Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 24, Number 1
by Colette Tobias
Increasingly, child welfare professionals are paying attention to the unique needs and challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. Numerous resources (see www.hrc.org/acaf-resources) are available on best practices for serving this population from leading organizations including the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). Bryan Samuels, the former commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, stressed the need to improve practice with LGBT youth in his information memorandum in April 2011, calling on us to ensure that LGBT young people in foster care are protected and supported.
LGBT youth in foster care face unique challenges in accessing supportive, culturally competent services, as well as in achieving permanent placements with affirming families. Many of these youth have experienced rejection or abuse from their family of origin because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. Far too many then face harassment or discrimination in congregate care, foster homes, and from their direct service providers. One study found that 78% of LGBT youth were removed or ran away from their foster care placements due to hostility toward their LGBT status (Feinstein et al., 2001). That same study found that 100% reported verbal harassment in group homes, with 70 % reporting physical violence. Given this reality, LGBT youth may not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of being mistreated or losing an opportunity for a placement. LGBT youth often face longer periods in temporary care and multiple disruptions when resource families are not prepared to provide support.
Despite the heightened awareness, many child welfare agencies struggle to create a culture of respect and inclusion and provide training for their staff to build the skills needed for working effectively with LGBT youth and their caregivers. In addition, many agencies do not yet adequately recruit and screen resource families with regard to their ability and willingness to support and affirm an LGBT youth who may be placed with them, nor do they provide education and training on this topic in the pre-service and post-permanency programs.
The same can be said for LGBT foster and adoptive parents, an often untapped resource when striving to find permanent families for children and youth awaiting placements. An estimated 2 million LGBT adults are interested in adopting in the United States (Gates et al., 2007); however, only one in five adoption agencies conducts outreach and recruitment within the LGBT community (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2003). By better serving LGBT resource families and effectively recruiting and retaining these families, it is possible to greatly expand the pool of potential families for children. It is with this goal in mind that New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families came to the All Children – All Families project. All Children – All Families, a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, provides a framework for agencies to achieve safety, permanency, and well-being by improving their practice with LGBT youth and families. Participating agencies work to meet ten key Benchmarks of LGBT Cultural Competency— from client non-discrimination policies and inclusive agency paperwork, to staff training, to creating an LGBT-inclusive agency environment.
Once these benchmarks are met, the agency is designated a “Leader in Supporting and Serving LGBT Youth and Families” and awarded the All Children — All Families Seal of Recognition. This seal can be used to enhance an agency’s outreach and recruitment within the LGBT community. More than 100 agencies are engaging in All Children – All Families from across the United Sates and as of July 2014, 49 agencies—including the New Jersey Department of Children and Families—have been awarded the Seal of Recognition.
In 2008, we began our journey to become the first state in the nation to earn the Seal of Recognition. One of the first things we did was create an LGBT advisory group to help to guide this process. It is very important before beginning this work to know the pulse of your organization. We obtained this information through a state self-assessment that helped us see exactly where we stood as an organization on LGBT issues including state law, policy, practice, and staff and administrator’s attitudes. It also helped us assess the general level of skill, knowledge, and comfort level in working with the LGBT community.
We know that there is always room for improvement. Taking on this work helped us to improve the cultural competence of our staff members who recruit, train, develop, and support our foster and adoptive families. We completed the process and received our Seal of Recognition in 2011. Having national experts from All Children – All Families as consultants while we worked on achieving the benchmarks was an invaluable resource.
Our greatest accomplishment was training nearly 600 staff in the All Children – All Families training curricula. The training was well received by staff and, in most cases, validated the good work we were already doing. Staff members were excited and motivated; some even told us that it was the best training they had ever attended. Throughout this process, and especially after the training, staff members who identify as LGBT expressed their gratitude and feeling of pride for being employed by this organization. All Children – All Families has helped us become an employer of choice for the LGBT community, in addition to an agency of choice.
Now, four years later, we just completed working with All Children – All Families to renew our status as a Leader in Supporting and Serving LGBT Youth and Families, this time with an intensified focus on our work with LGBT youth in care.
As part of the renewal process, we are reviewing data from these past few years. It is clear that earning our Seal of Recognition has allowed us to increase our number of qualified foster and adoptive families for all children in care. And it is so refreshing and validating to look at our current policies, practices, and even our laws, and see that all of this supports that we are a welcoming, affirming organization.
We’ve found that educating the LGBT community is a big part of this work. Families come to us expressing surprise and interest simultaneously: “Wow, I never knew that you were trying to reach out to us and that you welcome us as resources for children needing families. Now that I know we definitely want to get involved.” The more we reached out to the LGBT community, the more we were encouraged by potential foster and adoptive families to do so.
We have many children who are waiting for and wanting forever families to call their own. We want to include all families for these children, and being a part of All Children – All Families has undoubtedly helped us to improve our practice and be better at this work.
To learn more and request to participate, visit All Children – All Families online at www.hrc.org/acaf.
Colette Tobias is the Administrator of the Office of Resource Families at the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. (2003). Adoption by Lesbians and Gays: A National Survey of Adoption Agency Policies, Practices and Attitudes. New York: Author.
Feinstein, R., et al. (2001). Justice for All? A Report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Youth in the New York Juvenile Justice System. New York: Urban Justice Center.
Gates, G., et al. (2007). Adoption and Foster Care by Gay and Lesbian Parents in the United States. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law with the Urban Institute.