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get R.E.A.L

Goal: To improve the healthy sexual and identity development for all children and youth in the child welfare system.

All youth in child welfare settings face challenges to their well-being. Research shows that LGBTQ youth have poorer outcomes and face greater risks because of the impact of bias and rejection. These young people are often in the child welfare system because of severe trauma and rejection by family, peers and community institutions solely because of how they identify or how others perceive them. It is often this stigma - and related physical and emotional abuse - that lead to youth running away and experiencing homelessness. 

Compounding all of this is the lack of reliable information about the prevalence of LGBTQ youth in child welfare systems. Youth today are fluid in how they describe and express their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. They may explore various options as part of their development. The child welfare system needs a way to guide those who work with these youth to make sensitive inquiries about - and respond appropriately to - the youth’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. While there are isolated local examples of good practice, much more is needed. 

CSSP’s get R.E.A.L (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love) initiative is designed to address these issues. To help transform child welfare policy and practice to promote the healthy development of all children and youth. Sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (along with race, ethnicity and disability) are part of the identity formation that occurs in adolescence..

The get R.E.A.L name was crafted as a challenge to public systems working with children. But it also provides lessons, implications and a process for parents, caregivers and all system-involved youth.

The acronym is directed at all these stakeholders – and many others – as a means of meeting the initiative’s primary goal.

Recognize: The first step is for child welfare agencies to recognize the need for policy guidelines to understand the critical importance of sexual orientation and gender identity in the healthy development of the young people they are charged with protecting. Staff, parents and other caregivers must also recognize that understanding and integrating one’s sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is a crucial aspect of healthy child and adolescent development, and that its “visibility” is critical.

Engage:  Child welfare personnel, caregivers and all others working with - and caring for - youth must be prepared to engage in conversation about the topic. Youth must also be engaged in regularly talking about their sexual orientation and identity in normalized environments and conversation, much like talking about how they are doing in school, getting along with peers etc.

Affirm: It is critical that youth regularly feel encouraged, validated and supported as they continue on their developmental journey. 

Love:  In the end, the goal is for youth well-being, which includes being healthy, happy and loved. This will help lead to an opportunity for all youth to develop the self-love that leads to the fulfilling lives they deserve. This lack of self-love has been a critical factor in these youth being at risk of exploitation and negative health outcomes.

CSSP’s project focuses on needed improvements that are critical to ensure that attention to healthy sexual development and gender expression is part of the framework child welfare agencies use to promote the healthy development of all children and youth. 

The ultimate goal of this work is to create lasting policy and practice change within the nation’s child welfare system to benefit LGBTQ youth. This will require a “culture change” within the child welfare system and among their partners. As this process unfolds, evidence of progress will come in the form of inclusive language, attitudes, policies and practices and will benefit the entire child welfare community, including child welfare professionals, parents, caregivers and children.

get R.E.A.L

Stay Informed


When engaging in efforts to improve the outcomes of youth in the child welfare system, we intentionally look at sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or SOGIE.

This allows us to talk about something that applies to all youth. We can ask anyone about their SOGIE, not just the youth we think are having a problem or struggling in some way. This eliminates the need to categorize and the perception that we are working to help only a subset of youth. We can also take note of the needs of young children as they naturally find ways to express themselves. The messages we give to our children can be critical both to their development and how they interact with each other.

Because youth who enter the child welfare system may have experienced sexual trauma of some sort, it’s critical that they are able to talk about it. If not, it can create tremendous developmental challenges. Using a SOGIE approach can help social workers, caregivers and others prepare for and carry out these important conversations.

The framework also provides consistent messaging: sexuality and gender exist along a continuum, and that there is no right or wrong place to fall along that continuum. This approach to children and youth is a more holistic one. We are not just asking them to identify with one particular category, but allowing them to talk more fully about how they view themselves. In the long term, this will hopefully reduce the occurence of self-hate and bigotry. 


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