements and facilities are sex-specific and many aspects of youths’ supervision and care are governed by regulations that reference a youth’s sex (or gender). This makes it particularly important to ensure that out-of-home care practices are accepting and affirming for TGNC young people.13 For example, placing a young woman who is transgender on the boys’ floor in a child welfare group home, juvenile justice facility or shelter for youth experiencing homelessness can be dangerous, exposing her to bullying, physical assaults and even sexual abuse. At its core, such a placement constitutes a refusal to fully affirm the youth’s identity and may contribute to suicidal ideation and depression and exacerbate gender dysphoria,14 among other undesirable health outcomes.15 Lack of affirmation for TGNC youth in care is, too frequently, accompanied by discrimination and mistreatment in school, at work, and within their communities. Stigma, conflicts around gender nonconformity and racial identity also contribute to the criminalization of TGNC young people, particularly TGNC youth of color, at higher rates than their cisgender16 and gender-conforming peers.17 Without assistance and support from out-of- home care providers, these issues may remain unaddressed, leading to disparately poor life outcomes for these young people.

IN A LOS ANGELES COUNTY FOSTER CARE SURVEY,
5.6% OF YOUTH IDENTIFIED AS TRANSGENDER COMPARED TO 1-2% IN THE GENERAL POPULATION
AND 11.1% IDENTIFIED AS GENDERNONCONFORMING.

This report, based on the authors’ research, identifies barriers to affirming treatment for TGNC eliminate these barriers. The report provides first-of- their-kind live national maps18 of specific out-of-home care statutes, policies and licensing regulations related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, providing a resource to help users understand the explicit protections that exist (or do not exist) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Also provided are concrete law and policy reform recommendations and practical tips to better protect and serve TGNC youth involved in intervening public systems. The recommendations were developed with significant input from both TGNC youth who reported affirming experiences during their placement in out-of-home care and providers who have made recommended practices a reality for the youth they serve.

ONLY 5-7% OF YOUTH ARE LGBTQ+
BUT LGBTQ+ YOUTH ARE ALMOST 25% OF THOSE IN FOSTER CARE, 20% OF YOUTH IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM
AND ALMOST 50% OF YOUTH EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS.

Child Welfare Systems Map

Juvenile Justice Map

The Problem

Comprehensive data on the number of LGBTQ+ youth in out-of-home care are difficult to find and data specific to transgender and gender-nonconforming youth even more so.19 Available research using representative samples has shown that while young people who identify as LGBTQ+ comprise about 5-7% of the overall youth population,20 they make up almost one-fourth of those in the foster care system21 one-sixth of those in the juvenile justice system22 and almost half of young people experiencing homelessness.23 Moreover, sexual orientation and gender identity are important, but not singular, aspects of a young person’s identity. Data disaggregated by race and ethnicity show that LGBQ and TGNC young people in out-of-home care are disproportionately young people of color,24 therefore exposed to overlapping inequalities associated with that intersectionality.25

IN NEW YORK CITY, 78% OF HOMELESS LGBTQ+ YOUTH WERE REMOVED OR RAN AWAY FROM FOSTER HOMES BECAUSE OF ABUSE OR DISCRIMINATION.

For TGNC youth in out-of-home care systems, the combination of societal stigma and discrimination and sex-specific regulations presents a veritable minefield of challenges. While a young person is in out-of-home care, nearly all aspects of the youth’s life—from the doctor they see to the place they sleep, the clothes they wear and who searches their bodies—are controlled by out-of-home care professionals who in most cases lack training and guidance on how to properly serve this population. The report highlights gaps in law and policy that must be filled in order to protect youth from discrimination and seeks to improve practice by sharing insights from the experiences of TGNC youth and from affirming and supportive providers. The authors hope that this information will enable policymakers and practitioners to drive change in the systems where they work, in line with professional commitments and legal obligations that require them to provide for the safety and well-being of all youth.

provide for the safety and well-being of all youth. Out-of-home care systems are often ill-equipped to serve LGBTQ+ youth adequately. Research has shown that once in out-of-home care, LGBTQ+ youth face higher rates of victimization and discrimination and worse life outcomes than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. In New York City, studies show that 78% of LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness were removed or ran away from foster homes because of abuse or discrimination, and 56% chose to live on the street— rather than in a foster care placement—because they felt safer there.26 Findings show that, when compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, LGBTQ+ youth in the juvenile justice system are twice as likely to have experienced child abuse, out-of-home placement or homelessness.27 The U.S. National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness are roughly 7.4 times more likely to suffer acts of sexual violence than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, and are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide (62%) than their peers (29%).28 Research specific to TGNC youth has shown that transgender youth in New York City have been found eight times as likely as non-transgender youth to trade sex for a place to stay.29 This bleak picture is, of course, not inherent to being TGNC, but certainly indicative of intense misunderstanding, stigma and prejudice in general society. These factors fuel horrifyingly high rates of suicide, self-harm and physical and sexual victimization among TGNC youth.30

LGBTQ+ YOUTH IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM ARE TWICE AS LIKELY AS THEIR NON-LGBTQ+ PEERS TO HAVE EXPERIENCED CHILD ABUSE, OUT-OF-HOME PLACEMENT OR HOMELESSNESS.

