Ellen Kahn: We Can Better Support LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems

Posted October 22, 2017, By Lisa Hamilton

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Interviewee:

Ellen Kahn is a national expert, leader and advocate for LGBTQ families and the director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth and Families Program.

“Most of us need education. We don't know that much about what it's like to be LGBTQ. We don't know what our kids are facing…”

–Ellen Kahn

Show Notes

In America today, too many young people end up in foster care after being rejected by their families because of their gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation.

Enter the Human Rights Campaign, which is the nation's largest civil rights organization devoted to achieving full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to the Human Rights Campaign’s Ellen Kahn about why LGBTQ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in foster care and juvenile justice systems, what challenges these youth face, how agencies and families can offer better support — and more.

View Transcripts

Lisa Hamilton (Host):
Welcome to CaseyCast, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's podcast. I'm Lisa Hamilton, vice president of External Affairs at the Foundation. I'm so glad you've joined us for a hopefully inspiring and interesting conversation. The Casey Foundation focuses on giving kids what they need — strong families, vibrant communities and financial stability. In these efforts, the Foundation is fortunate to work with innovators who advance solutions to help kids thrive. Each month, we'll bring you an in-depth conversation with one of these experts, right here on CaseyCast.

Being supported at home and in the community are important for all children and youth, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning or queer youth. However, social stigma, family rejection and discrimination threaten the well-being of LGBTQ youth, and these risks become acute when they enter child welfare and juvenile justice systems that are ill equipped to help these kids be safe and help them thrive.

Today, Ellen Kahn joins us to talk about these issues and the solutions we can use to create more supportive systems. Since 2005, Ellen has served as the director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth and Families Program. In her role, she provides national leadership and expertise in public education and advocacy efforts to achieve full equality for LGBTQ families. Ellen is sought out as an expert on LGBTQ adoption, speaking at numerous national and regional conferences and providing training for hundreds of child welfare and adoption professionals. Welcome, Ellen. We're so glad you could join us.

Ellen Kahn:
Thank you. I'm delighted to join you.

Lisa Hamilton:
First, why don’t we discuss the data about LGBTQ kids who are involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems?

Ellen Kahn:
Sure. Well, we don't have quite as much data as we hope to in the future. As many of you know, there aren't required data collection for sexual orientation or gender identity. So, some agencies, and organizations and systems have innovated to be able to better identify which children and youth in their systems of care do identify as part of the LGBT community. But, by far, most do not really have a particular way of identifying and sort of tracking the outcomes for those children and how they might differ from children who identify as heterosexual and cisgender. I'll be happy to review any of these terms.

But, what we do know from a couple of focused studies, most recently in Los Angeles County, which really is one of the largest systems, if you will, there was a focus study on how LGBTQ youths in Los Angeles Child and Family Services Administration were fairing, and they had to collect data and be able to identify which of these children and youths identifies LGBTQ. They found approximately 19%, which is disproportionate in that estimates are that anywhere from 3 to 5% of the general population identify as LGBTQ. Among younger people, it can be a little higher. 8 to 10% among the younger generation when asked about their sexual orientation and gender identity. But, still, even if it is closer to 10%, this is a higher representation among youth in out-of-home care.

Lisa Hamilton:
The statistics that are available suggest that we have disproportionately high rates of LGBTQ youth in foster care systems. Do we know why this is happening?

Ellen Kahn:
I wanted to just emphasize something you said in the introduction, Lisa, when you talked about the impact of family rejection, and social stigma, and discrimination, really three of the main challenges faced by LGBTQ youth. That's really kind of the explanation about why we see disproportionality, and I should mention that the LGBTQ youth we're talking about also are typically disproportional youth of color. They're youth of color and they're LGBTQ. I think it's just important to remind folks who it is we're talking about.

But, it's often a result of rejection by either family or origin or a foster family, or in some cases, even an adoptive family. At the point of them realizing a child is lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, queer, transgender, gender nonconforming, that they may just outright reject that child. Overt rejection, "Pack your stuff and get out. You're not my kid anymore," to a more, kind of a subtle but consistent chipping away at their self esteem, saying disparaging things, mocking them or trying to change them. Sometimes, young people just need to run for safety. I think those are some of the explanations about why we see a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care, that it often starts at home and just not being affirmed or accepted for who you are.

