Sense of Belonging: Kinship, Companionship, Community, and Gender Identity in Foster Care

NOTE – It is necessary, now, to make a correction of an error in this post, and to better fit these posts up with a bit more vocabulary to enhance understanding of gender issues in foster care generally. Repeatedly throughout this post, I used the term transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) to refer to children and adults who are not cisgender. Cisgender [PDF pg. 1], according to the American Psychological Associations’ “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People” is an “adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity and gender expression align with sex assigned at birth; a person who is not TGNC.” The issue with the TGNC terminology is that it is, in and of itself, exclusionary. A better terminology would be trans and gender non-binary (TGNB) because it fundamentally recognizes that gender is a spectrum, rather than a binary state.

As stated in my last post, transgender and gender non-conforming youth face unique and grave challenges in the foster care system. At its core, the fundamental risk faced by trans and gender non-binary (TGNB) youth is that they will suffer mistreatment, due to prejudice or indifference, in the care of non-specialized group homes—group homes that, as a result of the federal and state reforms seeking to move away from such institutions, will lack specially trained staff and targeted programming. This change means that TGNB youth will either be in group homes that don’t address their needs or be isolated in resource homes that also lack specialized training and programming.

Even though it has been a quarter century since Brandon Teena was raped and murdered, and twenty years since the premiere of the movie based on his life (Boys Don’t Cry), TGNB people are still regularly and even publicly subjected to violence. Last month in Paris, a trans woman was attacked as she exited a metro station. Just last week in Texas a trans woman who had been assaulted the previous month by what was described as a mob was found dead, lying face down on a Dallas street. While TGNB youth in foster care group homes don’t necessarily face the same threat to their lives, non-specialized group homes are poorly equipped to serve TGNB youth. For example, staff in group homes:

  • Failed to stop harassment and abuse of a trans youth because, in choosing to be open about who he was, he had “asked for it.” [PDF Pg. 10]
  • Refused to allow a trans girl private facilities to shower despite her repeated reports of harassment, abuse, and threats of violence from boys resulting in her choosing not to shower. [PDF Pg. 11]
  • Refused to house a trans girl with other girls, meaning she had to sleep on a couch on a landing [PDF Pg. 16]
  • Drove a trans girl who refused to shower with boys for fear of being assaulted not to shower until a judge ordered the home to allow her private access to the showers. [PDF Pg. 16]
  • Mocked and punished a trans girl known as Shardee, often denied her food, and prevented her from contacting her attorney. [PDF Pg. 16]

TGNB youth are isolated and frequently subjected to mistreatment by their peers and indifference by caregivers, particularly in group homes as currently constituted. But group homes could serve to meet an important need. Specialized group homes for TGNB (or, more broadly, LGBTQ individuals) would offer them the opportunity to form a community and help them begin to gain the type of personal networks from which individuals can draw support, empathy, and strength.

There are numerous studies that demonstrate the value of friendship and community to youth and adolescent development. To begin with, some psychologists argue that friendship helps promote mental health by fulfilling the need to belong, and others advance the argument that friendships are an important service of self-identity and life as they help to make clear to the individual what obligations and expectations people have for one and other. [Heading 2.1] Psychologists also have argued that friendships develop from the need for companionship and that the quality of these friendships changes as youth age due to the new need for emotional closeness. [Heading 2.2] Moreover, this closeness is needed to develop adolescent friendships that allow for “intensive and intimate conversation, self-disclosure, and efforts to solve conflict.”

Specialized group homes for TGNB youth would likely give an opportunity to those children that the rest of us get without really noticing: the chance to be friends with people just like ourselves, who have had similar issues, faced similar situations, and who can advise and commiserate with one another. However, recent reforms at the federal level now make it more difficult for states that rely on federal to make such programs a reality.

Recent Federal Reform to Foster Care Funding

The Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law by President Trump on February 9, 2019 includes within it a provision that shifts funding away from simply maintaining children in foster care towards services geared toward preventing a child from entering into the foster care system. Specifically, as it relates to group homes, Part IV of the act now limits foster care maintenance payments for youth in group care to two weeks, with exceptions for youth receiving pre-natal, post-partum, or parenting support, extended foster care for those age 18 and up, group care for youth who have been or are at risk of becoming sexual trafficking victims, or youth in need of substance abuse care. [PDF Pg. 15].

These changes mean that any state that wishes to maintain group care in the non-exempt form will now have to carry the cost of funding those programs. In the alternative, states can delay implementation of the change to group care homes for two years but will also have to forgo the funds for prevention services for those two years as well.

So, substantively, for trans and non-binary youth, what does this mean and what, fundamentally is at risk? As I spoke of in my previous post, trans and non-binary youth are not well or fully understood by many people. I myself lacked a truly firm understanding of even the basic vocabulary before attending a talk on caring for trans and non-binary youth a month ago. Going forward, programs that could be created by states and local governments to have specialized group homes for TGNB youth, or any other vulnerable and isolated population, would not be financially viable for governments with scarcer resources than those contained in the federal budget.

