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L.A. Foster Care: 1 in 5 Are LGBTQ Youth, Says New Study

The L.A. LGBT Center has long suspected that LGBTQ youth may be overrepresented in the Los Angeles County foster care system, the largest in the nation. But for years the only evidence to support that contention was anecdotal—the huge percentage of homeless youth with no skills or resources who show up seeking food, shelter and other services after they “age out” of the system at 18. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Center now has scientific data and analysis to show that LGBTQ youth are a major population within the foster care system and therefore a significant demographic to be explicitly included in any reform of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

On Wednesday, Aug. 27, the Center announced key results from the Los Angeles Foster Youth Survey (LAFYS), the first study of LGBTQ foster youth in the nation, conducted by scholars at UCLA’s Williams Institute, that specifically asks how many LGBTQ youth are there in the system, how did they get there and how are they doing? The study—“Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Los Angeles County Foster Care: Assessing Disproportionately and Disparities”—reveals that of the approximately 7,400 youth ages 12-21 in the system in any given month, 19.1% or roughly 1,400 identity as LGBTQ. Of that 19.1%, 13.4% identify as LGB or questioning while 5.6% identify as transgender.

“This means,” says the report,” that there are between 1.5 to 2 times as many LGBTQ youth living in foster care as LGBTQ youth estimated to be living outside foster care.”

“Historically, many of the LGBTQ youth who turn to us for a safe place to live have aged out of the foster system, don’t have the skills or resources to make it on their own, and would otherwise be homeless,” says Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the Center. “So this study supports our long-held belief that LGBTQ youth are not only overrepresented in the foster system but extremely disadvantaged within that system.”

The LAFYS was funded as part of the historic $13.3 million, five-year federal grant the Center received in 2010 as part of the federal Permanency Innovations Initiative (PII). It was co-authored by the Center and scholars at UCLA’s Williams Institute and Holarchy Consulting who conducted a telephone interview survey with 786 randomly sampled youth ages 12-21 living in the LA foster care system.

One key finding of the LAFYS study was that the majority of LGBTQ foster youth—86%—are children of color and about 10% report being born outside the U.S.

Discrimination is rampant. Nearly 13% of LGBTQ youth “report being treated poorly by the foster care system compared to 5.8% of non-LGBT youth,” the report says.

Additionally, “18.5% of all youth reported having experienced some form of discrimination based on people’s perceptions of their LGBT status or their expression of masculinity or femininity. Among LGBTQ youth, 37% reported poor treatment connected with their gender expression, sexual minority status or transgender status.”

These statistics paint a portrait of hell for LGBTQ youth in foster care. LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to report that the system treated them “not very well,” which the report shows is compounded by cultural incompetency—which is itself a barrier to these children finding a permanent home.

“This finding supports anecdotal accounts of prejudice in the child welfare system such as deeming LGBTQ youth ‘unadoptable’ or blaming their being ‘out” for the harassment and abuse from others,” the report says.

The high number of placements is considered “a risk factor to not obtaining permanency and to wellbeing in general.”

Additionally, mental health and emotional distress also present barriers to permanency if caregivers can’t deal with the issues. The study found that 13.5% of LGBTQ youth were hospitalized for emotional reasons, nearly triple the percentage of similar hospitalizations for non-LGBTQ youth (4.2%), but physical reasons for hospitalization were reported less often.

The report is also “consistent with previous evidence that LGBTQ youth leave their homes at nearly double the rate of non-LGBTQ youth (Cochran, 2002) and may choose to spend time on the streets because they felt safer there than in their group or foster home (Feinstein, et al. 2001).”

“We found LGBTQ youth in foster care share many similarities in experiences with non-LGBTQ youth, including racial disparities, yet also face unique systemic barriers to placement in permanent homes, such as being placed in group homes and experiencing homelessness at higher rates” said Principal Investigator, Bianca D.M. Wilson, Senior Scholar of Public Policy at UCLA’s Williams Institute.

What does this all amount to?

“What we know now is that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the foster care system and that fact now is undeniable,” Center Chief of Staff Darrel Cummings, who led the team that developed the federal grant proposal told me recently. “In our entire movement one of our biggest enemies has been our invisibility and this is currently true throughout the United States with respect to young people in foster care, in probation systems, they are completely invisible. So arguing for special programming or new programming or new designs to create better outcomes has been very, very difficult because we've not been able to quantify what the problem is and the numbers of people that are in these systems and then harmed by these systems that are designed to take care of them.

“So this is really groundbreaking,” Cummings continued, “in the fact that we can say at least 19.1% or nearly one-fifth of all young people in the foster care system identify as LGBTQ, that's huge.”

Cummings said the data require “an LGBT specific set of programs developed that are system wide.” The Center, he said is already providing training and working with youth as far out as the Antelope Valley. “It needs to be a system wide reinvention of the way that we deal with issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, not just with the young people in the foster care system but everybody surrounding them is designed to care for them, they are there to care for them. This is a big project that needs to be undertaken.”

However, for all the important data and prospective proposals—the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services is itself going through what a blue ribbon commission called an “emergency” for not preventing numerous deaths of children in their protective care. The L.A. County supervisors reluctantly voted to hire “child protection czar.”

But this is what those statistics look like on the ground, according to grand jury testimony reported by The LA Times on Aug. 18 about the horrible, preventable death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was tortured and beaten to death, despite reports to law enforcement and county welfare officials. The Times reported:

Gabriel's mother, Pearl Fernandez, called 911 on May 22, 2013, to report that her son was not breathing. She told sheriff's deputies who arrived at the apartment that Gabriel had fallen and hit his head on a dresser, according to testimony. When paramedics arrived, they found Gabriel naked in a bedroom, not breathing, with a cracked skull, three broken ribs and BB pellets embedded in his lung and groin. He died two days later.

"It was just like every inch of this child had been abused," testified James Cermak, a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic…..

The abuse worsened in the months leading up to Gabriel's death, according to testimony from two of his siblings, both of whom are minors. They said Gabriel was forced to eat cat feces, rotten spinach and his own vomit. He slept in a locked cabinet and wasn't let out to go to the bathroom. Fernandez and Aguirre called Gabriel gay, punished him when he played with dolls and forced him to wear girls' clothes to school, the siblings said.

Fernandez and Aguirre hit Gabriel with a belt buckle, a metal hanger, a small bat and a wooden club, Gabriel's brother said. Their mother once jabbed Gabriel in the mouth with a bat and knocked out several teeth, according to testimony.

Cummings is keenly aware of this crisis. And he’s clear the Center means business, too.

“We are prepared to engage with county officials in a good faith effort to create a new response to what now is an identifiable and enormously problematic matter. If that process fails, we will not be returning with a stick, we'll be returning with a club,” Cummings said. “Meaning that we are willing to engage in any actions that are necessary in order to make the system in L.A. County responsive to the needs of LGBT youth.”

The Center has posted a petition to show political leaders and foster care agencies that people care about LGBTQ youth in the foster care system. Go here to sign. 

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