By Barbara Turnage and Justin Bucchio | Originally published March 31, 2016, in YouthToday.org
For many youth, foster care can be a safe place for care and support when the biological family does not provide appropriate care. However, foster care experiences can be impacted by many factors, such as sexual and identity orientation. This column briefly discusses a few factors that impact lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in foster care.
Unfortunately, many LGBT youth are placed in foster homes where their caretakers do not understand or accept these youth, oftentimes because of their orientation. These foster caretakers may also feel that the youth’s sexual orientation was not explained to them prior to placement.
LGBT youth who are struggling with self-identification are not in a position to explain sexual orientation to foster caretakers as they are in the process of learning about who they are themselves. As conversations and explanations require common language, the presence of language deficits interfere with both parties asking and answering questions, which can greatly impact communicative efforts leading to negative outcomes.
Foster caretakers who are not able or willing to learn the developing sexual orientation language and how to emotionally care for LGBT youth are neglectful. It is not the LGBT youth’s responsibility to teach the foster caretaker about sexual/gender orientation.
This can be exemplified when a foster youth’s gender identity may not match their gender assigned at birth. The foster caretaker must be able and willing to talk about the youth’s feelings and experiences while also allowing the youth to externally express their gender. The foster caretaker must be willing to protect the youth from their extended family’s and the external community’s judgment and/or lack of understanding. As the primary parental figure, the foster caretaker has agreed to be the youth’s first line of defense against assaults, whether emotional or physical.
Protecting the LGBT foster youth requires the foster caretaker to have a firm sense of self or be open to a more fluid approach to self-identity. Foster caretakers who are also struggling with defining themselves interfere with the LGBT foster youth’s identity development. LGBT foster youth, like all foster youth, require foster caretakers who have resolved their adolescent identity issues and have a strong sense of self.
A foster youth may also be questioning their sexual identity. Questioning sexual identity refers to trying to understand and accept one’s sexual orientation based upon a physical and romantic attraction to members of the same or opposite sex. Youth who are questioning their sexual/gender identity need room to “try on” different orientations. Youth who are expressing different orientations may temporarily change their dress, ask to be called a different name for the different gender identities, ask to be called by different pronouns (he or she), etc. The foster caretaker must be flexible enough to allow this often fluid trial period while also providing consistent expectations of behavior. For example, the curfew is consistent and not related to sexual/gender orientation/identity.
It is neglectful for foster caretakers to state acceptance for the LGBT foster youth in their home while refusing to talk about the youth’s orientation/identity concerns. Many LGBT foster youth may experience their foster caretaker’s inability to talk about their concerns as emotionally neglectful and psychologically damaging. If the LGBT foster youth finds the foster home environment to be unbearable, they may leave.
The outcome of becoming homeless may allow the LGBT youth to find a supportive and accepting community among others who mirror themselves, but what they are missing is a stable and safe home environment while also being subjected to a host of potential daily risks such as substance abuse, prostitution and incarceration.
The foster caretaker must be ready to support and/or intervene when the LGBT foster youth experiences harassment in their home, community and/or school. Intervention requires immediate thoughtful support on the behalf of LGBT foster youth. The foster caretaker must be ready to intervene even when the LGBT foster youth has not openly identified a concern; preventative preparation strategies are a crucial component of supporting these youth. As a parental figure, the foster caretaker is required to use their professional experiences as foster caretakers to identify and respond to potentially emotionally and physically harmful internal and external assaults to their LGBT foster youth.
Foster caretakers must never suggest reparative therapy as an option for LGBT youth. Reparative therapy attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation. First, the suggestion is insulting, suggesting someone else can “fix” the LGBT youth. Second, suggesting LGBT youth can be fixed assumes that there is a normal sexual orientation. Good parenting/caretaking requires accepting, not changing the LGBT youth. The goal of successful caretaking is to help youth define who they are, not who the caretaker wants them to be.
Adolescence is a time of exploration. To facilitate healthy identity development, youth need the emotional, psychological and physical space and support to explore who they are and what they can become. Being placed in foster care inherently disrupts the ease of positive development for emotional and psychological well-being for all youth. When the foster caretaker accepts a youth into their home, this acceptance means they are willing to fully care for the youth and their needs, which is inclusive of accepting self-expression and identity.
Barbara Turnage, Ph.D., is professor and MTC-MSW coordinator in the Department of Social Work at Middle Tennessee State University.
Justin Bucchio is an assistant professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University, with expertise in child welfare and LGBT foster youth. Justin’s experience with social work and the child welfare system stems from his early years in foster care, which ignited his passion for serving youth in out-of-home care.