As a Caseworker I Witnessed the Nightmarish Traumas Foster Care Presents for LGBTQ Youth
The following is an excerpt from the new book No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions by Ryan Berg (Nation Books, 2015):
There are more than 400,000 youth in the American foster care system today, roughly the same number as the population of Sacramento, California. Foster care, created to protect the welfare of children, is a broken system, hobbled by an outdated bureaucracy, underfunded agencies, and overburdened workers, that frequently produces dire outcomes. Research shows that children placed in foster care are more likely than veterans of war to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In some states, youth are just as likely to be abused in foster care as they are in the homes from which they were removed. Foster care has also become a gateway to homelessness. Nearly half the youth experiencing homelessness today have had at least one placement in a foster home or group home.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, in particular, face significant prejudice and discrimination in foster care. Many queer-identified young people, who are disproportionately represented in the system, report intolerance, physical and emotional mistreatment, or neglect by caregivers or peers. LGBTQ youth are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be placed in group homes. An overwhelming majority of those youth in group homes have been victims of violence. The Opening Doors project, which provides tools and resources for the legal and child welfare community, highlights the following statistics: 70 percent of LGBTQ youth in group homes reported violence based on LGBTQ status; 100 percent reported verbal harassment; and 78 percent of youth were removed or ran away from placement because of hostility toward their LGBTQ status. These pervasive negative experiences can have a significant impact on mental health and emotional growth. Until recent years, child welfare agencies neglected to provide accurate policy, best practices training, and guidance for workers or foster parents serving LGBTQ youth. Without cultural competency training around LGBTQ issues, the result has been retraumatization, continued abuse, and prolonged rejection for many young people.
Another pressing and consistent theme in foster care research is the overrepresentation of people of color. Race and class bias within the system leads to youth of color being removed from their homes at much higher rates. Studies have shown that African American youth are more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from school or labeled “aggressive.” African American youth are also more often given psychiatric medications for contentious behaviors, diagnosed with a mental illness, and sent to juvenile facilities; white youth with the same forceful behavior are more likely to be treated as outpatients and released. The disparities are everywhere, from the way doctors describe identical physical injuries—African American youth experience greater incidents of “abuse,” while their white counterparts experience “accidents”—to the way police departments handle marijuana possession (black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates). Such actions prompt calls to Child Protective Services. As a result, many youth of color find their entry point into the school-to-prison pipeline through foster care.
The traumas of life in foster care can be compounded for young LGBTQ people of color as they struggle to reconcile their racial and sexual identities. As they “age out” of the system—a term used to describe a youth’s departure from a formal system of care because of age limits—they face an indifferent world. Across the country, inequalities in housing, health, educational achievement, and rates of incarceration are staggering. Transgender women—individuals who identify as female but were assigned a male identity at birth—are at a particularly high risk of homelessness. The rate of suicidal ideation among transgender or gender-nonconforming people of color doubled for those encountering familial neglect, as did rates of sex work; rates of homelessness tripled. These problems will persist until we wake up—locally, nationally, and morally—and give a hard, steady look at what is causing them, and then take action to address them.
In early 2004 I began working as a residential counselor and subsequently as a caseworker for an LGBTQ foster care program in New York City. The program was made up of two group homes: what I call the 401, located in Queens, and Keap Street, in Brooklyn. For me, doing this work was a way to re-engage with the world, to give something back. I started as a residential counselor, an entry-level position requiring a high school diploma and a clean record. The job responsibilities included providing on-site direct care to the youth in the group home, prompting them to do chores like cooking and cleaning, helping manage conflicts, and engaging them in healthy activities. As a caseworker I was tasked with goal setting, coordinating services, and monitoring the progress of the youth in the program. The aim is to reunify them with family or provide them with the tools to live independently.
I found myself wholly unprepared for the myriad personal and social issues I would be forced to confront. Thrown headfirst into the work, I found my understanding of racial and economic justice, gender identity, crime, and poverty was challenged at every turn. Facing the realities of these youth on a daily basis deepened my understanding of privilege, social responsibility, and community, and ultimately altered my understanding of myself.
While doing this work I learned the statistics. The data point out a litany of troubling risk behaviors. LGBTQ youth are more likely to use and abuse substances, and they experience sexual abuse, violence, and clinical depression at greater rates than the general population. Research indicates that LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Risk-taking is typical in adolescence. Couple that with the isolation and rejection many LGBTQ youth face, and self-destruction becomes the modus operandi. Leaning on unhealthy ways to cope with trauma can become habitual, and youth with self-destructive tendencies are more likely to become adults with self-destructive addictions. In trying to show the youth alternatives to sex work, attempting to break their cycles of drug and alcohol abuse, and help build their self-esteem, I was reminded of my own litany of risk behaviors, my own struggle as a young man grappling with identity, and my own tendency to seek solace in drugs, alcohol, and sex in order to mask the pain felt from micro-aggressions and internalized homophobia.
While the LGBTQ movement has made incredible strides in recent years, the neglect of LGBTQ youth issues is astounding. The mainstreaming of queer culture and the fight for marriage equality currently serves as the wheelhouse for the gay rights movement. Mainstreaming, some would argue, leads to greater understanding and empathy. Same-sex marriage affords equal rights under the law. This may all be good and true, but gay rights advocates’ interest in blending in with the broader society and their narrow focus on marriage equality have resulted in the neglect of other pressing issues. The narrative of cultural acceptance developed by gay rights advocates and picked up by the media isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, LGBTQ folks are less stigmatized, and more visible, but only when safely celibate, coupled off, and mirroring heteronormative values—standards that present heterosexuality as the preferred, or “normal,” identity. It’s a false sense of acceptance, and social media access allows youth still grappling with who they are to step outside the limits of their communities, to exercise their identity while still being reliant financially on their families. As a result, many youth are coming out earlier, and some find themselves facing family rejection—and subsequently the streets. When 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ yet make up only 8 percent of the population, it’s clear the greatest struggles the queer community faces are not all oriented around marriage.
Audre Lorde taught us, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” LGBTQ youth struggles are intrinsically tied to health care, housing, public safety, prison, immigration, employment, poverty, and homelessness. On any given night there are four thousand homeless young people on the streets of New York City. Nearly half of them identify as LGBTQ, but there are less than two hundred beds available to serve that specific population. The scarce funds and resources available to provide those beds are in jeopardy because of budget cuts and political pandering. On the whole, the mainstream LGBTQ movement does a poor job of addressing the needs of the most visible LGBTQ youth (white, middle-class), and often completely ignores the least visible (youth of color, poor, or transgender).
Sexual and gender identity statistics are not universally collected for national homeless research. Most data come from state and local studies conducted by service providers. Staff estimates are typically used to collect information. Given that many youth do not self-identify as LGBTQ when talking to service providers, staff rely on their own assumptions of youths’ identities. This imperfect measurement method leads many researchers to believe that the numbers may actually underestimate the percentage of LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness.
Facing the realities of these youth daily forced me to recognize how our systems fail our most vulnerable, and how much more needs to be done to provide support. The challenges I witnessed these youth confront would send most adults into a mental collapse. Yet they soldiered on, imbued with a belief that a better life was out there, no matter how bleak their pasts had been.