In the summer of 2023, the National SOGIE Center commissioned a national scan of policies and practices on serving LGBTQ+ youth within child welfare systems. The scan included an assessment of over fifty LGBTQ+ child welfare policies from across the country, in which policies were ranked from most inclusive to least inclusive. Five child welfare policies emerged as most inclusive and are included on this site to act as an example for other child welfare systems:
Policies should included basic nondiscrimination language protecting all young people’s perceived or actual sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, and intersex status from bullying, harassment, or discrimination to ensure the equitable delivery of services. Any child welfare policy that attempts to protect LGBTQ+ young people from this kind of unfair treatment must include a comprehensive nondiscrimination section.
Agencies and states can enhance their nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: contractor expectations, staff interactions, social transition protections, and by offering “Know Your Rights” materials to all involved in the system.
This second policy element ensures that a young person’s known sexual orientation and/or gender identity must be handled with discretion, with the goal of only sharing this information with other relevant stakeholders on a need-to-know basis, and that the young person involved has the power to dictate when and how to disclose this information in an effort to protect their privacy and safety. Policies that do include this element offer a disclosure framework to support caregivers avoiding (un)intentionally outing a young person and putting them in a dangerous situation.
Agencies and states can enhance their disclosure and confidentiality protocols for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: a prohibition on coercion of LGBTQ+ young people, a protocol to discuss SOGI with young people when it is disclosed, prohibitions on gossip and sharing information without the youth’s permission, and guidance on circumstances which would require disclosure.
The third policy element enumerates a process for collecting SOGIE demographic information, and details protection protocols to safeguard documentation of this personal information. Establishing these data collection and documentation protocols can set child welfare professionals up for success when designing case plans for affirming placements (if needed), along with appropriate prevention resources. A comprehensive policy must include policy language that gives rights to young people in care to co-create the development of their case plan, ensuring it is LGBTQ+ affirming.
Agencies and states can enhance their data collection and documentation safeguards for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: affirmed name and pronoun importance and centering decision making by the young person.
The fourth policy element underscores the importance of connecting LGBTQ+ young people to affirming mental and medical healthcare treatment and services. Many of the policies reviewed included language that prohibited the denial of medically necessary care – specifically gender affirming healthcare. This policy element includes some of the most important provisions when it comes to ensuring the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ young people in care as it recognizes that young people in care have less autonomy and resources to receive adequate care, let alone affirming care.
Agencies and states can enhance their affirming mental and medical healthcare standards for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: quality assurance processes, a ban on conversion “therapy,” a prohibition on stigmatization of LGBTQ+ populations, a plan for comprehensive sexual education, guidelines on trauma informed care, definitions of contractor expectations, provisions which require professionals to connect young transgender people to gender affirming healthcare, and a process to identify and refer to affirming services.
The fifth policy element introduces important protocols to help child welfare professionals successfully connect LGBTQ+ young people and their families with affirming family engagement prevention and permanency services. Specifically, this section defines an LGBTQ+ “affirming home” to successfully place a LGBTQ+ young person with a family that has the skills to affirm, respect, and meet their specific needs. This framework also includes guidance on family accepting versus family rejecting behaviors along with strategies to employ when engaged in LGBTQ+ family finding activities.
Agencies and states can enhance their guidance for LGBTQ+ Affirming Family Engagement for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: definitions on what an affirming home is; processes or programs to address family rejecting behaviors; a process to certify LGBTQ+ affirming resource families; LGBTQ+ inclusive safety and risk assessments; and a procedure to adapt family finding practices for LGBTQ+ populations.
The sixth policy element addresses some of the challenges that arise in congregate care settings, particularly for transgender and gender expansive young people. Given that congregate care has gender segregated housing for boys and for girls, this policy language is critical to ensure that transgender and gender expansive young people are appropriately placed. The strongest policies reviewed underscore that transgender and gender expansive young people should have a say in where they are housed, with most policies encouraging professionals to place TGX young people in housing consistent with their gender identity, or to assess the best placement based on their needs.
Agencies and states can enhance their guidance for congregate care for LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover transgender and nonbinary affirming placement processes and decision making guidance that centers the young person’s requests and safety.
The seventh policy element details affirming ways staff are encouraged to interact with LGBTQ+ young people and their families. While similar to the fourth policy element, this section focuses on all agency staff beyond medical and mental health professionals. This policy element ensures LGBTQ+ young people have equitable access to agency services, mandating a safe, affirming environment for youth in care by prohibiting staff from imposing personal and religious beliefs onto young people and their families, and ensuring staff are appropriately trained on how to meet the specific needs of LGBTQ+ young people in care.
Agencies and states can enhance their guidance on staff interactions with LGBTQ+ young people in care by including subcategories which cover: a prohibition on staff attempting to influence a youth’s behavior to better align with staff belief systems; an explicit standard around professional development related to the population; mandates on using inclusive language; and a process to support staff in adopting best practices related to serving LGBTQ+ young people and their families.
The eighth and final policy element details important implementation and enforcement protocols, because the best policies are those that not only enshrine best practices into the written form, but they also inspire agency culture transformation. This kind of transformation is achieved through systematizing and rewarding behaviors and practices that improve the delivery of LGBTQ+ affirming services. The strongest policies reviewed included a section focused on incident reporting to ensure that supervisory staff had the opportunity to investigate alleged incidents of discrimination, and if determined to have occurred, enforce corrective and/or disciplinary action to end the discriminatory behavior.
Agencies and states can enhance their incident reporting guidance by including subcategories which cover policy enforcement guidance, a protocol for reporting policy infractions, and hiring compliance oversight staff.