Young LGBTQ Americans in the child welfare system, juvenile justice system, and in youth homelessness shelters face a lack of necessary protections in many states, according to a report released Monday by Lambda Legal, Children’s Rights, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.
The study looked for measures in state laws that explicitly protect young LGBTQ people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity when dealing with those systems.
Researchers spoke to staff and young people at four agencies in different parts of the country that work with LGBTQ youth and analyzed policies and laws in all 50 states.
The focus on state protections for LGBTQ youth is especially relevant with a new head of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who has a record of anti-LGBTQ stances, including calling trans rights “absolutely ridiculous stuff.”
If the federal government’s reading of the Fair Housing Act’s non-discrimination language as including sexual orientation and gender identity changes under Carson, that could leave homeless LGBTQ youth and those going through the child welfare system at even greater risk. We’ve reached out to HUD for comment on the study’s findings and will update if we hear back.
“As this report has detailed, despite the solid constitutional basis for TGNC [trans and gender non-conforming] youth to be protected from harm and treated fairly, and increasing explicit protections under federal law, comprehensive and explicit protections for TGNC youth in state statutes, regulations, and policy are rare across the country,” the report reads.
The study found that explicit non-discrimination policies for LGBTQ children in the child welfare system only exist in 27 states and D.C. In juvenile justice, only 21 states and D.C. have protections. And in runaway and homeless youth shelters, only 12 states and D.C. have protections.
“Any place that doesn’t have explicit protections is concerning because I think it means a lack of clarity for people working in those systems,” Currey Cook, one of the report’s co-authors and an attorney at Lambda Legal, told Fusion. “The Constitution protects people, but as a case worker or some other professional working in the field, the Constitution is a pretty abstract thing. Having these explicit protections enables you to have training.”
One scenario that can be especially damaging for young trans people is when their gender identity is disregarded in placement decisions inside homeless shelters, juvenile justice centers, or the child welfare system.
“Despite the critical need for placement decisions that respect identity and keep TGNC youth safe, only four states have statutory or regulatory guidance regarding placement of transgender youth in accordance with their gender identities in out-of-home care,” the report reads.
That shortage of protections extends to trans and gender non-conforming people’s ability to dress and express themselves in accordance with their gender identity: 24 states offer no such protections in their child welfare systems and 34 states don’t guarantee those rights in homeless and runaway youth shelters.
While national statistics on how this lack of protections impacts LGBTQ youth is hard to come by because of a lack of federal data collection and practices that vary state to state, there is research that shows that LGBTQ youth are subjected to higher rates of violence and discrimination than non-LGBTQ youth in these systems:
In New York City, studies show that 78% of LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness were removed or ran away from foster homes because of abuse or discrimination, and 56% chose to live on the street—rather than in a foster care placement—because they felt safer there. Findings show that, when compared with their heterosexual and cisgender peers, LGBTQ+ youth in the juvenile justice system are twice as likely to have experienced child abuse, out-of-home placement, and homelessness. The U.S. National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness are roughly 7.4 times more likely to suffer acts of sexual violence than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, and are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide (62%) than their peers (29%).
Trans and gender non-conforming young Americans are over-represented in all three systems the report looked at:
Available research using representative samples has shown that while young people who identify as LGBTQ+ comprise about 5-7% of the overall population of youth, they make up almost one-fourth of those in the foster care system, one-sixth of those in the juvenile justice system, and almost half of young people experiencing homelessness.
Researchers collected testimonies from six young trans people who have been through homelessness shelters, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems, and advice for lawmakers and providers on how to better serve them. One 19-year-old transgender woman from a southern state had been through the child welfare system in two states. She talked to the researchers about the impact of case workers and staff in the system not respecting her gender identity:
She says that when she experienced discrimination from caseworkers, staff at treatment facilities, and other professionals in the child welfare system, it “made me feel disrespected and added to my feelings of self-harm and suicidal ideation.” She wasn’t sure “what she was supposed to do” if she could not be herself, and that felt “really overwhelming.” She emphasizes that “a lot of trans people aren’t accepted, and it can make them feel bad about themselves.” She says it “felt weird for people who are supposed to be helping [me] to reject [me].”
Cook, the Lambda Legal attorney, says that without explicit protections, states are neglecting their mandate to provide safe, stable environments for children in their care.
“If you’re not affirming transgender youth in terms of respect for their identity, and honoring that in all aspects, then you can’t possibly be meeting your core obligations,” Cook said.