For years, GLBT youth in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services system have felt discriminated against, harassed, and trapped by homophobia and transphobia.
Windy City Times and BLACKlines have attempted to interview youth in the 'system,' but their 'parents,' the leaders of DCFS, consistently refused to comment on what was being done to make sure GLBT youth were able to survive and thrive within a sometimes oppressive government matrix.
One small step forward was made when DCFS announced a new policy, 2003.02, on the assessment and treatment of LGBTQ Youth.
Now that DCFS has a policy for LGBTQ youth, the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations Advisory Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues is hosted a forum on the topic April 29 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The city's Special Committee on Homelessness and the Chicago Department of Public Health co-hosted the meeting.
Studies estimate that 20 to 40% of homeless youth self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In addition, the Child Welfare League of America reports that LGBT youth are at higher risk than their heterosexual counterparts for emotional or physical abuse from family members, failed out-of-home placements, and/or institutional neglect or abuse.
The growing sensitivity to the challenges facing LGBT youth is evidenced by Policy Guide 2003.02 of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. So what does the DCFS policy, issued Feb. 3 under outgoing director Jess McDonald, state?
The 'Rules and Procedures Bookholders, Child Protection and Child Welfare Staff, Purchase of Service Agency Staff' policy went into effect immediately. It replaces a December policy on the same topic—the first time DCFS issued such a policy, after years of pressure.
'To be effective, all child welfare workers must receive ongoing training and education to fully understand the needs and issues confronting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning youth, as they come to terms with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity,' the new policy states. 'This revised Policy Guide makes minor revisions to the text but adds many more resources ... .'
More excerpts from the groundbreaking DCFS policy: 'For many children and youth, the issue of understanding one's sexuality and gender identity is often a time of great turmoil and stress. For LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, this issue is even more difficult to navigate, as they are faced with both internal (from within one's self) and external (from one's environment) prejudice and discrimination.
'Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth face many challenges growing up in a predominantly heterosexual society. According to the Child Welfare League of America, LGBTQ youth are at higher risk than their heterosexual counterparts for emotional or physical abuse from family members, failed out-of-home placements, and/or institutional neglect or abuse. Psychologically, LGBTQ youth are at substantially greater risk than their heterosexual counterparts for suicide attempts, runaway behavior, homelessness, substance abuse, emotional and physical victimization, high-risk sexual behaviors and pregnancy. In the school setting, LGBTQ youth are more likely to withdraw from or miss school due to fear, intimidation or threats from other students, and/or damage to their personal property. Further, heterosexual youth may fear discrimination, social alienation, and verbal/physical abuse, should they openly offer support to a youth identified as LGBTQ. Consequently, many LGBTQ youth are unlikely to reveal their sexual orientation, particularly to people in perceived positions of authority (e.g., social service staff, family members, caregivers, teachers, church members, etc.).'
Child welfare workers 'do's' and 'don'ts' when working with LGBTQ youth. Do:
1. Child welfare staff must seek consultation immediately with the consultants identified below ... on all cases involving children and youth having known or suspected sexual orientation or gender identity issues.
2. Child welfare staff should always respect and maintain a youth's privacy regarding his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Never disclose this information without the youth's permission. To ensure safety and privacy, any observation, suppositions or conclusions regarding a youth's perceived or stated sexual orientation should be referred to only in case notes.
3. Child welfare staff must consider their own attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and lack of knowledge surrounding issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
4. When there is a risk of impending emotional or physical harm to the youth in his or her placement due to his or her sexual orientation or gender identity issues, child welfare staff will consider the removal of the ward from that placement when the risk cannot be mitigated.
5. Document only service recommendations in the ward's service plan, as they relate to daily living, emotional or behavioral concerns. Child welfare staff will implement recommendations made from expert consultation within five working days of the consultation.
Don't: 1. Do not make written reference to a youth's sexual orientation or gender identity.
2. Never address youth with sexual orientation or gender identity concerns as deviant or pathological.
3. Do not contract or seek treatment services for the purpose of changing a youth's sexual orientation or identity.
The policy continues: 'A ward may self-identify, or be identified as having questions surrounding her or his sexual orientation or gender identity by child protection and child welfare staff, school personnel, a birth or foster family member, a therapist, or others from within the community. The DCFS/POS caseworker should then notify her/his supervisor. Consultation with a Department-identified expert ... must be made immediately to address the youth's safety and needs. ...
'It is important to recognize that sexual orientation, although a central facet of one's personality, is only one aspect of a youth's identity, and that orientation may not always be a factor in the youth's emotional or behavioral concerns.
'Most needs of [LGBTQ] youths can best be met through caregiver and family support, community support, education groups, and/or peer counseling. The ward's family and foster family members may also need assistance in supporting the LGBTQ youth. Families' and friends' participation in education and support groups, such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) should be encouraged.
'In some cases, youths having severe emotional reaction and/or behavioral concerns may require more intensive services, such as outpatient short-term counseling or psychotherapy. When a ward or family member is having a more severe emotional reaction to the youth's sexual orientation or identity (e.g., persistent depression or anxiety, engaging in substance use or dangerous/high-risk behaviors, social withdrawal, risk of family rejection, placement disruption), more intensive services may be required, including, but not limited to, individual, group or family therapy. ... When placement stabilization or reunification is no longer viable and/or in the best interest of the ward, the DCFS/POS case manager must make every effort to ensure that the ward is placed in a 'gay-affirming' environment.'
Given the entrenched homophobia and transphobia exhibited by some DCFS staffers in the past, this change will likely come slowly. However, with new leadership at the top of the state in the name of pro-gay Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the atmosphere may change more quickly, with GLBT employees perhaps having more freedom to express their concerns openly when youth are in harm's way.
Among groups listed as resources for workers: The African-American lesbian agency Affinity; TransGenesis; Horizons; Howard Brown; Minority Outreach Intervention Project; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Test Positive Aware; Lambda Legal Defense; Uptown Teen Health Center of Children's Memorial Hospital; Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays; Aunt Martha's Youth Services; Outreach Austin Helpline; Association of Latino Men for Action; Pride Youth of Links North Shore; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; DuPage-based Questioning Youth Center; along with other downstate and northwest Indiana agencies.