In light of the challenges that TGNC youth face and the weighty obligations of out-of-home care providers, experts have produced a body of professional standards that identify how to serve LGBTQ+ youth appropriately and reduce disparities in outcomes.31 Some federal and state laws and policies specific to child welfare, juvenile justice and runaway and homeless youth systems of care have likewise evolved and, consistent with youth’s constitutional rights, provide explicit protection from discrimination and harassment on account of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (SOGIE). Flowing from professional standards and law and policy protections, a handful of jurisdictions have provided training for staff working with young people on affirming and supporting LGBTQ+ youth and have developed pilot programs or “best practice” models. At the same time, policies and practices that affirmatively hurt LGBTQ+ children and youth also persist.

Our Findings

Our first-of-its-kind 50-state analysis of state statute, regulations and policy found that:

  • Despite the fundamental need for protection against discrimination, only 27 states and the District of Columbia explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity in nondiscrimination protections specific to the child welfare system; only 21 states and the District of Columbia do so in their juvenile justice systems; and only 12 states and the District of Columbia do so in their facilities serving runaway and homeless youth.
  • Despite the near-ubiquitous use of the term sex (or gender) in regulations governing placement, clothing, searches and other critical aspects of systems of care, only three states in the nation define sex (or gender) to include gender identity, and only one of those does so in a regulation specific to out-of-home care.
  • Despite the critical need for placement decisions that respect identity and keep TGNC youth safe, only four states have statutory or regulatory guidance regarding placement of transgender youth in out-of-home care in accordance with their gender identities.
  • Even though professional standards dictate that the well-being of TGNC youth requires they be allowed to dress and express themselves in accordance with who they are, 24 states provide no such explicit allowance in statute or regulation in their child welfare systems, 40 states provide no such allowance in their juvenile justice systems and 34 states provide no such allowance in their homeless and runaway youth facilities.

New York and California are the only states to have comprehensive protections in place to protect these young people across all of their out-of-home care systems. Both enacted SOGIE-inclusive antidiscrimination statutes and regulations specific to out-of-home care systems as well as definitions of sex (or gender) that include gender identity. On the other end of the spectrum, the states of Alaska and North Carolina provide no explicit protections for LGBQ or TGNC youth in any of their out-of-home care systems. Most states fall somewhere in between these extremes.

Law and policy protections are essential for ensuring the health and well-being of TGNC youth, but they are not sufficient. Of utmost importance is the responsibility of caregivers to turn recommended practice into reality. Based on concrete tips from providers featured in this report who are bridging that gap, the authors call for solid legal and policy protections that are connected to staff hiring, training and ongoing coaching and development; better support for families of origin and foster and adoptive parents; increased community collaboration; intentional engagement with LGBTQ+ young people to ensure that they are affirmed in care; and a commitment to agency-wide culture change.

LGBTQ+ YOUTH EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS ARE MORE THAN TWICE AS LIKELY AS THEIR NON-LGBTQ+ PEERS TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE.

Youth with lived experience in out-of-home care systems who contributed to the report had the following recommendations for providers: Provide affirming health care and use qualified and trusted providers; screen existing placements and develop affirming ones; don’t replicate the harm youth experienced at home; respect youth to build trust with them; give non-TGNC youth and adults time to learn about and understand TGNC youth; affirm identity in all aspects and promote well-being; don’t blame youth for being victimized; use resources to help youth and avoid unnecessary grievances; provide safe environments to allow youth to focus on positive development; don’t gender things; if you see bullying, stop it and connect youth to LGBT supports. As this important work progresses, TGNC youth must be engaged32 to ensure that their voices are part of policy development and that their positive experiences can serve as examples to guide life-changing system improvements.

Explicit protection from discrimination and training for providers on how best to work with LGBTQ+ youth are critical precursors to safe and supportive participation by youth in system reform efforts. These precursors also allow for safe collection of much-needed SOGIE demographic data on system-involved youth and families in order to inform and improve practice.33 Unfortunately, the vast majority of states have no statutory or regulatory requirements for LGBTQ+-specific ongoing training and coaching in any of their out-of-home care systems.

The authors hope this report will constitute a call to action for states, agencies, advocates and stakeholders across the country to require their out-of-home care systems to provide affirming treatment for TGNC youth.

Read the full report.