Aug. 9, 2018

During his time as a social worker, Adam McCormick, an assistant professor of Social Work at St. Edward’s University, noticed that the child welfare system was ill-equipped to respond to the specific needs of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth. And that even well-meaning social workers and foster parents could cause unintentional emotional harm to LGBTQ youth in their care. 

Although strides are being made to make foster care more welcoming to LGBTQ youth, McCormick believes that the foster care system continues to be unjustly challenging for LGBTQ youth, who risk dealing with rejection, separation from siblings and abuse for coming out. These young people are overrepresented in the foster care system compared to their non-LGBTQ peers, according to research.

“Some of the mistreatment of LGBTQ youth is overt and some it stems from a lack of training and experience,” McCormick said. “There are a lot of well-intended foster parents and child welfare workers who just don’t have the knowledge, the language and the training to initiate conversations.”

McCormick is addressing this need for training with his first book, “LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care,” a practical guide designed to help social workers and foster parents better understand, connect with and care for LGBTQ youth in the foster care system. He also seeks to put a face on the distinct issues facing LGBTQ youth in foster care through vignettes of young people describing their experiences. 

In recognition of his book, St. Edward’s University asked McCormick to share his thoughts and advice for social workers and foster families. His book was published by Routledge, a division of the Taylor & Francis Group, in May.

Start a Conversation

Question: What is the biggest takeaway from your book?

McCormick: I think the most important message from the book is to find ways to initiate conversations about a foster child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. If you’re willing to be an affirming and accepting person in that child’s life, you need to make sure that they know that, and that you’re willing and able to do that.

I know it’s a difficult conversation to start. I think it’s just finding the courage to say, ‘hey, I don’t feel entirely comfortable, I don’t feel entirely adequate, but I want to make sure you know that if you are gay or lesbian or transgender or gender non-binary, that I’m a safe and affirming person. If there’s something I don’t know, I’m going to figure it out.’ I tell Child Protective Services workers and foster parents all the time that if you are just authentic and genuine in what you say, the child is going to recognize that.

Learn the Language

Question: The book starts with an in-depth explanation of SOGIE (the acronym for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression). Why is that important?

McCormick: It’s important to educate yourself on those major aspects around sexual orientation and gender identity. What does it mean when a young person is transgender? What does it mean when a young person says they are gender non-binary? The more knowledge parents have when foster kids come out to them, the more confident they’ll be in supporting those kids and in providing a safe environment for them to be who they are.

Do Acknowledge, Do Accept

Question: What do you say to those who are having difficulty accepting a foster youth’s SOGIE?

McCormick: Part of the work we do with parents is to help them recognize some of the aspects they’re comfortable with and to start there. Even if parents are uncomfortable with a lot of things about their child being gay or lesbian or transgender, if they can just focus on the things they’re comfortable talking about, then it’s almost like a snowball effect. And what happens is they become more and more comfortable.

The research confirms that young people who have acceptance are so much healthier and happier, have better mental health outcomes, better health outcomes, better behavioral outcomes, obviously, than those who are facing rejection. It’s essential to create an environment of acceptance — one that’s both safe for foster youth to come out and that responds to them in safe and affirming ways. Things like connecting them with LGBTQ peers, and having conversations with family members or church leaders who might be rejecting them.

Improve the System

Question: What do you think can be done on a systemic level to ensure better outcomes for LGBTQ youth in foster care?

McCormick: I think we need to address major barriers in the child welfare system that cause LGBTQ young people to come into foster care and stay in foster care way longer than they need to. And while they’re in foster care, they tend to bounce around. They have about three times as many placements as non-LGBTQ young people. We have to recruit foster families who are affirming, we have to train families to be more affirming, and we have to respond effectively and adequately when a family is not doing that.

Find a Path Forward

Question: What is your ultimate hope for the foster care youth who are in the system?

McCormick: The intention of this book is to help create a more inclusive and accepting system so that those kids can be without fear. Foster kids already have a lot going on in their lives. They’ve experienced abuse or neglect, and they’re with a holding family, living with strangers. I think the added challenges for gay, lesbian and transgender young people are just entirely unfair. We can do a lot better. Right now, it’s risky for kids to come out. If you come out when you are in foster care, you could lose your placement. You can be separated from your siblings. You can be put into a group home. It is scary for them.