The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a memo April 6 encouraging child welfare agencies to better serve the needs of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth” in the foster care system. It said such agencies should avail themselves of federal funds for training staff on how to better serve this community, and it called LGBT prospective parents “a largely untapped resource” for providing foster or adoptive homes to LGBTQ young people.
In the memo, which was issued without a press release, Bryan Samuels, commissioner of the HHS Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), said, “LGBT parents should be considered among the available options for States and jurisdictions to provide timely and safe placement of children in need of foster or adoptive homes.”
The memo was sent to state, tribal, and territorial agencies that administer federal child welfare funds under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.
Title IV-E provides federal matching funds to states to help with adoption and foster care expenses for eligible children.
In the memo, Samuels states his “fundamental belief that every child and youth who is unable to live with his or her parents is entitled to a safe, loving and affirming foster care placement, irrespective of the young person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
A higher percentage of LGBTQ youth, he wrote, exist in the child welfare system and among those living on the streets than would be expected based on the estimated percentage of LGBTQ people in the general population.
He noted that more and more child welfare agencies are addressing the needs of youth in foster care who are LGBTQ and said others should explore ways to do so.
Samuels also urged agencies, where appropriate, to “claim available title IV-E reimbursement for costs associated with training staff” to serve LGBTQ youth more effectively.
For FY 2010, the last year for which actual numbers are available, the budget authority for Title IV-E funds was $7.3 billion, enough to assist approximately 600,000 children with foster care, adoption, or guardianship assistance each month.
Samuels also said agencies must be “particularly attuned” to placing LGBTQ foster youth with families “committed to providing a safe, supportive and affirming environment.”
He called on agencies to “recruit, train and provide ongoing support to families, including LGBT individuals and families, who are able to provide a safe, loving family placement for these youth.”
He drew special attention to LGBT foster and adoptive parents, who “can provide a loving, stable home, responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth in care, and are a largely untapped resource—an estimated 2 million LGB individuals are interested in adopting,” according to a 2007 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA.
And when a foster child’s case plan calls for reunification with his or her family, he said, agencies should support those families to help them “address the young person’s needs in a healthy, understanding manner.”
Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit dedicated to improving adoption policy and practice, said in an interview that the memo is “very significant” and “further than I have seen federal instruction go” on the topic of LGBTQ adoptive children and parents.
“It’s not going to have the same impact as if it were enforced by law or regulation,” Pertman said, but “guidance means an enormous amount in the policy world. . . . What comes from the top really matters. It helps shape both practice and attitudes.”
Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Family Project, agreed the memo was “a really important communication” that “outlines what the expectations are regarding LGBTQ youth in foster care, and emphasizes the importance of adequate services, cultural competence, etc., and then segues into inclusion of LGBT resource families and making the case for nondiscrimination,” even though it “doesn’t have the enforcement of law.”
The memo from Samuels is not the first step ACYF has taken to support LGBTQ youth and parents. In October 2010, ACYF awarded the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center a $13.3 million, five-year grant to create a model program to support LGBTQ youth in the foster care system.
And in 2000, under President Clinton, the ACYF-run National Adoption Information Clearinghouse published a report on “Gay and Lesbian Adoptive Parents: Resources for Professionals and Parents.” It still exists at the ACYF’s Child Welfare Information Gateway (childwelfare.gov).
The older report debunked several myths about children of lesbian and gay parents, such as they were more likely to become gay themselves. At the same time, it stated that “the effects on children of being raised by lesbian and gay adoptive parents cannot be predicted”—an assertion more recently called into question by the social science evidence presented by LGBT advocates in a number of cases involving either adoption or marriage rights. The evidence showed no differences in adjustment or well being among children with LGBT parents.
A bill in Congress that would withhold federal funds from states that discriminate against LGBT people in foster placements or adoption died in committee last session, but U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce similar bills again this session.
In the past two weeks, three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Virginia—have considered bills or policies that would limit adoption rights for unmarried and/or same-sex couples. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) on April 18 signed a measure giving “placement preference to a married man and woman” over a single adult if all relevant factors are equal. The Illinois measure failed to pass, and the outcome is still unknown in Virginia.
And two major court cases in the last two weeks have ruled in opposite ways on whether treating LGBT couples differently violates constitutional principles. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said “no” (based on the U.S. Constitution) and the Arkansas Supreme Court saying “yes” (based on the state constitution).