From Adoptalk 2021, Issue 2; Adoptalk is a benefit of Families Rising membership. 

Recently, there has been an increased focus on best practices for working with LGBTQ+ youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, aromantic, and agender individuals, as well as others who fall under the broader spectrum, often referred to as LQBTQIA+) in foster care. Despite this positive trend, there has not been a strong enough movement to learn about and improve services to LGBTQ+ foster/adoptive parents and relative caregivers. In fact, some places have moved in the opposite direction, allowing more discrimination.

LGBTQ+ parents are an often untapped resource in child welfare. While the system often presents challenges to prospective LGBTQ+ resource parents, these parents have important strengths that give them the capacity to be highly skilled at caring for children who are involved with child welfare. While this article outlines general challenges, strengths, and guidance when working with LGBTQ+ resource parents, the most important thing professionals can do is to learn each family’s individual story, and treat the family fairly.

Challenges and Barriers Facing LGBTQ+ Families

LGBTQ+ resource parents face unique challenges within the context of the child welfare system. Often LGBTQ+ individuals or couples in the process of becoming approved for foster care or adoption feel increased fear and anxiety due to past or current discrimination and the knowledge that not all professionals or agencies are welcoming.

In addition, the process of “coming out” for an LGBTQ+ person is not a one-time event despite how it is often characterized as such. An LGBTQ+ individual or family will have to come out numerous times during their involvement with a child welfare agency. This continuous coming out can be anxiety-provoking, particularly if the family is working with an organization that does not clearly identify itself as being LGBTQ+ friendly.

With each worker change, new placement, new court process, or new service provider, an LGBTQ+ family may experience anxiety about discrimination or rejection. Even LGBTQ+ resource parents who have an agency that is actively, openly affirming may experience negativity during interactions with outside entities. It is not uncommon for LGBTQ+ parents to fear that someone will use their identity against them as a reason to prevent a placement or remove children from their care.

Depending on their family circumstances and where they live, LGBTQ+ parents may also have more limited access to supports. This can include mental health challenges and support and access to affirming mental health professionals and services. They may have experienced family rejection or lack of access to a religious community due to their identity. Some LGBTQ+ resource parents are not able to attend local support groups due to discriminatory behaviors of other participants. Families that lack a strong support system can also experience a more stressful parenting environment as they may not have as many respite opportunities.

Unique Strengths

While they face additional challenges, LGBTQ+ resource parents can also bring many strengths to caring for children who have experienced trauma. In fact, it is often their past challenges that create an increased capacity to care for children in the child welfare system. Many LGBTQ+ resource parents can empathize with a child’s experience of lost connections or fear of lost connections due to their own personal experiences. This can allow a deep connection between the resource parent and child, which builds resilience within their parent-child relationship. LGBTQ+ resource parents may also have a deep understanding of being disconnected from birth family and what it means to create a chosen family or have a family that looks different than others.

Often children in the foster care system or those who have been adopted do not want peers or others to know their identity as a foster or adopted child. LGBTQ+ resource parents are able to understand that child’s fear of being “found out” by others. They can give the child guidance and support on how to be proud of who they are, which will help the child develop a healthy self-identity.

In addition, LGBTQ+ resource parents often enter into parenting with a significant amount of grit and ability to cope with difficult situations. Due to their own personal experiences as an LGBTQ+ person, they are likely to have experienced discrimination and rejection at some point in their lives. They have often had to advocate for themselves and their communities. These resource parents may understand that the root causes of a child’s difficult behaviors are due to their own painful experiences, rather than the child’s choosing to misbehave. Because of their own experiences, LGBTQ+ resource parents are frequently more willing to take children who are considered difficult to place or who are currently in residential placements.

Unconditional love and acceptance are things that LGBTQ+ individuals rarely take for granted and understand the importance of showing them to children they are parenting. LGBTQ+ resource parents understand this need deeply and thus, are often those who can best offer this to children who have experienced trauma and may be acting out behaviorally.

Best Practices in Supporting LGBTQ+ Resource Parents

For those who have not yet worked with LGBTQ+ resource parents or who seek to improve their services to this population, there is much work to be done. There are four key categories in which child welfare professionals can begin this important work:

  1. Knowing yourself
  2. Knowing your agency
  3. Creating a safe environment
  4. Communicating and relationship-building.

