LGBTQ youth in care are more at risk of sexual violence

LGBTQ children and youth face unique challenges while in care that make them more vulnerable to sexual violence. Become an ally by learning more about it.

Family rejection brings youth into care

The over-representation of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system reflects the high number of ‘non-conforming’ youth who are kicked out or who escape from physically and psychologically abusive families that want to ‘cure’ or punish them.[Child Welfare League of America & Lambda Legal (2012) Getting Down to Basics See:]  They are non-conforming because their identity and how they express themselves is different from whatever is considered ‘normal’ by the dominant society. LGBTQ youth are too often rejected by the very people they rely on for housing, food, love and acceptance.

LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their family have serious emotional and mental health impacts including depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviours and increased substance use to cope.  They are more likely to become street-involved or homeless. Being rejected for who you are causes trauma, it hurts.

Research has also shown that rejecting families actually become less rejecting over time. Most of the time caregivers don’t really want to lose touch with their children or put them in harm’s way. Rejection is a mistaken approach to try to make young people conform to whatever is considered normal in the family. Access to accurate information is a critical factor in helping foster parents, families and caregivers learn to support their LGBTQ children and youth.[Family Acceptance Project] 

Violence and Sexual Violence

Studies have shown that one in two trans individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.[Kenagy, G. (2005) Sexual Violence in the Trans Community Survey. "The Health and Social Service Needs of Trans People in Philadelphia," International Journal of Transism]  Bisexual women have higher lifetime rates of sexual assault (75%) when compared to both lesbian (46%) and heterosexual women 43%). Bisexual men have the highest rates (47%) when compared to gay men (40%) and heterosexual men (21%).[The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010). Findings on victimization by sexual orientation. Centers for Disease Control.]

LGBTQ young people frequently experience violence and sexual violence in the different environments they find themselves.

Street involved youth:

  • They are preyed upon by sexual predators and more at-risk for sexual coercion, physical and sexual assault[Grace, Andre. (2015) Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority in Canada.]
  • Are three times more likely than straight peers to engage in survival sex, with an increased exposure to sexually transmitted diseases because they have limited access to healthcare, education and prevention resources compared to middle-class youth[National Coalition of STD Directors. See:]

At school LGBTQ children and youth in care report that:[Tayor, C. Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. 2011. Egale Canada.]

  • 21% have been physically harassed or assaulted about their sexual orientation
  • 37% of trans youth have been physically harassed or assaulted about their gender
  • 45% of youth with LGBTIQ parents have been sexually harassed at school

LGBTQ youth in care who ‘cross over’ into the youth justice system:[Child Welfare League of America & Lambda Legal (2012) Keeping Youth Safe in Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Placements]

  • Face extreme forms of harassment and violence
  • Are at increased risk of suicide
  • Are more vulnerable and at risk for sexual abuse
  • Experience discrimination based on myths that LGBTIQ youth are sex offenders

Developing LGBTQ identities in care

LGBTQ children and youth in care face additional developmental challenges that interfere with positive identity development.[Ragg, Mark et al. (2006) Slamming the Closet Door: Working with Gay and Lesbian Youth in Care.]

  • Verbal harassment and gay-related abuse while in foster care
  • Worker turnover and multiple placements
  • Encountering foster parents, residential  and case workers who do not know how to respond to unique developmental needs of LGBTQ children and youth
  • The screening out of potential gay and lesbian foster parents
  • Supportive professional services that are “often incompetent and unresponsive” to  developmental needs sexual and gender minority children and youth
  • Agency policies and procedures and protocols that set up obstacles and communicate a lack of acceptance

These additional challenges leave LGBTQ children and youth susceptible to inconsistent and uneven competencies in the system of those responsible for their care.

Invisibility and Safety

Not surprisingly, youth describe a profound sense of vulnerability associated with ‘coming out’ and others knowing their true identity. Remaining hidden or invisible can seem a safer strategy.[MCYS Survey.  Serving LGBTQ2S Children and Youth: A Resource Guide for Child Welfare Staff and Caregivers.]  Many youth tell stories of experiencing open rejection where a person who had previously supported them ended the relationship once discovering the youth’s non-conforming identity.

