Support Trans Youth in Out of Home Care

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November 15, 2019
Photo by: Ted Eytan

Authored by Oliver Stabbe, Paralegal

This is part of our blog series written by Lambda Legal staff in honor of Transgender Awareness Week 2019.

Read Part I: Committing To A Year of Action: Five Ways to Honor Our Community by Avatara Smith-Carrington and Taylor Brown.

Read Part II: HHS's Nonstop Attacks on Transgender People by Sasha Buchert.


Litigation, discourse and policy work around transgender rights often focuses exclusively on transgender adults and rights for trans youth in schools. But transgender and gender expansive youth as a whole are disproportionately represented within out-of-home care systems. Their unique needs and experiences are frequently not addressed within these larger conversations.

Transgender youth experience foster care, juvenile justice systems and homelessness at a dramatically increased rate. According to a Los Angeles county-wide foster care survey, 5.6% of youth in care identify as transgender—a significant difference from the general population, in which 1-2% identify as such. One out of five transgender people report experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives. It’s clear that the social barriers and biases against transgender youth systemically contribute to marginalization and disproportionate involvement in these systems. 

Transgender youth enter the foster care system for many of the similar reasons that cisgender youth do, such as poverty or neglect. However, for transgender youth, their family’s rejection of them and their identities contribute additionally to their involvement within the system.

Once in foster care, these youth are often met by professionals who in most cases lack training and guidance on how to properly serve transgender youth. Discrimination and bullying may lead to conflict and then increased punishing and criminalizing of transgender youth, turning the foster care system into a pipeline into the juvenile justice system for many.

Trauma compounded by racism and queerphobia further increases the impact of criminalization for TGNC youth of color, who are part of the 85% of LGBTQIA+ youth of color in juvenile justice facilities.

Government systems of care, such as foster care, juvenile justice facilities, and shelters, intend ideally to keep youth safe and connect them with resources, services, and assist with rehabilitation.

But too often, transgender youth are pipelined into these systems and then deprived of the same positive opportuntities afforded their cisgender peers, solely due to their identity or expression, and are physically and emotional harmed in the process.

Significant reforms are necessary to protect TGNC youth involved in these systems. As of 2019, approximately half of US states do not include gender identity as a protected class, and significantly fewer include gender expression.

To directly address these issues, we must add gender identity and gender expression as explicitly protected classes, advocate for the adoption of rules and regulations that prevent the criminalization of TGNC youth, and mandate practices of affirming the identities.

Policies in the system would include housing youth consistent with their identity, providing gender affirming health care, and allowing them to express themselves in ways that align with their gender identity.

One of the most important recommended practices is using chosen names and correct pronouns to refer to TGNC youth. In one study, young people who could use their chosen name in schools, work, home, and with friends experienced 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, 34% fewer reported thoughts of suicide and a 65% decrease in suicidal attempts than those who could not use their chosen names.

Denying these practices causes significant harm to these youth, discouraging feelings of safety and contributing to serious mental health issues and self-harm. Simply put: These protections save lives.

Last week, Health and Human Services proposed a new rule that would remove existing federal law protections banning discrimination based on, among other things, gender identity, in all HHS grant-funded programs, including foster care and adoption.

While HHS seems focused on allowing faith-based providers to refuse to serve prospective LGBTQ adoptive and foster care parents, the blow would be felt hardest by LGBTQ children. This proposed rule is utterly nonsensical from a public policy perspective; without the possibility of placement in an affirming home or facility, these youth will inevitably be pushed further into the closet and pipelines to justice involvement, trafficking, and homelessness.

Transgender and gender-expansive kids should never have to hide their identities in exchange for safety. They deserve so much more than that.