CYC-Online 58 NOVEMBER 2003
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The child welfare system and gay, lesbian and bisexual youth in care

Tabrina Legault

“We've always had gay adolescents though they were often invisible. They said nothing about it and neither did we. Then the kids started openly stating they were gay, and suddenly we didn’t know how to respond.” (Schneider, 1988, p.13)

The Child Welfare System does not do enough to deal with the unique issues surrounding the sexual orientation of Youth in Care. The goal of the Child Welfare system is to provide a supportive, nurturing, and protective environment for children in residential homes and treatment centers. Sometimes though, goals are hard to reach when they are plagued by stigmas and challenges. One such challenge is providing a safe, nurturing environment for lesbian, gay and bi-sexual youth. Stigmatization of the lesbian and gay adolescent and their lack of access to appropriate Residential Treatment settings has evolved from decades of fear, misinformation, and the mistaken belief that this population of youngsters should be able to “fit into” the existing youth services systems (Mallon, 1992, p.47). Another issue is the lack of knowledge that workers have to deal with the youth and provide proper counseling services. Finally, the policies in place now need to be changed to get the ball rolling for society to look at the issues facing Gay, Lesbian and bi-sexual youth in care.

Environmental factors
One of the biggest fears of gay or lesbian teens is the threat of harassment; lesbians and gays who are fifteen, fourteen, or even younger become defenseless targets of harassment or violence (Chandler 1995, p.193). Youth placed in an environment or home that is unwilling to provide the safety and securities from this abuse will often find life in such an environment to be intolerable. Youth choose to run away or fight back; both choices endure consequences far greater than name-calling. The moving poem about prostitution describes how homosexual youth are “waiting for anybody” to save them and accept them for who they are (see I'm out there at the end of this article). Gay youth placed in psychiatric facilities for treatment or assessment have been forced to remain long past the usual time for transfer to other placements because no programs could be found which was willing to accept males labeled as effeminate; and while finding placement for males is difficult, it is reported that it is almost impossible to find placement for lesbians. While gay and lesbian couples are looking to foster these youth many are turned away by agencies and not even considered for screening. Youth often find more “security” in the street life than in some of the residential settings. Teenagers of lesbian and gay sexual orientation struggle with the same problems and factors that confront other teens; yet they also face unique problems all their own. The stress of social stigmatization, results in gay and lesbian youth being more vulnerable than other youth to psychological problems such as chronic depression, substance abuse, school failure, relationship conflict, being forced from their homes and surviving on their own (Gibson, 1986). “In a society which unquestionably expects them to be heterosexual, gay and lesbian adolescents are unprepared for their emerging homosexual identity, and there is no readily available framework in which young homosexuals can come to understand and accept their sexual orientation” (Mallon 1992,p 53). For these youth to have the same opportunities for help and the safe environment free of harassment and stereotypes, it is important that professionals assess their own biases and inherit homophobic attitudes already.

Education in the profession
Major obstacles have presented themselves in the provision of effective services for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual youth in residential treatment facilities. The Child Welfare League of America’s publication, Serving the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Youths: The Role of Child Welfare Agencies, Recommendations of a Colloquium-January 25-26, 1991 identified some obstacles as:

In the past ten years since this publication some improvements have been made to our system, however the continued and urgent need to educate, train, and to provide supportive and appropriate services to gay and lesbian youth in the child welfare system is even more relevant due to the younger ages and higher numbers of youth “coming out”. “More than 10% of our general population is homosexual” (Mallon 1992, p50) ... “Advocates say that gay and lesbian youth are stepping out of the closet in greater numbers and at a younger age” (Chandler, 1995, p 193). Child welfare and supporting agencies need to see this as an issue of service delivery and not as a sexual issue.

Policy issues
“Child welfare agencies in Canada are NOT mandated to protect a child from the abuses of poverty or other social problems-these are not considered to be protection issues” (Hick, 2002, p 102). We have seen so far that this is not the case with gay and lesbian youth; the need for protection from socioeconomic and environmental factors is in high demand. Though Residential centers in the child welfare system has been providing some services to gay and lesbian youth the policy issues alone have yet to be addressed. In the past agencies have “allowed” professional staff to address such issues as masturbation, homosexual acting out and some other forms of legitimate transient adolescent experimentation which undoubtedly takes place in child care agencies, but they have never allowed policy discussions regarding the open services to self-identified gay and lesbian youth in care. When attempted youth workers often find themselves encountering “institutional homophobic barriers” (Mallon, 1992, p 55). The needs of this group are set aside due to many welfare administrators failure to provide appropriate care for them because of their own fears and homophobia as well as religious or political pressures. In many cities homosexual adolescents are hard to place due to the placement services purchased and funded by religious adversaries and affiliated agencies whose morals make programming policies very rigid. “Adolescents with a history of multiple placements often leave unsatisfactory settings when they finally conclude that the streets meet their needs better than the service system” (Athey, 1991). There is no doubt that the policies in our current Child Welfare System do not do enough to service the sexual orientation of youth in care. In order to best meet the needs of children and families in these situations, perhaps multi agency networks are needed to blend the unique services provided by different collaborative agencies (Stroul, 1996, p 265).

The Child Welfare System of today has not done enough to reach its goal to provide nurturing and healthy environments to all children and youth. Deemed social outcasts and stereotyped as being “different” these youth struggle day to day to find acceptance in a society that cannot even protect them from harassment within the system. Sexual orientation is not simply a choice but a lifestyle one is born with and just as difficult to deal with as a physical deformity or traumatizing family dynamics, yet there are services for the later two. Environmental factors such as school, family, and society’s acceptance or lack there of are issues impacting the development of these youth and to be rejected in a system bound by it’s own policy to protect is despicable. “They’re searching for something. Some of them, because they’re out of their homes, are merely searching for economic security” (Chandler P 193). It is time for our sytem to guide these lost youth and educate ourselves on the issues they face and abolish the fear and prejudice clouding our vision.

I’m out there
Waiting for anybody
Anyone there
Looking for someone
There I stand
The seductress
For any man
To undress
If it’s right
The offer is made
I’m in his sight
Of the many
In the parade
I am picked”

- By an anonymous gay prostitute.


Athey, J.L. (1991). HIV infection and homelessness. Child Welfare, 70(5), 517-528.

Chandler, K. (1995). Passages of pride: True stories of lesbian and gay teenagers, Los Angeles, CA: Random House Inc.

Hick, S. (2002). Social Work in Canada- an introduction. Toronto, Ont: Thompson Educational Learning.

Mallon, G.P. (1992). Serving the needs of gay and lesbian youth in residential treatment centers, Residential Treatment for Children &Youth, 10(2).

Stroul, B.A. (1996). Children's mental health: creating systems of care in a changing society. Baltimore MA: Brookes Publishing Co.

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