As a protection, LGBTQ youth may organize their lives to reduce the possibility of rejection. They tend to withhold their identity based on beliefs that if the other person really knew them, rejection would follow. Beliefs like this reflect the early stages of forming a negative identity, causing children to experience limited relationships and receiving support that is based on the other person not-knowing. Even young people who are high achievers in sports or school may have mental health issues because they are overcompensating for hiding sexual or gender differences.[Grace, Andre. (2015) Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority in Canada.]  They do not escape the risks and effects of trauma that come from living under discrimination.

My worker actually wrote it in my file when I told her. She wrote “expressed desire to be bisexual”. They don’t write it in your file if you are heterosexual.

Busting Out

Protecting LGBTQ identity

Everyone has a right to privacy and confidentiality.  In the foster care system, multiple people can discover a youth’s identity through deliberate or unthinking protection worker actions. Harmful actions include recording the youth’s sexual and gender identity in the case file and sharing it in open court. When worker actions such as these effectively ‘out’ the youth to the entire system, they are exposing vulnerable and often unprepared youth to a wide variety of biases and prejudice.

 You don’t want to be branded…. If you tell the caseworker before they move you, they’re going to tell the new placement. So before you even get there, you’re already branded.

Busting Out

Once out, youth worry about being treated differently in foster homes because of their gender and sexual identity. Foster parents who are not supportive of queer or questioning children can “over-react” to incidents that arise. If they use the youth’s gender or sexual identity as the first filter through which to interpret or blame behaviour, they set up a double-standard with the other youth in the home. This can also cause the LGBTQ youth to be outed to the other children.”[Mallon, Gerald P; Woronoff, Rob. (2006) Busting Out of the Child Welfare Closet: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Affirming Approaches to Child Welfare.]  The consequences of being outed to other children in a foster or group home can shift the youth lower down in the peer pecking order of the household where they may experience isolation, bullying and violence by the other children.

Harmful therapies deny LGBTQ identity

Parents and caregivers who experience a mixture of concern and shame may try to discourage sexual and gender difference by telling the child to adjust their behaviour, send them to counselling, restrict their activities or punish them. It is critical to understand that denying a child’s identity is never in the best interest of the child.

When parents and caregivers believe that LGBTQ identity is a disorder, illness or a phase that is changeable or even curable, they may attempt to influence the child’s developmental process by seeking outside services such as “reparative” or “conversion” therapies. These therapies are intended to interrupt and change a developing sense of identity in the young person.

Mainstream psychiatric and psychological communities have rejected the therapies, saying they are ineffective and the evidence is clear that they do harm.[The American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as pathological in 1973. Canadian and US health  and mental health associations have rejected reparative therapies during the 1990s.]  Nevertheless, there are psychotherapists and religious groups that continue to use conservative stances to support the practice of these therapies instead of focusing on addressing the impacts of stigma and discrimination that come from homophobia and transphobia.

I have seen how dealing with rejection and abandonment by their biological families, coupled with discrimination in their foster homes, schools and extended communities have contributed to creating an internal belief that they are worth less than their heterosexual peers.

Linda Dame

When adults impose reparative therapy on a minor in the hope of changing the child’s identity or orientation, they are engaging in a violation of rights that can be interpreted as child abuse because of the harmful effects. The consequences of reparative therapy range from feelings of guilt and paranoia to nervous breakdowns, genital and self-mutilations, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Youth may submit to or even seek reparative therapy themselves because they feel isolated and are not able to deal with the potential or real loss of family and friends who threaten to abandon the relationship and the ongoing harassment, discrimination and violence that tells them they are wrong.[Grace, Andre. (2015) Growing into Resilience: Sexual and Gender Minority in Canada.]  In 2012, the World Health Organization issued a position statement condemning reparative therapies, especially those that target children and youth.

Further Reading & Resources