June is LGBTQ Pride Month, commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, a tipping point for the Gay Rights Movement in the United States. The movement began under the leadership of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson and Storme DeLarverie. Today, celebrations attract millions of participants around the world, recognizing the significant impact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning individuals have had on history. Memorials are held in June for those who have been lost to hate crimes or HIV/AIDS and, in the time of COVID-19, it is also a moment to remember LGBTQ individuals who have perished as a result of this global pandemic.
It may not be generally known, but LGBTQ youth are over represented in the foster care system. An article published in the journal Pediatrics (March 2019) found that 30.4% of youth in California’s foster care self-identify as LGBTQ, compared with 11.2% percent of the general youth population in a nationally-representative study. Many of these young people have been victims of violence and verbal, emotional abuse. They often endure bullying or worse from peers at school or adults, maltreatment that is even more frequent for LGBTQ people of color. Research indicates that they are more likely to be placed in congregate care facilities, face poorer treatment while in the system, and achieve lower rates of permanency. Once they “age out” at 18 or 21, their outcomes are bleaker, including lower educational attainment and higher odds of homelessness, poor health, and financial instability.
Rejected by their birth families and by potential foster parents simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, these young people must find a way to survive in a system that, at its best, cannot adequately fulfill the role of parent or family. LGBTQ youth in foster care often have fewer connections with supportive adults who can help them navigate the unique challenges they face.
But a Court Appointed Special Advocate—a CASA volunteer—is just that kind of person for any foster child, and perhaps even more so for an LGBTQ youth. Young people need love and unconditional acceptance to help them thrive and succeed in life. They need someone who is on their side, who will care about them, protect them, guide them; someone who accepts them for who they are. That is precisely the role of a CASA volunteer—a “voice” for youth in court, in schools, and in the community.
In 2015, Karen, a former Siskiyou County CASA, was advocating for a young child around 8 years old. The foster child began questioning their identity and as a CASA, Karen was able to be a support through this transitional period. As an LGBTQ foster youth it was important that they had an advocate in court, school and placement. Karen was able to be an affirming voice in her transgender youth’s life until they were placed in a permanent adoptive home.
In 2019, to help protect youth in foster care, Assemblyman Mike Gipson (District 64, Los Angeles County) sponsored AB175, a bill which updated the state’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights, written nearly 20 years ago in 2001. The changes in AB175 add explicit protections and assurances for LGBTQ foster youth, setting an expectation of culturally competent care, enshrining their right to be referred to by their chosen gender and name, allowing them to keep their sexual orientation private, and adding the right for LGBTQ youth to attend events and activities geared toward their orientation or gender. The bill had bipartisan support; it moved through the legislature last year and was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 2, 2019, going into effect January 1, 2020.
“We want to provide children who already have trauma an opportunity to create a new narrative, to grow up to be whoever they choose to be and identify with,” Gipson said during a hearing on the bill in March 2019. With the passage of this bill, LGBTQ youth in foster care have something wonderful to celebrate this year during June 2020’s Pride Month.
If you would like to make a real difference in a young person’s life, consider becoming a CASA Volunteer! During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are following all state guidelines for safety and social distancing. But foster children have never needed CASAs more than they do now. We encourage all readers to join an online Information Session and see if this is the volunteer opportunity for you!