Knowing Yourself

Understanding one’s own bias related to LGBTQ+ individuals is where child welfare professionals must begin the work before they can provide the best service provision to this population. While professionals may not express negative feelings or bias against LGBTQ+ people or even know they have biases, it is important to go beyond surface level reflection. When a professional is not intentional about how LGBTQ+ resource parents are served or if they lack comfort or familiarity with this population, it can be harmful to the resource family. To get a more in-depth view of one’s potential bias or gaps in knowledge, consider the following questions:

  • Can I name three historical figures and/or events that were LGBTQ+ specific?
  • When working with LGBTQ+ individuals, have I openly acknowledged the unique challenges that LGBTQ+ resource parents may face?
  • Do I feel as comfortable working with LGBTQ+ people as I do with others?
  • Have I provided additional support or resources to LGBTQ+ resource parents that I work with?
  • In what ways have I benefited from adhering to particular gender expectations/roles?
  • How would I feel if someone misidentified or made assumptions about my gender or sexual orientation?
  • Do I use he/she, men/women in my writing and verbal communications as a catch-all way to describe “everyone?” Do I talk about parents as “mom and dad”? Why? What might the impact of that be?

Having a strong awareness of one’s bias, intentional or unintentional, and gaps in knowledge is imperative. This allows one to identify needed areas for growth, which in turn will improve services to LGBTQ+ resource parents.

Knowing Your Agency

Beyond having good self-knowledge, professionals must also know the level of support and safety provided by their agency. If areas are found to be lacking, these should be addressed thoroughly and promptly. Child welfare agencies can have a significant impact, either positive or negative, on LGBTQ+ resource parents. To begin assessing one’s own agency, there are three places to start: (1) protecting the LGBTQ+ resource parents, (2) reviewing agency policies and procedures, and (3) creating physically safe environments.

It is important to begin with protecting the LGBTQ+ resource parents, and this is something that every child welfare staff and agency can begin work on today. First, you must be aware of potential discrimination against LGBTQ+ resource parents and make sure you and your staff are able to respond to it. Agencies can protect LGBTQ+ resource parents during interactions at agency-sponsored trainings as well as during interactions with other entities such as court, team meetings, medical appointments, school meetings, etc.  If and when they see LGBTQ+ resource parents experience discriminatory language and behaviors in any of these settings, the agency should address this immediately to ensure the emotional and physical safety of the resource parents. Agencies can also begin all agency-sponsored trainings with inclusive statements that set a safe space for LGBTQ+ resource parents. Agencies who commit to consistently addressing this discrimination offer a high level of support to their LGBTQ+ resource parents. This demonstrates that the agency is a true ally to the family and allows them a sense of security in knowing their agency will consistently walk alongside them through the difficult journey of foster care or adoption.

Second, agencies can and should review their policies, procedures, and paperwork through an LGBTQ+ equity lens. There are agency self-assessment tools available online that can be used and tailored to the individual agency, including:

Agencies can also ask for input from LGBTQ+ resource parents, including those who might no longer be working with the agency. This can be an opportunity to empower these families and ensures that the agency incorporates the resource parents’ voice into its work. If you do request input from LGBTQ+ parents, be genuine and responsive. You’ll want to be sure you can use their feedback to implement change and share those changes with those who participated. If you aren’t able to implement changes, be clear about the value of the responses and your limitations.

Changing organizational policies can take significant time and energy, which means that agencies may not be able to implement changes quickly. But reviewing internal paperwork is an easy starting point. Agencies should include non-discrimination statements whenever possible on paperwork (resource parent handbooks, rights and responsibilities sheets, etc.). Agencies should also use gender-neutral options on paperwork for applicants. For example, using “Parent 1, Parent 2” as opposed to “Mother, Father.” With internal paperwork, agencies can also allow resource parents an opportunity to identify chosen names and preferred pronouns. Whenever gender is requested, agencies should include the options “transgender, non-binary, other.”

