Maryland officials are taking steps to create a more welcoming foster-care system for gay, bisexual and transgender children and adolescents, including screening homes for possible bias and providing sensitivity training to case workers.
The policy directive issued this month by the state Department of Human Resources prohibits conversion therapy and urges foster parents of transgender children to call them by their preferred pronouns and to allow them to dress and groom accordingly.
“We want to be prepared to be able to support the children along their journey in a way that’s supportive and not punitive,” said Rebecca Jones-Gaston, executive director of social services in the HR department, which oversees the foster-care system in partnership with county agencies.
There’s no data on how many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youths are in Maryland’s foster-care system. Nationally, advocates say such children and adolescents are more likely to be mistreated by their foster families. Many end up leaving those families and living on the street.
In Maryland, those who work with LGBT youths tell the story of a transgender girl who ended up prostituting herself to survive on the street after she was placed in an all-boys home whose operators forced her to identify as a boy and where other teens bullied her.
An effeminate gay boy was kicked out of his foster home, and his foster parents paid him $25 to $50 a week to return only during case-worker visits. A bisexual teen who came out to her foster parents says they have refused to look her in the eyes since.
“They are already traumatized; they have experienced severe neglect or abuse from the people who are supposed to love and protect them unconditionally,” said Ann Marie Binsner, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Prince George’s County, a nonprofit organization that advocates for foster children.
“When they come into foster care, they shouldn’t continue to feel that neglect or that rejection because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. We should be the ones protecting them from that.”
Maryland has contracted with the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group to start training social-service workers in September, beginning in Prince George’s. The training includes instruction on recognizing subconscious bias, proper language to use with LGBT youths, and how to normalize being gay or transgender.
“It comes down to education and talking to folks about what acceptance looks like,” said Alison Delpercio, deputy director of the Children, Youth and Families program at the Human Rights Campaign foundation.
“When you talk to parents about that and help them understand even if they have the best interest of children in mind, expressing disgust or disapproval for a young person’s LGBTQ identity is harmful, and it’s the exact opposite of what they are trying to do,” she said, using the term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning.
Maryland state officials say they haven’t gotten pushback against their new policy, including from religiously affiliated foster-care providers. At an Annapolis hearing last winter on a bill that would have required case workers to screen foster-care placements for possible discrimination, an official with the Christian Arrow Child and Family Ministries told lawmakers that it was already making sure lesbian or gay teens were not being placed with parents who adamantly opposed homosexuality.
The Human Rights Campaign says 21 states have policies or laws barring discrimination against foster youths based on sexual orientation. Fourteen extend those policies to transgender children.
Maryland’s new policy does not go as far as those in some other states. For example, it does not require that all foster parents undergo training on working with LGBT youths, as is the case in California, Illinois and New Mexico.
Since 2010, the District has required case workers to undergo LGBT cultural competency training and recruited more than 30 foster homes that are specifically willing to take in those children.
Ruby Corado, a longtime transgender advocate who runs an emergency shelter in the District, said she houses LGBT kids from all over the region who struggled in foster homes where they were made to feel mentally ill or damaged because they defy gender norms.
“If they are coming and want to plump their eyebrows, instead of making them feel like something is wrong with them, I celebrate it,” Corado said.
Ciera Dunlap, who supervises case managers at the Youth Empowered Society drop-in center for homeless youths in Baltimore, said that about half of the former foster children they work with are LGBT.
Dunlap met one transgender girl who had cycled through homes in which parents tried to force her to act like a boy. Other foster children would bully her, Dunlap said, and at one point, the foster-care system placed the girl in a home that was supposed to be boys only.
The teen is now incarcerated for soliciting sex — which is not uncommon among homeless transgender youths.
“It’s the same cycle over and over again,” said Dunlap, who for a time was homeless and in the foster-care system herself.
Maryland’s new policy directive says transgender children will no longer be placed in all-boys or all-girls homes that don’t match their gender identity.
Antonio Morrell, 21, entered the foster-care system when he was 16 because relatives who raised him in Prince George’s were too ill to continue caring for him and his brother. In his first placement, Morrell concealed his bisexuality after hearing his foster parents express bias against gay people.
“They would say homophobic things watching television: ‘I can’t believe they are showing gay s--- on the television.’ They’ll say to the nieces and nephews, ‘I’m not going to raise you to be a f-----,’ ” said Morrell. “That definitely pushed me back. I thought, ‘I can’t come out to these type of people.’ ”
He left that home after a few months. The next family to take him, Morrell said, had discriminatory attitudes, too. At age 18, Morrell found a welcoming home with a gay foster parent, who treated him as a son and asked him what took him so long to come out.
Morrell aged out of the foster-care system in January. He lives in Bladensburg and works as a youth advocate for Prince George’s but remains close to his last foster parent, whom he calls Dad. Morrell said the right placement can make a huge difference for LGBT youths.
“They are not busy or distracted thinking about the next place they are going to sleep, the next meal they are going to have, or if they have to deal with abuse when they go home,” Morrell said. “They actually strive well [at] home and become very successful by the time they age out.”