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An analysis of the state foster-care system
by David Thill

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ACLU is advocating for better outcomes for LGBT youth

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has had an official policy on caring for LGBT youth in foster care since 2001, according to DCFS sources. But it seems that many of the people responsible for enforcing that policy are unaware of its existence.

While it does require caregivers to respect LGBT youth, including aspects of gender identity such as preferred name and gender pronoun and clothing choices, the policy is located about 100 pages into the appendix to another DCFS document. Because of its inconspicuous location, many caregivers don't realize that at some point they may serve LGBT youth—and, furthermore, that they have to affirm those LGBT youth, Ghirlandi Guidetti, a graduate of Loyola University's law school and public policy program, and the 2016-2017 Tom Steel fellow, told Windy City Times.

The Tom Steel fellowship, awarded by San Francisco-based Pride Law Fund, funds one project per year "for a new lawyer to work in the United States on an innovative, public interest law project" that serves the LGBT community, according to the fellowship website.

The Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, where Guidetti has worked since 2015, is sponsoring his fellowship project, which focuses on LGBT youth in Illinois' foster-care system. This population interests him because he feels that early intervention in a child's life "has a lifelong impact," he said.

Guidetti's work is facilitated in part by a consent decree reached through B.H. v. Sheldon, a 1988 lawsuit that the ACLU brought against DCFS. This decree establishes DCFS youth in out-of-home placements—i.e., DCFS youth living in arrangements outside their birth families—as clients of the ACLU, thereby granting Guidetti access to the youths' records. The consent decree also permits him to speak with the youth directly, an important component of the project.

Updating DCFS policy

DCFS is in the process of updating its policy, and Guidetti and the ACLU have offered input to the department throughout this process. The final version is yet to be implemented, but when it is, he said, "We really want to make sure that this isn't just something that goes out in an email never to be seen again.

"It needs to be accompanied with training and oversight so that everyone is aware of the policy and following it, and knows of the resources that are available to them if they have questions or doubts or concerns about how to care for LGBTQ youth."

As it stands, training is often voluntary, and in some cases, it is also outdated, said Guidetti. For example, prospective foster parents can complete the department's PRIDE foster parent training—the name of which is unrelated to LGBT "pride"—"and walk out of it … and still have no idea what it is to be LGBT," he said.

Department representatives have told Guidetti's team that they are working to update the training, and he and his colleagues will follow up to make sure changes are made "in a timely manner," he said. Additionally, the ACLU will ensure that the department adopts mandatory training requirements for caregivers, and that those requirements "meet an appropriate standard," said Guidetti.

From policy to practice

Guidetti believes that Illinois DCFS's heavy reliance on private contractors for services makes it challenging to ensure LGBT foster youth receive appropriate care. Facilities such as group homes and treatment centers are typically licensed by Illinois, but managed by private entities.

Additionally, he pointed out that DCFS oversees the entire state's foster services. By contrast, programs elsewhere oversee smaller areas. For example, New York City's Administration for Children's Services covers New York City, and Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services covers Los Angeles County.

Because of these issues, said Guidetti, the ACLU has found that "it's pretty easy to change the policies on paper, but it's hard to … change what happens on the ground."

Guidetti said that lawyers and advocates working in other states' systems have told him that "one of the keys to success is having a champion on the inside—having someone within the department who's passionate about these issues, who wants to help accomplish the same goals.

"There are some very serious problems within DCFS and the way that they're caring for LGBT youth. But I am at least encouraged by the fact that there are … some individuals on the inside who seem to share our desire to fix the problems, and we hope to have them as partners as we advocate for these changes."

Guidetti will continue his fellowship work through August. While the project so far has primarily centered on policy research, the next phase will rely more on interviews with caregivers, DCFS employees, and youth. Connecting with youth can be especially challenging because it can be difficult for them to reach out and share their stories, he said. "It's going to be an ongoing effort to build trust."

To that end, Guidetti said he would "absolutely welcome" anyone involved with DCFS—current and former employees, individuals who have encountered the system, and youth currently or formerly in DCFS care—to reach out to his team to tell their story, in order to assist in the investigation. Readers can learn more and contact Guidetti at the following link:

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