Sense of Stability: Specialized Group Homes and Their Benefits

In this final post, I’m going to begin by stealing a phrase from a former Australian politician and say that this is the post that brings home the bacon; this is the one that pulls the whole game together. In my second post, I talked at length about the particularly bad outcomes in foster care for TGNB youth. In the third post, I described the shortcomings of existing group homes and how legislative reforms may stymie efforts to create a congregate care facility designed specifically to meet the needs of TGNB youth.  In this final post, I will lay out in detail the logistical challenges of—and practical solutions to—the emotional and housing needs of TGNB youth, how specialized group homes are uniquely capable of meeting those needs.

Group Homes Specializing in Care for TGNB Youth

As I wrote about in my third post, adolescents benefit from being around and having the opportunity to commiserate with other people their age. In fact, it could be argued that often those are the only people they can truly talk to. For TGNB youth, their peers are not always readily available. For TGNB youth in foster care, placement in a group home that specializes in caring for TGNB youth may be the first time they have a chance to be with people just like them, experiencing the same things, and challenges, as they.

Specialized LGBTQ group homes have had success in helping LGBTQ foster youth thrive. GLASS, Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, opened the country’s first LGBTQ youth home in 1984 in Los Angeles. [PDF Pg. 12] A few years after that, Green Chimney’s Children Services opened the first LGBTQ group home in New York. [PDF Pg. 43].  Opening in 2002,  Massachusetts’ Waltham House is a group home with placements for up to twelve LGBTQ youth. Their website shares the story of a transwoman named Charlotte. Rejected by her family after coming out as trans and entering into the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, since entering the house she has been able to make up the several grade levels she fell behind after being kicked out by her parents. She has developed friendships at Waltham House, her public high school, and in the community generally. She is a clear cut demonstration of the success TGNB youth in foster care can find when they are placed into a specialized congregate care program.

Programs like Waltham House provide TGNB youth with the support they need with a more structured environment supported by 24-hour staffing. Not to mention the emotional support from peers just like them, when they are removed from their homes either due to being kicked out of their home like Charlotte or from some other cause. And it doesn’t have to be a singular solution; it can be a component in a continuum of care that can enable the child to return home, to be placed in a foster home, to be adopted, or to transition to living independently as they age out of the foster care system. But as I mentioned in my third post, the trend of reform in foster care is away from group homes, with short term, specialized treatment, and independent living set-ups in group care being the few remaining “acceptable” forms of group homes.

Best Practices for Placing TGNB Youth

My own research into the subject matter of TGNB youth has shown me that the varied issues faced by this population require constant study and education. In a specialized group home for TGNB youth, this would dictate that staff in the home should not only have specialized initial training but should have continued training and education. The Child Welfare League of America, in its Best Practices Guidelines: Serving LGBT Youth in Out-of-Home Care, sets out steps that can be taken to prevent failed placements to which LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable. [PDF Pg. 58] It should be noted at this point that the literature on the subject tends to focus on issues of sexuality and less on gender.

The CWLA notes the benefits of group home settings designed to service LGBTQ youth, such as nonjudgmental counseling to affirm their individual intrinsic sense of self-worth, proper treatment for gender dysphoria, and both treatment and information designed to steer these youth away from high-risk behavior. Nevertheless, the CWLA cautions that putting LGBTQ youth in LGBTQ homes should not be the default. Some youth, when consulted about their plan for care,  may wish to be placed with a family or not to have their sexuality or gender identity taken into consideration when placed in group care. [PDF Pg. 59]  The guidelines also stress the importance of providing support to caregivers, such as:

  • Equipping caregivers with relevant definitions and vocabulary
  • Exploring myths and stereotypes regarding LGTBQ youth and adults
  • Reviewing coming out processes and how to support them
  • Creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ youth.

The CWLA imagines all these topics [PDF Pg. 60-61] as the subject matter of mandatory and ongoing training for caregivers.  The approach needs to be holistic, however, and oriented to the individual in care.

Logistical Issues of Congregate Care to be Addressed

Ariel Love, in her New York University Law Review article “A Room of One’s Own: Safe Placement for Transgender Youth in Foster Care” notes that congregate care facilities can range in size from four to 250 beds. [PDF Pg. 8] She also notes that bathroom facilities tend to consist of a shared shower or tub facilities due to the ratio of youth to lavatories as dictated by state law. [PDF Pg. 7]  Yet even when placed with their peers, there may be a heightened need for privacy; this would require three stipulations when setting up such a home. First, the home should be limited in size such that group showers are not a necessity. Second, bathroom facilities should be set up in such a way that youth be able to shower and change in complete privacy. Whether that be a shower with an adjoining changing area secured within a share group bathroom or more individualized en suite bathrooms attached to each room, maximum privacy will allow for TGNB youth to have maximum security when in a vulnerable state. Third, and finally, where feasible TGNB youth should be placed in bedroom settings that provide maximum privacy and security. Meaning either that they are placed in single rooms, or that rooms contain such facilities as would permit them to change privately, that they are able to change clothes freely without being exposed to others.

Pulling the Threads Together

In my posts, I’ve focused on the unique challenges face TGNB youth in foster care, from their terrible outcomes to the threats they can face in care, and how to best combat those challenges in the form of specialized group homes. Such facilities, kitted out with staff trained and with continuing education in the needs of TGNB youth, can operate as a means to guarantee privacy and safety to these vulnerable kids. It can take the anti-discrimination policies that exist in many states at law to protect foster youth against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and give them real teeth, in a way that can secure better outcomes for these children.

In my introductory post, I referenced a quotation of Bobby Kennedy speaking after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. imploring the crowd to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” But I didn’t quite explain what relation that bore to this work. Kennedy was imploring us all to live the way Dr. King wanted us to, to let the light drive out the darkness: to shed light on those who need to see the light most. In this case, those who need it most are young people who live in a world that truly doesn’t understand them, that rejects them, that forces them to use bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t accord with their gender; that tells them it’s all right to ban them from serving in the military, that is unmoved by their suffering, and that compounds it when they are placed in foster care. Protecting them with new laws, making sure their caregivers are consistently and effectively trained, and allowing for them to, when appropriate, live in group homes for other adolescents just like them, is the very least that can be done to improve their lot in life.