The key is and will continue to be for foster parents to listen, learn, and practice empathy for kids in the LGBTQ+ community.

By Danielle Broadway
June 03, 2021
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Every year, thousands of children in the foster care system struggle to find safe and stable homes with loving adult figures to help them thrive.

Many of the children in the system have traumatic experiences that can range from physical and emotional abuse to being forced into criminal activity.

They often need foster parents who are patient, willing to listen, and who don't allow their own preconceived notions to cloud their ability to fully support their new child.

It's vital to remind foster parents that just as with any biological children of their own, foster children aren't meant to be traded back into the system as soon as challenges arise. These kids need parents who are willing to listen and learn. This is especially true when it comes to LGBTQ+ children or children who may eventually come out as non-cisgender or non-straight.

As it is currently set up, the foster care system is detrimental for queer children. One of the reasons for this is that potential foster parents aren't prepared on how to foster an LGBTQ+ child and don't know—and in some cases, don't care—how to support them.

There are some imperative things that potential foster parents need to know prior to fostering any children when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and identities, especially for those in the BIPOC communities.

Even for the foster parents with the greatest of intentions, there can still be a variety of roadblocks created by a lack of knowledge and understanding for children who have most likely already experienced a culmination of erasure and cruelty in their lives. It's time for foster parents to change the narrative by educating themselves.

An illustration of a child walking into a house.
Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

The Current Problems in the Foster Care System for LGBTQ+ Youth

LGBTQ+ youth are currently over-represented in foster care. According to Children's Rights, a nonprofit organization that protects children in the child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and health care systems, "LGBTQ youth are more likely to suffer from consistent harassment and abuse in foster care, juvenile justice settings, and homeless shelters. At times, they're subjected to dangerous efforts that falsely claim to change their orientation or gender identity, including so-called 'conversion therapy.'"

Often discarded from their homes for being LGBTQ+ and other factors, they end up in foster care with hopes of a safer life. Yet, they find that the same bigotries exist within foster care and many foster parent homes.

"Without safe foster care placements, and without the vital support of caseworkers and other child welfare professionals, LGBTQ youth often flee abuse in foster care only to face homelessness and sexual exploitation," the Children's Rights site explains.

This cycle is evident across the United States, even in cities like New York that are deemed the most liberal and safe for marginalized communities.

What Foster Parents Should Do When Caring for an LGBTQ+ Youth

Part of being a successful foster parent is knowing that most children in the foster care system have experienced trauma. Growing up in different homes with varying struggles, foster children have unique narratives that have shaped who they are.

Joseph Robinson, the program trainer for San Joaquin Delta College's Guardian Scholars' "Seeking to Understand the LGBTQ Community" class, helps potential foster parents to prepare for fostering. As a gay Black man who grew up in the foster care system, his work with LGBTQ+ foster youth has been a labor of love. He works at the Foster Youth and Education Center where the class is a part of the program's resource family approval process (RFA).

"The biggest thing I recommend is education. Aside from my training, I always recommend foster parents to talk with their local Pride Center or just try to contact any Pride Center if you do have a LGBTQ+ youth just to get some information," Robinson explains.

He also recommends that potential parents learn how to signpost when communicating, meaning using words and phrases to orientate the foster youth to the new family and home situation. The idea is not to overwhelm the child with too much at once, even if it's support.

"Sometimes you get foster parents who are really enthusiastic, and they want to go up and talk to a kid and say, 'I love you for who you are," says Robinson. "I tell them that can be a little intimidating. So, you just want to be very subtle. I mean, you want to be strong in your support, but you don't want to make that kid feel like they're on a stage."

Robinson says it's usually best to start with small gestures that suggest acceptance and openness, like having a Pride sticker visible somewhere and having LGBTQ+ literature around the house. This often signals to the children that you are open to having encouraging conversations about LGBTQ+ identity without forcing a conversation before the child is ready.

"The biggest thing I always tell people that I think encompasses everything even if you're not fostering LGBTQ+ youth, but especially for those who are, is just be yourself," adds Robinson.

In addition to Robinson's class covering how to navigate a child's sexuality, they also talk about parenting and gender identity. The class also stresses understanding gender roles, stereotypes, and common assumptions that may diminish the identities and expression of LGBTQ+ youth and youth in general.

"We tell kids, in general, they have to act a certain way if they're a boy and a certain way if they're a girl. I think we should just be telling kids to be themselves, you know, no matter who they are," says Robinson. "Kids just want to play with their toys, let them play with their toys regardless of gender roles."

What Foster Parents Shouldn't Say When Fostering a LGBTQ+ Youth

There are a number of derogatory and discriminatory terms and phrases that people should not say. However, much of the time people find themselves saying things that they think are harmless but are not.

Being a foster parent requires a high level of situational awareness for any kind of trigger words or insensitive language that can truly harm their foster youth. This especially goes for LGBTQ+ youth.

"It's important to watch the things that you say," says Robinson. "I hear a lot of things when talking to the foster youth who I work with. One thing we talk about is the things we've heard as LGBTQ+ foster youth."

He shared that in many cases, it can begin with something as seemingly innocent like watching TV as a family when a foster parent will say, "Oh, those two girls are kissing. That's gross." That definitely discourages the youth from ever wanting to talk to a foster parent about being gay or coming out.

There's also a very high rate of transgender youth being treated the harshest by foster parents or staff of foster homes.

"We had a teenage transgender girl in our class and her group home staff, the people who were supposed to be taking care of her, were refusing to acknowledge her as she/her. They were calling her him," says Robinson.

Robinson made sure to clarify her pronouns with her and speak to the group home staff about how their behavior was unacceptable.

Unfortunately, not all foster and group homes have LGBTQ+ training incorporated into the fostering process, which is why it's so important for potential foster parents to do the work.

The Bottom Line

Foster parents need to accept and support the children who come into their homes for who they are, not who a parent may want them to be. As it goes for all parents and caregivers, it's important for foster parents to listen, learn, and practice empathy for LGBTQ+ kids and do the work to be the best support system and advocate for these children.