The state’s child welfare agency is failing to protect LGBTQ children and young adults from violence and abuse, according to a new report by the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.
Sasha Goodfriend, who is chair of the commission, said the report was conducted after years of complaints from LGBTQ youth in the DCF system and national statistics showing that 45 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth in child welfare systems have attempted suicide.
The report said DCF began collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity among youth in the welfare system in 2016, but questions about gender identity are optional and not regularly asked by department staff, which makes the data unreliable. That makes it difficult for DCF and its community partners to evaluate policies and practices, Goodfriend said.
“We live in fear knowing that every single day youth, LGBTQ youth are harmed within our custody because DCF hasn’t even begun to make visible this crisis since their data collection is so insufficient,” Goodfriend said. “With the data we do have around bullying and suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, we know that investing in this work is about saving lives.”
The report also found that LGBTQ youth were often moved from home to home and in some cases were denied gender-affirming medical treatment, such as puberty blockers and hormones. That resulted in “profound and sometimes irreversible” harm, the report stated.
A DCF spokeswoman said the agency is working collaboratively with the Office of the Child Advocate and the Legislature to improve the department’s data on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“LGTBQ children face unique challenges in their biological families, in foster care, and in the community and DCF remains steadfast in its commitment to meet their needs while they are involved with the department,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
DCF is continuing to recruit foster parents to care for “all children with specialized needs, including LBGTQ children,” she said.
One foster parent, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview that she had fostered four transgender children in five years. She began caring for foster children after her biological child came out as transgender, and she soon noticed that many DCF employees had little training in working with LGBTQ youth. Foster parents would sometimes correct the pronouns DCF staff used, she said, something the report said occurred routinely.
“Some of our kids say they have been misgendered because on all the paperwork it’s their dead name being used,” she said. “Sometimes, the staff is new, they’re not properly trained or they’re not trans- or LGBTQ- friendly, not because they don’t want to, but because of ignorance or lack of education,” she said.
Shaplaie Brooks, program director of the BUILD program at Roxbury Youthworks, works with transgender and gender-nonconforming youth who have been victims of sexual exploitation. She said she does a “tremendous” amount of work with DCF and often hears youth mistakenly gendered by staff members.
“What we’ve noticed is that [the department] is clearly uninformed as it relates to LGBTQ youth,” Brooks said. “I think some of the struggles are with personal biases. But then also there is the struggle of being uninformed or misinformed.”
A 20-year-old from Western Massachusetts, who identifies as gender-fluid, said they were often misgendered by DCF employees and placed in an all-male residential program. After requesting a transfer for months, they were moved to a mixed-gender home.
“It’s ridiculous because you wouldn’t put a cisgender girl in an all-boys program and having a transgender girl there is fine?” they said. The person asked not to be identified because they are still involved with the department.
Placing LGBTQ children in homes and programs that are not affirming can be damaging, said Jo Trigilio, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.
“If there’s other youth in the home that are transphobic or homophobic, that youth could be subject to bullying, violence taunts, and these are well documented, and we know that these are the kinds of things that lead to bad outcomes,” Trigilio said.
The 20-year-old, who has been in the foster care system since they were 9, said they experienced harassment and bullying from other residents in group homes, which the report found was common among LGBTQ teenagers. The bullying continued after they alerted staff members, the person said.
“I didn’t feel safe because he [another foster child] threatened me. I told [the department] and they basically said we’re not going to do anything until he does something, and he did,” they said.
The report recommends that DCF implement LGBTQ nondiscriminatory policies and update staff trainings. However, Trigilio said commission members have different opinions about which recommendations to prioritize.
Child welfare agencies in at least 11 other states, including Maine and California, have policies specifically designed to protect LGBTQ children, Goodfriend said.
The foster mother of four said she hopes to see more collaboration between the department and advocates to improve the experiences of LGBTQ foster youth.
“This should not be the department versus anybody,” she said. ““We want them to succeed, because when they succeed, our children succeed.”
Kate Lusignan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.