Allen Johnson was in Clark County's foster care system from age 12 to 16. During this difficult time, Johnson said, he had flashbacks to the abuse that led to him and his younger sister being dragged away from their family by police and taken to Child Haven, not knowing what would happen.
“Amidst all the other things that were going on in my life, I also began to really question my sexual orientation,” Johnson said in personal testimony he gave at a Feb. 20 meeting of the Nevada Assembly Committee on Health and Human Services. “This caused me to have so much turmoil within myself.”
Coming of age is difficult for any adolescent, but foster children who are at the intersection of coming of age and coming out often feel lost and without anyone to turn to for direction.
Only 13 states and the District of Columbia have laws with specific protections for LGBTQ youth in foster care. Nevada is not one of them, but the state soon could be if AB99 passes.
Johnson’s testimony was in support of the bill, which would mandate foster institutions and agencies to “treat a child as having the gender with which the child identifies; requiring certain persons to receive training on working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning children.” It also would require the Department of Family Services to create protocols for placing these children in accepting homes and to establish a process for filing and resolving grievances.
Assemblyman Nelson Araujo, D-Las Vegas, is the primary sponsor of the legislation.
Data on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation within foster care are limited, but there are strong indications that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the system.
Ways to improve data collection
Despite the overrepresentation of LGBTQ individuals in the child welfare system, they remain invisible due to disclosure barriers and a lack of data collection, according to the 2014 report by the William Institute of Law at UCLA. The report offered these suggestions to address the data void:
• Integrate questions about sexual orientation, gender identity, gender conformity and discriminatory experiences related to these issues into existing demographic data collection, intake, service planning and case review processes.
• Raise competencies of child welfare workers to collect this information respectfully and accurately prior to integrating these questions in systems.
• Make sure to maintain confidentiality when sharing and recording this information prior to integrating these questions in systems.
According to a 2014 report by the William Institute of Law at UCLA, there are between 1.5 and 2 times as many LGBTQ youths living in foster care as LGBTQ youths living outside of it.
The report also notes that these youths experience a higher number of foster placements, are more likely to live in group homes, be hospitalized for emotional reasons in their lifetimes, be homeless, and report being treated worse by the child welfare system.
Tristan Torres was in foster care for only nine months but went through two placements and three local high schools. He entered care after his parents kicked him out in October 2014 when he revealed he was transgender. He also shared testimony on how AB99 might have improved his life.
Two of the mandates Torres finds important in the bill are that individuals will be respected for their gender identities rather than any documentation on biological sex, and that organizations working with foster kids will have to undergo two hours of LGBTQ cultural competency training.
“I think every LGBTQ foster youth in the system needs protection, because they’re one of our most vulnerable populations,” Torres said. “Transgender foster youth have different needs than cisgender foster youth. Cisgender means someone who was designated male or female at birth and continues to identify as male or female. They should know that transgender foster youth have different needs from cisgender ones. Specifically pronoun usage is very, very important. If you had a cisgender girl in your home, you wouldn’t call her ‘he,’ ‘him,’ ‘his.’ ”
Johnson recalls his foster mother isolating him for the family’s younger children because she thought his exploration of his sexual orientation was a sign of perversion.
“As I went through this journey of trying to figure out who I was, instead of receiving help, I received judgment and disconnection,” he said in his testimony. “I also remember my social worker telling me that my experiences were ‘just a phase’ and that I would ‘get over it before I knew it.’ In the end, I completely shut down and held back my identity. I would constantly think about if I would ever be considered normal enough for a family to love me for me.”
Johnson eventually was adopted, but he struggled with his identity until he went off to college at UNR, where he’s studying social work.
“I feel that (AB99) would have made such a difference in my life and in the lives of so many others that I knew who were going through similar experiences,” Johnson said. “This bill would have helped the child welfare system work with me, instead of against me.”
Araujo said that the legislation received support from all parties that would be affected, including the Department of Family Services, which already partners with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada on cultural competency training.
The bill is expected to be heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee early next week.
“We’ve been working across the aisle and are proud and hopeful of the final outcome in the Senate,” Araujo said. “The youth are our future, and we need to do everything we can to produce policy to allow them to grow.”