Florida's Department of Children and Families ( DCF ) took steps last year to protect LGBTQ youth in group homes and have since removed all protective language on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression from their drafted rules. These new rules protected youth from bullying and harassment, banned psychologically harmful "conversion" therapy, and provided affirming guidelines for the care of transgender youth. These protections were quietly removed after pressure from far-right religious groups and a review from Governor Rick Scott's office.
The new drafted rules, which have been stripped of all protections for LGBTQ youth, will be discussed at an Administrative Rules Hearing this Friday, April 8th, at 10:30 AM.
The Children and Youth Law Clinic, chaired by Miami attorney Robert Latham, provided language at the request of DCF staff that would offer comprehensive and inclusive rules protecting LGBTQ youth. DCF worked with child welfare advocates for months, fine tuning the proposed language and receiving preliminary approval from DCF Secretary Mike Carroll.
The original policy was written to prevent discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ youth, forbid the use of debunked and dangerous conversion therapy, and provide access to appropriate grooming and clothing items for transgender and gender nonconforming youth. The language also included a list of factors that group homes should consider when placing transgender youth and clarified that a youth should be placed in accordance with their gender identity — a move that would improve safety and emotional well-being for a population at high risk for victimization in group care settings..
Specific guidelines that protect LGBTQ youth are important to allow funding and management agencies to set clear expectations for how providers and their staff should care for LGBTQ youth. Child welfare advocates agree that these rules are crucial to ensure that all children are safe and protected, and that any of their complaints of mistreatment are not ignored. Furthermore, a clear prohibition of conversion therapy will prevent the state from funding group homes who are engaging in this dangerous practice and will instruct providers to affirm a child's sexual orientation and gender identity.
Robert Latham, supervising attorney at the Miami School of Law's Children & Youth Law Clinic and statewide chair of the LGBTQ Child Welfare Work Group, spearheaded the original rules change and worked with national legal organizations Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and local LGBTQ child welfare workgroups to draft the language. "As a child welfare advocate for the entirety of my career, I have worked with the Department of Children and Families extensively and was pleased when certain staff at the Department reached out to us to provide sample policies that would protect LGBTQ youth. I am extremely disappointed that DCF has now removed protective language from the proposed rules, violating every professional standard in child welfare services. Group homes and other care providers need new rules and guidelines to ensure that all LGBTQ youth are safe, protected, and affirmed while under the state's care."
Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, said, "To intentionally remove language that provides clear guidance to care providers is to leave young people even more vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and psychologically dangerous conversion therapy. These children are already at great risk and placing them in an unsupportive environment is detrimental to their wellbeing. We call on Governor Rick Scott and the Department of Children and Families to adopt inclusive rules prohibiting any unfair treatment of LGBTQ youth."
Currey Cook, Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project Director, said, "Estimates suggest that 20% of children in foster care are LGBTQ. By literally erasing inclusive standards from the group home rules, Florida's DCF has erased the needs and experiences of huge portion of the youth they are required by law to serve, and ignored the constitutional rights of those youth to safety from harm and to equitable treatment. In view of the harsh overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth of color in the foster care system, and the dramatic rates of violence and discrimination transgender youth experience, the last thing LGBTQ youth in Florida's group homes need is to have the government agency charged with protecting them send a clear message that their lives don't matter."
Members of the public may attend the Administrative Rules Hearing in person at the Department of Children and Families in Tallahassee or via conference call.