Foster Care Reform in California

Yet even absent the recent federal reform, reform of the foster care system in California has set in motion a process by which the State hopes to move completely away from group homes. This has been part of an ongoing process since the enactment by the legislature in 2015 of Assembly Bill 403. Proposed by Assembly member Mark Stone, the bill summary itself states that it addresses issues endemic to the foster care system by reorienting support towards resource families and away from placing youth in long-term group.

So far, the reforms haven’t worked out as planned. The state sought primarily to replace group homes (also known as congregate care settings) with family placements. The bill put millions toward recruiting new resource families. The State moved to limit placement in congregate care with the creation of Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Programs (STRTPs). These were to be used for youth who needed quick stabilizing care before they could be placed in foster homes. Because resource family placements are cheaper than group homes, the state planned to save money. The reforms haven’t worked. Counties have struggled to recruit new foster parents and in fiscal year 2016-2017 left half of the allocated funds unspent. As for STRTPs, the move to shift foster youth out of group homes has increased the caseload of STRTPs rather than the less expensive home placements. This means that the cost of the reforms increased by $101 million, an issue compounded by the reality that as a result of a sunsetting clause in the reform legislation, the additional funding for foster parent recruitment will be going away.

California Health and Safety Code section 1502(a)(13) defines a group home as:

a residential facility that provides 24-hour care and supervision to children, delivered at least in part by staff employed by the licensee in a structured environment. The care and supervision provided by a group home shall be nonmedical, except as otherwise permitted by law.

The legislature added parameters to its reforms by amending Health and Safety Code section 361.2(e)(9(A)(ii) and limiting the length of a short-term placement to 120 days, meaning that group homes now can’t provide multi-year services to youth who would benefit from placement within one unless they fall within narrow exceptions. (These exceptions permit an extension in circumstances where the county is making progress or actively working toward implementation of a case plan that identifies the services or support the child needs, where the implementation of said plan has been delayed by circumstances beyond the county’s control. However, for either of these two exceptions to be met, the need for the additional time must be documented by the caseworker and approved by the director of the county welfare department.) Because TGNB youth are subject to heightened placement instability[PDF Pg. 8], they will have reduced opportunities to develop the friendships and community that are invaluable to surviving adolescence and finding success later in life.

Continuum of Care Reform was to have acted as a major shakeup to foster care in California but instead has set in place a situation whereby youth may be cycled through short term placements or into under-resourced group homes disfavored by policy makers and legislators that will not be able to meet their needs. For TGNB Youth, this reform will make it difficult if not impossible to establish specialized group homes that could best meet their needs for safety and community.

Current Protections for Trans and Non-Binary Youth in La

Existing state laws do provide some protections that recognize the unique vulnerability of TGNB youth.  The Human Rights Campaign, in a page on its website summarizing a report on LGBTQ Youth in the foster care system, notes that there are currently thirteen states, as well as the District of Columbia, that have enacted (via statute or regulation) protections for foster youth based on their sexuality or gender identity. But this section will focus on two states, California and New York, whose anti-discrimination laws are comprehensive in nature and would be fairly seen to capture within their grasp all youth who fall within the definition of being trans and non-binary.

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Starting with New York, New York Codes, Rules, and Regulations Title 18, Chapter II, Subchapter 3, Article 3, Part 441, section 441.24 (paywall) mandates non-discriminatory treatment of foster youth and contains the following language:

Authorized agency staff and volunteers shall not engage in or condone discrimination or harassment against prospective foster parents, foster parents or foster children on the basis of . . . sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression

The law goes on to broadly define gender identity and expression to mean an expression, actual or perceived, that is different from that associated with the sex assigned to an individual at birth.

California’s foster youth protections based on gender identity were first enacted in 2003 by then-Assemblywoman Judy Chu’s Assembly Bill 458, that codified what is now known as the Foster Youth Bill of Rights into Welfare and Institutions Code section 16001.9. The Bill of Rights mandates equal access to all available services, placement, care, treatment, and benefits without harassment or discrimination on the basis of, among other things, gender identity. This bill also includes within it the laws, mentioned above, prohibiting discrimination against persons, seeking to adopt or foster youth, on the basis of gender identity.

Trans and Non-Binary Youth Will Benefit from Specialized Group Homes

One quote from a trans youth finally placed in an LGBTQ group home tells the true value of comradeship and community when TGNB youth can be placed into a specialized group home:

Once I got to [the LGBTQ group home], I started to get better. I was really nervous when I first arrived, but I saw that everyone was just like me. I felt safe to be in a place where I could be myself without getting harassed. I’ve been there for about six or seven months, and I’ve made so many improvements. [PDF Pg. 17]

The damage to trans and non-binary youth when not especially looked after can be great, but once they are given that special care, and gain that sense of community that youth crave and need, the benefit is also great. Current trends in reform of foster care systems are becoming an impediment to that goal and must be redressed.

In my final post, I will discuss exactly how a specialized group home for TGNB youth would operate under ideal settings, focusing on how staff must be trained and the logistical issues that would need to be addressed.