Lisa Hamilton:
What are some challenges that LGBTQ kids are facing in foster care?

Ellen Kahn:
Some of the challenges then, in care, there's a real range in the knowledge and cultural competency of child welfare professionals across the country. I think more and more folks are really eager to learn more and want to be more supportive, want to be better allies, want to be better at their job in supporting LGBTQ youth. But, a lot of organizations haven't prioritized training, professional development for their staff with regard to working with LGBTQ youth, so there's sometimes a lack of understanding. What should I be doing? What is different for these kids? How can I be more effective?

I think there's also quite a learning curve around supporting transgender children and youth in particular, because gender identity as a concept is still not quite as familiar to people as is sexual orientation. We talk about sexual orientation, I think most people kind of understand we're talking about who you're attracted to, who you're likely to be involved in sexual behavior with, or what your desires are, even if you're not acting on that sexually. Everybody, I think, understands and probably knows someone who's gay, lesbian or bisexual, but knowing someone who's transgender or who's gender nonbinary, that's not true. I think only about 25–30% of people, in a recent poll, said they personally know someone who's transgender.

Lisa Hamilton:
So education and professional development on this issue is important.

Ellen Kahn:
I think there's a learning curve. Even when folks are motivated to do right, to be supportive, if they just simply do not understand what it means to be transgender and what a young person might need, then they can't do so well. We see often children who are LGBTQ have longer periods of time in out of home care, they have more placements over time and higher rates of aging out of care. I think the real challenge there, or the gap there, is that we don't have enough resource families who are prepared to and, frankly, expected to be an affirming, safe placement for LGBTQ youth. So finding ... You know, we don't want to re traumatize these kids by placing them with a family who is going to reject them or just simply not support them in their LGBTQ identity. We often don't know who among our licensed families is actually really ready, and willing and able to be that affirming, safe family.

Lisa Hamilton:
You mentioned several things that we need to pay attention to in order to help these young people feel safe and to help them be successful. Perhaps we should start with what can be done to support them and their families of origin. It sounds like young people may come into care if there has been an experience around family rejection, what does the Human Rights Campaign do in partnership with foster care agencies to support young people and their families?

Ellen Kahn:
Sure. That's a great question, and it is really important. For families that are facing a lot of stressors and just challenged in many ways to function well, sometimes having a child come out as LGBTQ, or for the family to just be aware that one of their kids is or may likely be LGBTQ, can just be… In some cases, I've heard young people say that they felt it was the last straw for their family, it was like, "We can't deal with this right now, it's just too much." I think that is reality, that it can just add to a sort of challenged family system. I think what we've learned from a lot, not we… The Human Rights Campaign hasn't done direct research or worked directly with families, we're kind of more macro in our work. But looking at the great work of organizations like the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit and the great research that's been led by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and her Family Acceptance Project, which is based at the University of California, San Francisco, they really do the deep work and longitudinal research with families of LGBTQ young people. What you see is a fairly common trajectory.

It's, I think, very important for all of us who work with young people to remember this, many parents who are initially rejecting, who just have that sort of reflex based on their existing beliefs, what they've been taught all their lives, their own sort of homophobic or trans phobic feelings, or beliefs that are rooted in a particular religious tradition, many do kind of initially reject their children or act in a very rejecting way, say hurtful things, that kind of thing. But, when you really look at the… That's not always where things end. Those parents, like any of us, can and often do evolve in our thoughts, and ideas and beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lisa Hamilton:
It's worth noting that when we talk about education and training here &mdash it’s across the board. In systems and organizations. But also in homes and families.

Ellen Kahn:
When you really look at whether the choice between losing a child versus just pushing through your own discomfort and finding a way to stay open and keep your heart open, many parents do make their way to opening their heart. They may not be the kind of parents who want to wave a rainbow flag, and go to meetings and talk about how proud they are of their gay children, but they find a place where they can continue to have the belief system they have, and maybe not totally understand where their child's coming from, but say, "I love you. I'll always be your mother, I'll always be your father. I'll always be here for you and we'll get through this." We see a lot of parents move in that direction, so I think it's important for professionals to not give up right away on family members who are even quite overtly rejecting of an LGBTQ child or family member.

