CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new national study funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals striking discrepancies between the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth aging out of foster care when compared to their heterosexual peers.
Transitioning out of foster care can be difficult for any young person, but the study, conducted by the Mathematica Policy Research and Chapin Hall Center for Children, shows LGB youth face greater challenges. Sexual minority youth are more likely to earn a lower hourly wage, more likely to receive disability Supplemental Security Income and food stamps and had more difficulty paying the rent.
The study also found that LGB youth were less likely to be “food secure,” which the report describes as an inability to buy enough food, frequently skip meals or rely on hand outs to receive adequate nutrition.
Youth advocates in Charlotte took notice of the study this week. They say the national trends are familiar to them.
Laurie Pitts, director of programs and services at Time Out Youth, says her organization, which provides social and support services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people ages 13-23, has in the past assisted young people aging out of the foster care system. The difficulties described in the report are reflected among the experiences of the young people she has served.
“They’re having trouble finding work and they never learned real life skills,” Pitts said. “They’re really starting out at ground zero. We have had a couple of youth who are in foster care and are struggling hard, to learn how to take care of yourself when no one is taking care of you for any length of time.”
The difficulties experienced by LGB young people in the foster care system are caused by complex factors, Pitts said. Part of the problem is education for professionals, though local agencies and social workers she’s known have taken their own steps to learn more about issues faced by LGBT young people.
“Certainly there are lots of foster care workers and parents who are knowledgeable about the needs of LGBT youth,” Pitts said. “I think as a larger picture there are deficits just in general that people don’t know. Unless you know someone who identifies as LGBT it’s hard to know where you go to get that information unless you have a reason to learn it.”
The education deficit is apparent in higher education, as well.
“Even in professional training, it’s just not covered a lot, if at all, though it’s getting better,” Pitts said.
Time Out Youth has undertaken its own efforts to bring education to professionals working with young people. In the past, they’ve held “safe zone” training with the Children’s Home Society and the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services.
Rodney Tucker, Time Out Youth’s executive director, also said the organization has partnered with The Relatives, another local youth services organization, to assist with a new program called JourneyPlace.
“We have a program we are working on with The Relatives that was just started for kids coming out of foster care where they can stay in a residential facility with case management; they can stay up to five years,” Tucker said. “It will help them transition. It’s a wonderful program and the kids in there are doing really well.”
Other groups across the country are also responding to the need.
Ted Froats, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the federal agency has distributed grant funding to assist the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in their development of the RISE, or “Recognize, Intervene, Support, Empower,” initiative.
“RISE is currently in the pilot stage of a program dedicated to training caseworkers and placement agency workers in how to support LGB youth,” he said.
Los Angeles’ RISE program will include outreach efforts to professionals, intervention teams, support and training.
Training and outreach efforts for professionals serving young people, Pitts said, is the key to improving services.
“A lot of social workers, as they encounter LGBT youth who are in foster care, they have to learn on the go, and that’s not always a bad thing,” she said. “Most folks who find themselves in that position are willing and able to do the work, but certainly you see examples of those who can’t or won’t,” she said.