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EDITORIAL Changing course on child welfare

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Windy City Times ( WCT ) just concluded a lengthy three-part series on troubles at child welfare agencies in Illinois and across the U.S. when it comes to supporting parents of children who present as transgender or gender nonconforming.

As the series unfolded, WCT was contacted by multiple additional families who were terrified of agents from the government, including the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ). Some had experienced a story similar to the one we first wrote about, where a 5-year-old child was removed from her family with allegations of medical abuse for what the family says was their support of her presenting as a girl, though she was labeled a boy at birth.

This case is under ongoing adjudication in the courts, and we at Windy City Times are urging that this case be reviewed without prejudice, by experts in the field, not medical personnel and social workers who come to their jobs with a bias and no training on transgender issues.

The timing of these cases is not coincidental. Because of larger social knowledge of trans issues during the past decade, more and more children are being allowed by their families to express their gender identities in public.

In the past, such behavior was likely to have been stifled at best to inside the home, but at worst was beaten out of children until they suppressed their feelings into adulthood. If they survived the ordeal.

In an age when the transgender community has become the latest target by conservative politicians, activist groups and pundits, the risk of members of the community or mandated reporters such as pediatricians or teachers calling DCFS claiming a child is being abused because parents are allowing her/him/they to explore and present in their gender identity has been increased.

Of note, transgender children who grow up without affirming families are more likely to feel leave home or school. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey shows rates of over 50 percent of transgender people whose families did not speak or spend time with them or were bullied or harassed in school; 69 percent experienced homelessness.

In October 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a groundbreaking piece of legislation which protected a child's gender identity within that state's DCFS system. Applauding the move, the National Center for Lesbian Rights said: "this bill provides critical guidance to child welfare professionals."

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles LGBT Center has engaged in transgender sensitivity training for L.A. County DCFS employees. They claim it is effective and, were it mandatory, could make a significant dent in transphobia or lack of understanding about transgender people on the part of employees systemwide.

Although, the kind of change in public perceptions needed to stop malicious hotline calls about transgender affirming parents is some distance away, California and Los Angeles in particular have made a start down the road to protecting transgender kids and their families who find themselves caught up in the DCFS system.

We are at a crossroads. The child welfare system and the medical community have not kept pace with social advances. And they must do a better job, because lives are at stake, and families are being ruined.

Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim, through her work with Pride Action Tank, has been meeting with various DCFS representatives for more than two years. PAT's Kim Hunt and Baim have given recommendations to DCFS on their changing policies on LGBTQ youth, and PAT has been trying to push for more tracking and communication on LGBTQ youth in DCFS care. In fact, PAT has been trying to help recruit more accepting adults to foster children, and has wanted to help advocate for teens in foster care to get them more adequate foster families or guardians.

So it is even more frustrating knowing that some people in DCFS want to advocate for change, but that the system overall still has huge gaps in training and understanding of LGBTQ youth.

Windy City Times therefore makes the following recommendations:

—DCFS frontline staff ( whether hotline operators or investigators ) must have mandated, culturally competent training on LGBTQ issues. Transgender people and parents should play an active role in that training.

—More openly transgender people should be hired to work in DCFS at all levels, including as investigators, and as trainers.

—If a hotline operator receives a call either from a mandated reporter or a member of the community that a child is "forced" into being transgender whether as a form of medical abuse or sexual exploitation, there should be guidelines before that call is elevated to investigators.

—DCFS staff with religious or political objections to transgender or LGB children or their affirming families must not be in positions where they will come into contact with them. If they can't get past their own biases, they should not be working in an environment which provides direct contact with families who can raise children free of biases based on religion, culture, education, sexual orientation or gender identity.

—DCFS foster care and adoptive parents must have mandated, culturally competent training on LGBTQ issues.

—The reward system at DCFS must be changed. Social workers who partner with a family to make sure the child is returned home to a safe, loving environment may be doing more difficult work than the quick-fix of removal, but this can help protect innocent families, and lower the 18,000 number of children in foster care.

—The Office of the Public Guardian, which represents children in the child welfare system, must have mandatory, culturally competent training on an annual basis for all attorneys, including by medical professionals who work with trans and GNC children.

—State legislators and DCFS must also reexamine what constitutes abuse/neglect. A bar set low enough leaves a vast opening for misunderstanding. A diagnosis of Munchausen by Proxy ( a controversial and rare diagnosis ) cannot be made by pediatricians—it must be made by a trained psychologist.

—The level of power DCFS wields over families has left it ripe for abuse. The agency maintains that "checks and balances" are in place. Director George Sheldon must ensure that they are being employed at all levels of the organization. Hotline calls should be randomly monitored, social workers and supervisors screened for biases, attorneys and judges policed to ensure a family's civil rights are protected at every stage of investigation.

—Organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics ( AAP ) can offer policy statements, but they can't mandate training for their 66,000 members. We need to push for mandated, culturally competent training of medical personnel who work with children.

—Cook County and the State of Illinois should mandate LGBTQ bias training for attorneys and judges, taught with people who are LGBQ and especially trans.

—Finally, Windy City Times calls for the removal of the social worker from the case of a South Side transgender child currently in DCFS custody and we are calling for a thorough re-review of that case without prejudice.

Last summer, at an LGBTQ adoption event co-sponsored by WCT and Pride Action Tank, with 10 foster care agencies leading the charge, DCFS Director Sheldon urged people to adopt more LGBTQ children. How can any family be assured that such an adoption will not result in the removal of that child after one call to a hotline? If DCFS truly wants affirming foster parents, it must do more to protect affirming biological parents.

During his keynote speech at that adoption event, Sheldon said, "If you want to see the past, touch a rock. If you want to see the present, touch a flower. If you want to see the future, touch the life of a child."

The parents of trans children are that future. Child psychologist Dr. Erica Anderson told Windy City Times, "Children who grow up with an affirming family do not have higher incidents of many of the unfortunate things that affect the transgender community including mental health problems, social adjustment, issues with bullying in school and school avoidance, family conflicts and ultimately depression, suicidal thoughts and actions."

Why then are the parents of transgender children so frightened of DCFS taking their children when all they are doing is offering those children a chance at life?


Part One: .

Part Two: .

Final: .

Related .

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