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Texas Religious Exemption Bill to Target LGBTQ Youth and Families

  ·   By Rosalynd Erney

The Texas “Freedom to Serve Children Act”, passed by the Texas Senate on May 22 and sent to Governor Abbot for approval, allows publicly-funded foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents due to religious objections. This legislation, along with a similar bill passed in South Dakota in March, rather than protecting children in foster care puts first the needs and wants of a specific group of adults and undermines the safety and well-being of all children involved in the child welfare system. This legislation specifically targets lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and gender expansive communities as well as prospective foster and adoptive parents who are single parents, non-Christian couples such as Jews, Muslims and interfaith couples.

When children and youth enter the child welfare system, the state child welfare agency has a responsibility to ensure that they are safe, placed in the least-restrictive, most family-like settings possible and supported in their development and well-being. When children and youth cannot reunify with their parent(s), all efforts are to be made to find and support a positive permanent relationship with another parent or caregiver. Already, child welfare systems across the country struggle to identify and maintain enough loving and supportive foster and adoptive homes and each year more than 20,000 young people “age-out” of foster care without ever being placed in a family or permanent home. Allowing publicly-funded agencies to prevent safe, loving and caring individuals and families from becoming foster and adoptive parents directly contradicts the mandates of the child welfare system and will have very real and harmful effects on all children in the child welfare system.

Further, we know that LGBTQ and gender expansive youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system and are disproportionally youth of color.  Many of these youth have entered foster care because they were rejected by their families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This legislation sends a clear and powerful message that the public agencies charged with protecting youth who have been rejected by their families will further repeat that trauma and validate such rejection by not supporting or affirming their identities. This rejection and additional traumatization directly contradicts all that we know is considered good parenting, including the results of scientific studies showing that children raised by same sex couples experience healthy outcomes. It also discounts the fact that foster and adoptive parents of all religions have demonstrated the ability and commitment to provide loving and affirming homes to all children regardless of their religious affiliation.

Research shows that young people who identify as LGBTQ or who are gender expansive are more likely than their heterosexual, cisgender peers to experience multiple foster placements, be moved from their first placement at the request of the caregiver or foster family and be placed in congregate care settings. As many as one out of every four LGBTQ youth in a congregate care setting will exit care without achieving permanency. Young people who age out of care without achieving positive permanency are more likely to experience housing instability and homelessness, face poor educational outcomes and become involved with the criminal justice system. The cost to our families, communities and our country continue to mount with this kind of discriminatory legislation.

These outcomes are far from inevitable and many states and communities are moving forward to explicitly affirm and support LGBTQ and gender expansive families, youth and communities. To thrive, we know that all young people involved in child welfare need:

  1. safe and affirming placements in the most family-like settings possible
  2. safe schools and communities
  3.  appropriate medical and behavioral health care
  4. connections to family and supportive social networks;
  5.  external connections and support transitioning from care; and
  6.  connections to aftercare services.

Across the country, many communities, schools and allies, including those with deeply held religious beliefs are putting in place policies and practices that affirm and support LGBTQ and gender expansive children, youth and families. In addition to the 19 states and many local jurisdictions that have non-discrimination policies that include and protect LGBTQ and gender expansive youth, we have seen many recent positive pieces of state legislation:

  • Connecticut House Bill 6695, signed into law in May, 2017, bans conversion therapy
  • Illinois enacted enhanced Department of Children and Family Services procedures in May, 2017 that increase mandatory training for anyone working with LGBTQ youth and clarifies protections for transgender and gender expansive children in care
  • Nevada AB99, which was signed into law in April 2017, mandates training for working with LGBTQ youth, respecting a young person’s gender identity and placing LGBTQ and gender expansive young people in accepting homes

Policy makers, child welfare system leaders and practitioners must remain committed to their mission and mandate to achieve permanence, safety and well-being for all system-involved children and continue to advocate against discriminatory legislative proposals. Promoting safety and affirmation is critical to ensuring healthy identity development and positive outcomes for LGBTQ and gender expansive young people. We must ensure that all young people involved in child welfare are recognized, engaged, affirmed and loved to achieve well-being. This is best achieved through their in permanent loving, affirming families that we know exist across all faiths, sexual orientations, gender identities and family configurations.

This legislation and other similar efforts, such as the rescindment of federal guidance supporting transgender youth’s safety and well-being in school settings, undermine the safety and well-being of LGBTQ and gender expansive communities. CSSP promotes promising policies and practices that support the well-being of all children, youth and families. This legislation and similar proposals affirmatively hurts children, youth and families and runs counter to evidence and best practice in the field.  We call upon advocates and policymakers across the country to proactively work to protect all children and youth in foster care and reject such legislation and any other similar efforts.

For more information about policies that support LGBTQ and gender expansive youth in child welfare, please see our recent report, “Out of the Shadows: Supporting LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare through Cross-System Collaboration.”

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Rosalynd Erney is a policy analyst at CSSP.

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