Joe Biden’s new protections for LGBTQ+ foster youth will save lives

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LGBTQ+ children and youth in the child welfare system have a much better shot of being placed in a supportive foster care home thanks to a new Biden administration policy. On April 20, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services finalized a new rule requiring state and tribal child welfare agencies to ensure that “all foster care placements must be safe and appropriate for all children—including LGBTQI+ children.” 

Agencies must now provide LGBTQ+ children and youth with placements to meet their specific needs and have procedures in place to protect them. The rule goes into effect on July 1, and agencies have until October 1, 2026, to implement the provisions, which also require agencies to provide training to all their employees and subcontractors responsible for placements.

In a series of interviews with LGBTQ Nation, advocates hailed the new rule. 

“Mandating child welfare agencies to place LGBTQ+ youth in supportive homes represents a crucial stride towards ensuring their safety and well-being,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN. “This rule addresses a longstanding issue within the foster care system, where LGBTQ+ youth often endure disproportionate levels of abuse.”

One-third of all youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ+, and they experience more adversity and difficulties than non-LGBTQ youth. “A commonality when things break down in a foster home and [the family]  finds out that a young person is LGBTQ+, the agency doesn’t know what to do,” said Danielle (Danny) King, senior youth policy counsel at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. 

“A lot of times they just move the child, they don’t really try to find out what’s best for them or see if they can salvage the placement, see if there is training that can be done, supports put in place. Often, that’s not what we see happening, and it’s almost as if the young person is penalized just for being LGBTQ and making that known or the foster parent finding out. They get shuffled around, or in more extreme instances there’s physical or emotional abuse with not much recourse. These young people have already been through a lot of trauma, and they don’t need to go through more when they’re going into the foster care system.”

Research from the Trevor Project “found LGBTQ+ youth in foster care reported significantly higher odds of attempting suicide compared to their peers, and that they were more likely to undergo the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy,” said Casey Pick, director of law and policy at the Trevor Project. “This rule makes clear that these young people in foster care cannot be subjected to conversion therapy. It also protects the families of transgender and nonbinary youth who seek to provide them with best-practice healthcare.”

The experts repeatedly reaffirmed that LGBTQ+ youth are also more likely than non-LGBTQ+ youth to be moved from one temporary home to the next and more likely to be sent to group homes. 

“They experience threats to their well-being and mental health as well increased risk of not ending up in permanent homes,” said Bianca D.M. Wilson, associate professor in the Department of Social Welfare at the U.C.L.A. Luskin School of Public Affairs. “LGBTQ youth are more likely to age out of the system without [ever being placed] in a permanent home. So they not only experience hardship within the foster care system but the most difficult route out of it.”

Negative and non-affirming experiences in foster care have a lasting impact. Cait Smith, director of LGBTQI+ Policy at the Center for American Progress, said  that when LGBTQ+ youth in foster care “are experiencing discrimination, misgendering, bullying, things like that, not only is there an immediate risk factor for depression and suicide but that follows them through life, adding that “when LGBTQ youth are in any home that is not affirming, they are more likely to experience depression and to report attempting suicide than their LGBTQ peers in homes that are affirming.”

The rule intends to counter this in several ways. 

First, agencies must offer LGBTQ+ children and youth placements that are specifically designated to meet their needs.  

“It creates this idea of the designated placement—a family that is particularly well-suited to take in an LGBTQ child,” said Cathryn Oakley, senior director of legal policy at Human Rights Campaign (HRC). But it goes “a step further and says actually all placements need to be affirming and they make it clear that no one can be discriminated against.”

“Every placement has to be safe and appropriate for all children and that’s so important. What about kids who haven’t had the opportunity to come out, who are too young, who aren’t ready for whatever reason? You are going to have kids who need homes and will find out later what their LGBTQ identity is. We shouldn’t be bifurcating a system where there are some families who are just not required to abide by civil rights laws.”

The provision of evidence-based training is a crucial component for potential caregivers who may be unwilling or resistant to foster LGBTQ+ youth, as well as for “folks who may be willing but just might need some help,” said Phii Regis, director of the All Children-All Families program at HRC, which provides training and technical assistance on LGBTQ+ inclusion to child welfare agencies. 

“We are really excited to see the emphasis on training, ensuring that professionals and caregivers are connected with training that’s inclusive. Policy and practice work is essential, but it’s also important that it be combined with training efforts.”

The rule will apply in every state, no matter the politics of the state legislature. 

“It’s a clear message to every single state, every state agency that first of all LGBTQ youth, just like all children, have to be in placements that are free from harassment, mistreatment, abuse,” said Polly Crozier, director of family advocacy at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. 

“One of the threads that pulls through this is it really puts children at the center. [The rule seeks to determine] what are the resources they need, what are their wishes, what do they prioritize for their safety.”

The finalized rule coincides with a flurry of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative activity, as more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year. 

“The current environment that we are in, there are a lot of attacks specifically against young LGBT people,” said Smith. “There is a concerted effort in state legislatures and even among some anti-LGBT folks in the federal government to make schools, for example, not hospitable to LGBT young people. We know that one supportive adult really protects against suicide. So particularly in this environment, this rule is so important to hopefully provide at least one place for our most at-risk youth.”

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. The Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) is staffed by trans people and will not contact law enforcement. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for youth via chat, text (678-678), or phone (1-866-488-7386). Help is available at all three resources in English and Spanish.

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