Obviously, if it's not safe for a gay, or lesbian, or bi or trans kid to be in a system like that, you've got to remove them from that immediate danger and risk, but it doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't some opportunity. Sometimes we see that maybe there's a grandparent, or one of the parents is actually much more willing to kind of do their work and move along and be more open, and they have to negotiate a family system which maybe another family member or a spouse is much more vehemently anti-gay, and they have to sort of figure that out and it takes some time. But, you know, I think there's opportunity to educate parents, whether it's birth families or foster, adoptive parents.

Most of us need education, we don't know that much about what it's like to be LGBTQ, we don't know what our kids are facing, we don't know what their needs are for us to advocate for them in schools, and how to support them around their sexual health needs or how to help them navigate relationships. I think, as we're getting to know family members and getting to know how they view aspects of their children's lives, like sexual orientation and gender identity, that's an opportunity for us to educate them, to get to know how they think about these things and to maybe recommend videos they could look at, or things they could read or other parents they could talk to.

Lisa Hamilton:
Wonderful. Thank you. We know that young people come into the foster care system for a variety of reasons, not solely because of family rejection. I wonder what your organization does to help agencies, foster care agencies, be more responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth?

Ellen Kahn:
Yes. For about 11 years now, we've had a program called All Children - All Families. In fact, we collaborate with some of your colleagues at Annie E. Casey and we're grateful for that. We help agencies put in place policies and practices that optimize LGBTQ inclusion and LGBTQ cultural competence. Within that whole scope of what we do, within the framework of helping agencies move along and really achieve the best practices, one area of focus, for example, is how they recruit families and how they prepare families in their sort of pre service process, and then even ongoing post placement, to be affirming, safe, supportive families for LGBTQ youth.

Lisa Hamilton:
From your perspective with this work: What is one area that is ripe for improvement?

Ellen Kahn:
One of the things we really would like to see change in practice across the board is better assessing one's willingness and/or ability to have an LGBT child placed with them. In the same way, we want to understand how resource families see themselves as being able to parent children with certain backgrounds, or experiences or needs. I think we'd want to see routinely a similar set of questions about how do you see yourself as a resource for a child who might be lesbian, or gay, or bisexual, or what about a child who's transgender or exploring their gender identity? What do you think you bring to the table for children in this community? What do you think you would need to learn to be an affirming, safe parent if you're not sure right now, you could be? That also gives you the opportunity, if someone says, "I really don't think I would be, or wouldn't want to be," to dig in a little bit. What would get in the way, and are there some yellow or red flags around a particular family or person that you really need to keep an eye on?

Even though we often, we think of LGBTQ children and youth in care as being old enough to self identify, to say, "I am same-sex attracted," or, "I am a transgender child." We don't know who's going to be LGBTQ. If we're, as we mentioned earlier, anywhere from 5–10% of the population, so when you're placing a 3 or 5 or 7 year old, you're not thinking about their sexual orientation or gender identity, per se. But, it is important, I think, and we really kind of bring this to the field, to think about any of these kids could at some point be same sex attracted or questioning or exploring sexual orientation or gender identity, and do we want to have a sense now of what this resource family, you know, how they would approach that? Where would they turn for information or education? What kind of response would they most likely have? Those are some of the things we do because we really want to build the pool of resource families who are LGBTQ affirming, to really make that sort of the ideal, so that you have many, many options for LGBTQ children and youth who are from different backgrounds, who are different ages, who live in different parts of the country. That's one example.

Lisa Hamilton:
Great. What might be different for a relative care giver or a foster family in caring for a child who is LGBTQ?

Ellen Kahn:
Sure. I think if there are other children in the family, I think it's important to know whether those other children have already formed any kind of biased views of LGBTQ people and whether they, as siblings, would be, where there could be potential conflict there. I think most relative care givers and foster families know the importance of advocating in schools, making sure that youths who are placed with them are getting the attention they need, the education they deserve. The added element, if you have an LGBTQ youth in care, is that… We know that bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students is probably highest than with any other population of students in schools, and so being able to advocate effectively with a school counselor, or a principle, or a particular teacher, if you know your LGBTQ child is in fact being targeted because of their identity, that might be something to think about.

