After years of negotiations and input from a wide range of local and national stakeholders, Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director George H. Sheldon has signed a landmark revision of DCFS policy centered upon the "Support and Well-Being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) Children and Youth" within the system.
The signing came during a workshop on LGBTQ foster parenting as a part of the 2017 EqualityCon, which Equality Illinois hosted in Springfield. Those attending the workshopwhich Sheldon, Statewide DCFS LGBTQ Coordinator Jane Kelly and consulting DCFS psychologist Dr. Claudia Mosier hostedwere in for a surprise when Sheldon signed the document.
According to one DCFS employee, the revision, filed under Appendix K of services delivered by the department, faced several barriers on its journey to Sheldon's pen. Those barriers were overcome through the efforts of primarily African-American women working within the agency.
Many outside agencies and activists provided input on the document, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU), Pride Action Tank and more. The ACLU, which has played a longstanding watchdog role of DCFS, especially wanted approval of the finished product.
The 17-page document "sets mandatory minimum standards to promote the safety, adjustment and well-being of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) children and youth in the Department's care" and prohibits "discrimination, bias, or harassment" on the part of DCFS employees or those of outsourced (purchase of service) agencies toward LGBTQ children, youth and their families.
"Children and youth have the right to be treated equally, to express their gender identity, and to have the choice to be open or private about their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity," Appendix K states. "The Department's policy is to maintain and promote a safe and affirming environment for LGBTQ children and youth in DCFS care, including children/youth who are in DCFS contracted residential facilities and programs, foster care and any other substitute care settings."
As a part of that commitment, Appendix K "requires that all LGBTQ children and youth be placed in an affirming safe housing, receive LGBTQ competent medical and mental health services, and have equal opportunity and access to care."
To that end, the policy asserts "any person who is involved with DCFS children/youth will complete mandatory training in LGBTQ competency."
The training will be included in DCFS core training and will be a requirement to attaining a child-welfare license.
DCFS in Los Angeles County has instituted similar system-wide training initiatives. However, they are not mandatorysomething the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which delivers the training, believes is a significant problem.
However, in Illinois according to Appendix K, "DCFS will require all staff to attend ongoing training and education regarding sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."
While Windy City Times has examined DCFS treatment of transgender children who have been removed from affirming parents and placed in to foster care, Appendix K states that "a child or youth's LGBTQ status is not a reason to place them in congregate care. Most needs of LGBTQ children and youth can be met through positive caregiver, family support and community peer educational support groups."
"In no instance should LGBTQ children/youth be placed with a non-affirming caregiver who is opposed to sexual orientations that differ from the caregiver's own," it continues. "Nor should LGBTQ children and youth be placed with caregivers who are unwilling/unable to support children and youth whose gender identity or gender expression differs from traditional expectation."
Appendix K includes extremely specific language in matters of respecting gender expression and self-determination "including the child/youth's choice of clothes, make-up, hairstyle, friends, and activities within appropriate boundaries. The child/youth's chosen name and preferred gender pronoun (including gender-neutral pronouns such as "they" or "ze/hir") must be respected."
When placed in foster care both DCFS and outsourced agencies "should take into account the child/youth's perception of where they will be most secure, as well as any recommendations from the child/youth's health care provider."
"Individualized placement decisions, as well as an increase and diversification of placement options available to LGBTQ children and youth is critical," Appendix K states. "Caregivers for LGBTQ children/youth must understand and support the LGBTQ children/youth's identity."
Affirming medical care for transitioning youth is just as critical.
According to the appendix "LGBTQ appropriate and culturally competent medical care and sexual health education and resources shall be provided to all DCFS child/youth."
"If the child/youth reports that they were prescribed hormones or puberty blocking medications by a licensed medical provider, these medications must be continued under appropriate medical supervision while the child/youth is in care," it notes.
Those who request such intervention while in care "should be referred to medical professionals who are recognized as medically competent in the care of transgender child/youth."
The appendix directs all DCFS and outsourced agencies to "provide supportive and affirming care regardless of one's personal attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions and/or judgments, if any, surrounding matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression."
Although the ACLU of Illinois acknowledged that it had been working with DCFS on the policy revisions, in a statement received by Windy City Times the organization noted that it was "disappointed that DCFS did not inform us that the Director would be signing the policy over the weekend [of May 5] or give us an opportunity to review the final version."
The ACLU added that it was "pleased that DCFS incorporated nearly all of the changes requested by the ACLU" and commended "the hard work of DCFS officials who are committed to the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth in the Department's care."
However, the organization noted that "the policy falls short of being the model-policy we were hoping to see."
"For example, the Department rejected our recommendation that the policy include a reporting requirement that the ACLU believes is crucial to the integrity of the policy and its purpose of protecting LGBTQ youth," the statement continued. "We believe that DCFS should require its staff (including staff of DCFS contractors) to report to the LGBTQ Coordinator any conduct of other staff members that is inconsistent with the policy. The LGBTQ Coordinator should refer the noncompliant staff for additional training and provide them with any other resources necessary to help bring them into compliance with the policy. The ACLU also recommended, in the interest of accountability, that the LGBTQ Coordinator report to the Director the details about the number and nature of reports of noncompliant staff, the remedial actions taken, and the outcome."
"We have consistently recognized that the adoption of a good LGBTQ policy is only the starting point for protecting LGBTQ youth in DCFS care," the ACLU concluded. "We look forward to working with the Department to ensure that its other policies address the needs of LGBTQ youth and that this policy is implemented in a manner that ensures DCFS staff are made aware of it, fully understand its requirements, and comply with them."