Creating a Safe, Inclusive and Affirming Physical Environment

Agencies who serve LGBTQ+ parents should visibly demonstrate their support as allies. Many LGBTQ+ individuals scan physical environments to assess their safety. They are looking for an LGBTQ+ “welcome mat” and if they do not see this, they may assume they are unwelcome. An LGBTQ+ welcome mat can include a variety of different visual cues, including having LGBTQ+ families in agency brochures and websites or including LGBTQ+ families in curriculum for trainings. Visual cues of support at the office can include LGBTQ+ friendly books in common areas, gender-neutral toys available for use, photographs of diverse family structures, rainbow/trans/bisexual flags, Safe Space stickers, etc. These are all forms of a welcome mat that agencies can provide that support and affirm LGBTQ+ resource parents. Additionally, all forms, documents and messaging should use inclusive language including options beyond the gender binary.

Communicating and Relationship-Building

The best, and most powerful way, an agency and staff can understand and support LGBTQ+ parents is to build a healthy relationship based on respect and understanding. Staff should be transparent with LGBTQ+ families about any difficulties that may arise for them in the process. At the same time, staff should also discuss and demonstrate how they will help LGBTQ+ families through those difficulties. Talking openly and honestly from initial contact can set a solid foundation. Relationship-building can and should begin within the initial assessment process and then be maintained throughout the working relationship.

It is important for child welfare staff to be inclusive-minded from the initial orientation or contact. Thoroughly explaining the process of the home study and acknowledging the intrusive nature is a helpful first step. If a worker fails to do this, an LGBTQ+ parent may be left wondering if the intrusive questions are only being asked because they are LGBTQ+. As noted above, if an LGBTQ+ person does not specifically see or hear that they are welcome, they may likely assume they are not. Helping to educate about and normalize the home study process is extremely beneficial to building strong communication.

Acknowledging that LGBTQ+ individuals may have increased anxiety about the home study process and future placements is another way child welfare staff can build rapport. Workers shouldn’t assume someone is hiding anything or has ill intentions if they present with hesitations in the assessment process. Instead, a worker should ask the family if they are worried about the home study process, talk about any identified fears, and begin strong communication from the onset. It is not uncommon for LGBTQ+ persons to think they will be rejected or denied in a home study process due to their identity, which naturally increases fear and anxiety. If a worker is able to speak openly about this and explain what they and the agency have done for other families, it can decrease the family’s anxiety significantly.

Another way for child welfare staff to build relationships with LGBTQ+ parents is to ask questions about the family’s preferences. For example, asking for preferred names and pronouns is important, and then using those preferred names and pronouns throughout the process is imperative. Another example is to ask open-ended questions about caregiver tasks as opposed to making assumptions about gender and gender roles in the family. These simple behaviors show respect to the LGBTQ resource family and also demonstrates a level of competency by the worker, which can increase trust.

Child welfare workers also should not be afraid to have difficult conversations with LGBTQ+ resource parents. Having tough conversations in a respectful and educated manner can be a significant step to having a strong working relationship with an LGBTQ+ resource family. There may be multiple such conversations throughout the home study process, so notifying a family of this from the beginning and setting a tone of empathy and understanding is key. For example, it is important to have a conversation about how they manage homophobia or transphobia as this will affect children in their care. However, the purpose for this conversation should be clear and within the context of the child(ren) that will be placed in the home. Based on the family’s answers, a worker can talk through various scenarios and offer supports and tools to the family.

Another conversation that may be uncomfortable can arise when assessing an LGBTQ+ individual or family who has not parented in the past. Making sure that the prospective parents know this is a conversation that you have with all new parents can help ensure they don’t feel singled out. Some individuals who have not parented may not fully realize the significant need for a support system. A worker should have discussions with the LGBTQ+ family about their knowledge about local schools, pediatricians, community organizations, faith communities, etc. and how those communities engage with the LGBTQ community. This will be an important step for the family to navigate, and a worker can help significantly either to identify LGBTQ+ friendly resources or provide support in spaces that may not be LGBTQ+ friendly.

Final Words

The information and recommendations here are general, and LGBTQ+ families are as diverse as every other population. Staff can best serve LGBTQ+ resource parents by being active learners who approach all families with humility and a desire to understand and support that particular family. There is no need for a worker to understand everything about the LGBTQ+ community, but they do need to proactively engage and support these families, acknowledging and responding to the discrimination they continue to face. The lives of children depend on it.