You might think about what are your rules about things like dating or being out with friends in the evening, or things like sexual health education, learning about HIV prevention, and would you look at those things any differently if you had an LGBTQ child placed with you. For example, we want to think about healthy adolescent development, and if you would potentially apply different standards to… Let's say you have a lesbian, a 14 year old lesbian or 15 year old lesbian placed with you, would you prohibit her from dating or spending time with female friends, for example, in sort of some different fashion than you might if she were heterosexual, and why might that be? Are you kind of hindering a healthy, normal adolescent development? You know, it's just being attuned to some of those things. Those are some examples that come to mind.

Lisa Hamilton:
Great. Thank you. I'm curious what role gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender adults could assist in this area, how we are recruiting them to be foster families?

Ellen Kahn:
Sure. This has been a big area of focus for us since we launched All Children – All Families. In fact, when we launched in 2005, the question we posed to leaders in child welfare, literally at a meeting at our DC office, was how can the Human Rights Campaign, which is the nation's largest civil rights organization, focus on LGBTQ equality? How can we help to build bridges between the thousands and thousands of children who need a permanent placement and the thousands and thousands of LGBTQ adults who we know are interested in and eager to foster or adopt, but still don't know if it's safe to step into that world, if they're going to be treated well and welcomed and valued?

Things have changed quite a bit in these 11 years. I mean, attitudes and laws and things are generally better, but we still do see some disconnects between agencies that need families, where they don't have enough families for the kids in care, and the fact that according to one study, the National Family Growth Survey a few years ago, two million LGB identified, they didn't ask about gender identity, but two million people who identified as either lesbian, gay or bisexual said they have an interest in adoption. If you think about, even, if only like 1% or just a couple percent of those two million actually went through the entire process of becoming licensed resource families, you're talking about many, many thousands of families.

Lisa Hamilton:
What is one thing that the Human Rights Campaign is doing to engage this population?

Ellen Kahn:
One of the things we do when we work with agencies is we help them look at, really sort of objectively look at whether there are any barriers, even unintentional, to LGBT folks participating with their agency.

Lisa Hamilton:
Why—when we are talking about the welfare of LGBTQ youth—is it important to engage gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender adults?

Ellen Kahn:
You know, it's not just a matter of building up the numbers of resource families, and we don't just want agencies to welcome LGBTQ adults because they want families for a placement of LGBTQ youth, because that's not always going to be the best placement. But it's really because we see a lot of strengths and resiliency in the LGBT community, you know, many of us were rejected by our families of origin, or estranged from our families because they didn't like who we were. Many of us recreated families. There's a term 'families of choice' or 'family by choice,' which is a very common experience in the LGBT community, where we create families, where it's not that we share DNA, but we share values and a sense of connection and belonging.

You know, having some ability to empathize and understand, perhaps, a little better or differently, what some of these young people are going through… You know, stigma, we've experienced stigma. We have experienced that sense of being kind of outsiders from our family, or no longer connected to our family of origin. And just, you know, knowing how to advocate for what we need… One of my favorite examples is when the AIDS epidemic, as we referred to it years ago, really first landed in the US, we were primarily seeing that in gay men. You know, just like a decimation of communities of gay men. We were really strangers that sort of stepped in to take care of others. I mean, as a lesbian at the time, in the mid 80s, a budding social worker, my peers and I kind of dropped everything and just stepped in. We volunteered, we helped, we took care of friends. We were at the bedside of people whose own families had rejected them, but there we were feeding them, and taking them to doctor's appointments, and wiping their brows and helping them with activities of daily living. You think about, you know, isn't that the kind of commitment and nurturing you would want for us to bring to the table when we talk about the children and youth who are waiting for a permanent family?

Lisa Hamilton:
Thank you so much for lifting up the strengths in a community that could help all young people thrive, that's wonderful. We've talked a lot about child welfare, why don't we switch gears for a minute and talk a bit about the juvenile justice system, another set of agencies that your organization works with. Could you tell us a little bit about some of the challenges for LGBTQ youth involved in the juvenile justice system?

Ellen Kahn:
Sure. In some ways, there are some universal challenges. I didn't get to talk about all of those, but I think I sort of make some of the analogies with juvenile justice. You know, a lot of LGBTQ youth are mistreated when they're in out of home care, also when they're in juvenile justice systems. Sometimes there's just unchecked anti-LGBT animus that can be coming from folks who are essentially paid to, and charged with, keeping kids safe, but often we hear from young people that they were being… you know, a young person was being targeted and mocked, and ridiculed, or even physically harmed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The staff members and security guards, and other folks who were around, within ear shot and eyesight of this, just sort of turned their backs, or in some cases, even fueled the fire a little bit. We really see kind of an indifference or even a hostility on the part of some employees of these systems. Again, I feel like it's mainly a training issue, but also leadership really has to make more clear the policies, that discrimination is not tolerated.

