Being Fully Seen: Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth in Foster Care

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Transgender and gender non-conforming youth encounter varying degrees of abuse while in foster care group homes. The types of abuse fall into three main categories: (1) emotional; (2) physical; and (3) sexual. Regardless of which of the three main categories the abuse falls into, it is frequently serious in nature. Although transgender and gender non-conforming people are becoming more visible, staff members at foster care group homes still have uncertainties about how to treat transgender and gender non-conforming youth. Because of these uncertainties, these youths are subjected to discriminatory practices that can result in transgender and gender non-conforming youth self-mutilating or, in the worst cases, committing suicide.

The staff at foster care group homes have the capability to, and should, model behavior that treats everyone in a dignified manner. The foster care youth imitate the behavior they perceive acceptable. Therefore, should group home staff treat transgender and gender non-conforming youth in a manner that attacks their self-worth, it is very likely that the other youth will copy that same behavior. However, this will only happen if we add gender identity to DFCS Policy of Nondiscrimination. Therefore, the following recommendations can result in paradigm shift for transgender and gender non-conforming youth in group homes should we do so.

Recommendations Allowing Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth to be Fully Seen by Foster Care Staff:

  1. Provide staff with the requisite training to confidently work with and treat transgender and gender non-conforming youth in an affirming way.
  2. Engineer and execute non-discrimination policies that succinctly address group home rules.
  3. Ensure that group home staff will be held accountable for diverging from the implementation of their training and non-discrimination policies.

CONTEXT

The number of youths coming out as transgender and gender non-conforming is continually increasing. However, not only are youth coming out as transgender and gender non-conforming more frequently, they are doing so at younger ages. Although it is unfeasible to know how many transgender and gender non-conforming youth are in foster care, two things are clear: (1) these youths are disproportionately represented; and (2) transgender and gender non-conforming youth face abuse, prejudice, and discrimination because of their gender identity while in foster care.

Those two truths have led too transgender and gender non-conforming youth being extremely vulnerable in foster care environments. There has not been extensive research conducted on the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming youth, but generally, these youths belong to a class of people susceptible to vitriol and discrimination. The vulnerability of these youths is only compounded when they are people of color.

Unlike race, there does not need to be an outward indicator that a youth is transgender or gender non-conforming. Therefore, it is imperative that this policy is implemented mandating foster care staff treat all children in a gender affirming manner.

A. The Nature and Scope of the Problem

The Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is responsible for providing an environment where youth in foster care can receive care that promotes their psychological, emotional, and physical well-being. However, transgender and gender non-conforming youth are explicitly excluded from receiving this care when gender identity is not part of DFCS Policy of Nondiscrimination. Georgia DFCS cannot discriminate on the following bases:

  1. Race
  2. Color
  3. National Origin
  4. Sex
  5. Age
  6. Disability
  7. Religion
  8. Political Beliefs

The exclusion of gender identity as a protected class has resulted in transgender and gender non-conforming youth being exposed to discrimination, harassment, or disrespect because of their gender identities. Out transgender and gender non-conforming youth are also outed on Georgia’s website by stating their legal name and listing them as the sex they were assigned at birth for categorization purposes. This treatment then follows them wherever they are placed. When group homes are formed on the basis of sex, this leads to daily invalidation of the youth’s gender identity and self-worth.

The constant disregard of the transgender or gender non-conforming youth’s gender identity can, and likely will, lead to depression, lack of access to necessary medical intervention delaying puberty, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Also, some transgender and gender non-conforming youth will refuse to come out for fear of being subjected to the discrimination, harassment, or disrespect they are surrounded by.

B. The Causes of the Problem

  1. Staff members using personal, organizational, and/or religious beliefs to justify discrimination, harassment, or disrespect towards transgender and gender non-conforming youths’ gender identity.
  2. Asking transgender and gender non-conforming youth to disavow their gender identity to mitigate spaces where discrimination, harassment, or disrespect are present. Rejecting someone’s gender identity causes harm to the mental and emotional health of transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
  3. Instigating, supporting, or disregarding discrimination, harassment, or disrespect of transgender and gender non-conforming youth.

