Southwick: Foster care systems fail Oregon's LGBTQ youth
True Colors Day is a national day devoted to increasing awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth who experience homelessness. Some of the roots of this homelessness crisis are intertwined with the failures of foster care systems across the country, including here in Oregon, to meet the needs of LGBTQ children in their care and support youth who are aging out of foster care. Forty percent of homeless foster children identify as LGBTQ, and of those, approximately 30% report aging out of the child welfare system into homelessness.
In Oregon, as in many other states, LGBTQ children are over-represented in our foster care system. Studies show that one in five children 12 and older in foster care identify as LGBTQ. Studies also show that LGBTQ youth experience a higher number of foster placements.
Bernard (not his real name) is one of them. He first entered foster care at age 3, and re-entered at age 10. Bernard is transgender, and despite identifying as male, Oregon Department of Human Services placed him in an all-girls program. He has also lived in a wing of the Douglas County juvenile jail. During his time in care, Bernard has moved between at least 12 to 15 foster homes and seven facilities.
Two years ago this month, we filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon on behalf of children like Bernard, to address the state's far-reaching failure to protect children in its care and meet their basic health needs. As alleged in the suit, LGBTQ children, particularly transgender children in transition and children who are in the process of coming out about their sexuality or gender identity, are often deprived of a safe and stable placement and face the dangerous choice of either staying in the closet or risking the termination of their placements.
LGBTQ youth are also at high risk of "aging out" of the system — meaning they leave without being adopted, reunified with their birth parents, or placed in a permanent family-like setting. Children who "age out" often wind up in homeless shelters or on the streets. And tragically, in Oregon, an estimated 71% of children aged 16 or older "age out" — far higher than the national rate (51%).
Transforming Oregon's foster care system will improve the lives of the roughly 8,000 children living months or years of their childhoods within its care. When far fewer children are shuttled from placement to placement and fewer youth leave the system without secure stable housing, we will undo the link between foster care and homelessness, a path that should never have existed.
Portland's Paul Carlos Southwick is director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which empowers queer, trans and non-binary students at more than 200 taxpayer-funded religious colleges and universities.
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