Lisa Hamilton:
Are there any challenges that LGBTQ youth face that are unique to the juvenile justice system?

Ellen Kahn:
We do see, I think, some of the greatest challenges with transgender or gender non-binary young people in the juvenile justice system, where we still see cases where a transgender girl will be forced to be put in male center or in male detention. It's incredibly unsafe for her, she is targeted, she is humiliated. There might be a case where, if this young person has been taking hormone blockers or some other kind of medication related to gender affirming care, they may be prevented from accessing that, which can have quite detrimental effects both physically and emotionally. I think that's where we see some of the greatest challenges. I think that, again, even looking at what are some of the factors that lead to maybe a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youths finding themselves interfacing with juvenile justice, is there are different standards approach to some of the activities.

For young people who are on the streets, runaway or homeless youth, again, LGBTQ homeless youth, we believe, make up anywhere from 25 to 40% of that population of homeless youth. That's a crisis, in my opinion.

For young people on the streets, survival sex is common. For LGBT youths who are engaging in survival sex, often in a same sex situation, they may be exposed to a different type of treatment or sentencing around that than a heterosexual person might be. We see some differentiation in treatment and the kind of charges LGBTQ youth face. We see often, judges are quite harsh on LGBTQ youth. Again, often based on their personal attitudes, negative attitudes toward LGBTQ people, not based on looking out for the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth. Those are additional factors that we know are present way too often.

Lisa Hamilton:
For both youth who may have been, or are at risk of getting involved in child welfare or juvenile justice systems, what types of services and supports should a community have available to help LGBTQ youth?

Ellen Kahn:
I think, there are a couple of things, I think. One is that in all of the sort of systems of care that young people typically engage in, from school based counseling or social services, to community based services, to pediatric and other healthcare services, a good basic level of LGBTQ cultural competency, I think is quite essential so that you can be out and be authentic and open about who you are, and being so does not put you in jeopardy, does not put you at risk. There are adults around you who are intentional about making sure you're safe and supported.

In what I would call the more traditional kind of places young people interface, in school experience, community based activities, recreational, boys and girls clubs, all those kinds of community services and support services, there should be an expectation that LGBTQ youth are treated… that there's no discrimination, that they're treated in a way that's inclusive, that's supportive, that there's an understanding of what some of these unique issues are for LGBTQ youths, so they can be addressed as well. And that beyond the traditional, like really raising the bar within these traditional systems and institutions. I think we often want to see, and do see in the larger cities that have more resources, support groups and organizations specifically for LGBTQ youth, and that those organizations provide additional support, they help young people find connections to peers, to people with greater expertise, to feel a place where they really belong, and those centers and programs also become a resource for those traditional service providers.

An example in Washington DC, where I work and live. An organization called SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, it's been around for decades, they are kind of the go-to organization for, say, a school principal who wants to bring in an expert to help them address anti-LGBT bullying, or a pediatric practice that wants to better understand how to support younger children and their families who might be coming out. Having those kind of experts and additional resources in a community… I think for organizations that can have the funding to hire someone who's specifically charged with being an LGBTQ ombudsman, or liaison, or someone who coordinates programs for the LGBT community, that's a way to, I think, build internal capacity within an organization. Those are a few things that come to mind.

Lisa Hamilton:
Right. Ellen, thank you so much for the work that you and the Human Rights Campaign are doing to help systems, and communities and families be more supportive of LGBTQ youth.

Ellen Kahn:
Thank you, and thank you for your strong partnership and helping us do that.

Lisa Hamilton:
Our pleasure. Thanks for talking with us, Ellen, and I want to thank our listeners for joining, as well. If you've enjoyed today's conversation, rate our show on Apple Podcasts to help others find us. You can also ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter using the Casey Cast hashtag. To learn more about Casey and find notes for today's show, visit us online at aecf.org/podcast and follow the Casey Foundation on Twitter @aecfnews. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids, and all of you, a bright future.