C. The Policy Implications of the Problem

Georgia DFCS Policy of Nondiscrimination does not mention or extends any rights to children that transcend the gender stereotypes of the sex they were assigned at birth. Because of this, the policy implications of this problem extend into transgender and gender non-conforming children facing discrimination, harassment, or disrespect and having little to no recourse. It is likely that transgender and gender non-conforming youths will partake in self-harm and suicidal ideation to cope with feeling helpless.

Although many states have their own nondiscrimination laws, Georgia doesn’t. Therefore, Georgia’s model follows the federal law underneath the EEOC. But this just does not help transgender and queer youth enough. There must be explicit inclusion of trans and queer people in the federal law to protect us. Trump’s removal of Obama’s guidance only makes this battle harder.

EVALUATIONS OF POLICY OPTIONS

Providing a safe facility for those living there is required of all state custody programs. For transgender and gender non-conforming youth that includes protect them from physical, emotional and sexual abuse done by staff or other residents. The overarching policy I am advocating for is to implement gender affirming and protective policies for all youth in foster care. To implement that policy, I am proposing five key policies that will act as the basis to implement gender affirming and protective policies.

In light of the political climate, adding another protected class to those covered by DFCS’s Policy for Nondiscrimination is near impossible. Therefore, the proposed policies can stand as an individualized policy for the possibility of being adopted.

  1. Refer to transgender and gender non-conforming youth by their preferred name and pronouns creating an atmosphere where they can be acknowledged, respected, and supported for who they are. Also allow them to freely express their gender identity through clothing, hairstyles, and mannerisms without fear of disciplinary action.
  2. Transgender and gender non-conforming youth are not “sexually abusive” because of their gender identity. Do not label them as such.
  3. Provide medically necessary health care for transgender and gender non-conforming youth to be seen fully, if they so request it.
  4. Transgender and gender non-conforming youth should be placed in group homes based off of their gender identity. Therefore, individualized placement is necessary to ensure each child can receive the safety they need and that the state must require.
  5. Provide diversity trainings at foster care facilities for staff and residents to mitigate the amount of harassment transgender and gender non-conforming youth must face in those facilities.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Adequate training: Provide staff with the requisite training to confidently work with and treat transgender and gender non-conforming youth in an affirming way.

Staff should be thoroughly trained to respect and support youths’ gender identity and expression, particularly as it relates to gender appropriate placements. Training should include how to properly conduct individualized placements and classification assessments, with an emphasis on the assurance of both physical and emotional safety. Staff should have knowledge of supportive local and national level resources and programs to refer youth to and should also assist in the process of accessing these services. Finally, staff should be trained to both refrain from disrespecting gender identity—through misgendering, misnaming—and appropriately respond to any incidents of harassment—particularly sexualization or inappropriate labeling. This may mean being trained to carry out their own diversity trainings for other youth in or visitors to the facility.

  1. Implementation of non-discrimination policies: Engineer and execute non-discrimination policies that succinctly address group home rules.

A key component and outcome of proper training is the ability to identify or create non-discrimination policies and see through the implementation of said policies. This includes the codification of appropriate responses to harassment as well as the institutionalization of a standard of behavior as to ensure a supportive and respectful environment. Important policies include ones that ensure the privacy, safety and dignity of transgender and gender non-conforming youth in all bathrooms and showers, as well as during any clothing changes or physical searches. It is also essential that transgender and gender non-conforming youth are provided access to health care providers who are knowledgeable about their needs. Youth should have access to any necessary or recommended medical treatment, including transgender-related care.

  1. Accountability measures: Ensure that group home staff will be held accountable for diverging from the implementation of their training and non-discrimination policies.

Instituting a set of workplace practices to hold the group home staff accountable is of utmost importance. Administration should ensure that transgender and gender non-conforming youth are safe and supported, both on-site and off-site. There should be a set of sanctions for any staff failing to uphold the non-discrimination policies set forth. These may range from re-training to termination, depending on the nation of the violation.

 

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