Embracing the Well-Being of Transgender Foster Youth

Earlier this month, California became the first state in the nation to enact legislation giving transgender children and youth in foster care the right to live in settings that reflect and respect their gender identity. Senate Bill 731 is a clear articulation of the state's explicit commitment to treat all foster youth equally and to prohibit identity-based discrimination in foster care settings. The legislation erases any remaining confusion or uncertainty: child welfare workers who make placement decisions must treat transgender girls like all other girls, and transgender boys like all other boys -- regardless of the sex listed in their court or child welfare records.

The extreme vulnerability of transgender children and youth in foster care, and the specific harms they suffer when their caregivers ignore, denigrate or deny their gender identity is a serious public health problem. It is well documented that transgender children and youth, as a group, experience significant health disparities. Due to pervasive rejection and bias in their homes, schools and communities, they are at higher risk than their cisgender peers for depression, suicidality, substance use, physical and sexual victimization and homelessness. Family conflict, verbal harassment, school bullying and physical assault constitute the harsh daily reality of too many transgender youth. Social conditions for transgender girls and women of color are particularly brutal. Twenty-one year old Zella Ziona recently became the 18th known transgender woman of color to be murdered this year in the U.S. Due to the routine erasure of transgender people and the reluctance of some families to "out" their transgender relatives, the true number of murder victims is likely even higher.

Considering their social marginalization, it is not surprising that there are at least twice as many transgender youth in foster care as their estimated number in the general population. Charged with securing the safety, permanency and well-being of these youth, the child welfare system has largely been unequal to the task. Too often, the personnel, caregivers and providers who interact with these youth harbor the same biases and misinformation that placed the youth in jeopardy in the first place. The system has been particularly inept at creating and sustaining affirming placements for transgender youth, and routinely places them in unsafe and hostile settings, exacerbating their isolation and trauma. As a consequence, many transgender youth experience foster care at its worst: a series of disrupted placements followed by periods of homelessness and a life of instability and insecurity. Too often, their only recourse is to resort to sex work or other street economies in order to survive. These conditions further narrow their economic and educational opportunities, and consign them to lifelong social and economic marginalization.

SB 731 is both straightforward and firmly grounded in research. The serious health consequences of denying transgender youth the opportunity to live congruently with their gender identity are well documented. Conversely, affirming the gender identity of these youth and supporting them to live authentically demonstrably promotes their health and well-being. In this respect, the bill simply aligns child welfare practice with evidence-based medical and professional standards of care. Nevertheless, given the reluctance of the child welfare system to embrace these simple principles, the new law will require a radical shift in child welfare practice. Rather than forcing transgender youth to choose between their safety and their gender identity, SB 731 places the onus on the agency to hold existing caregivers accountable and to recruit and support more affirming placements. Although California has a long way to go, this bill is a bold and important step toward the goal at the core of child welfare practice: to protect and promote the safety, permanency and well-being of every child in foster care.