This article first appeared in HRC’s Equality magazine. View the latest issue at hrc.org/magazine.

To Dr. Amena Johnson, having empathy and understanding are important ways to protect LGBTQ youth in child welfare systems.

“In order to make a difference in a person’s life, you have to serve the whole person,” Johnson told Equality. “Their race, gender identity, sexual orientation and more. We cannot focus on certain parts and ignore others if we want to make things better.”

Johnson is the supervisor for the AFFIRM program at Prince George’s County Department of Social Services in Maryland, which gives LGBTQ youth and their families in the county support by helping youth improve coping skills and providing peer support. It also helps parents and caregivers celebrate, honor and validate LGBTQ identities and experiences and recognize the impact of discrimination and stigma on the well-being of youth.

HRC Foundation’s All Children — All Families program, which helps child welfare agencies serve LGBTQ children, youth and families, teamed up with the county to provide trainings that will help the agency achieve the safety, permanency and well-being for all LGBTQ youth in the county’s care. 

This work, along with the AFFIRM program, is funded by the LGBTQ2S Quality Improvement Center at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, a groundbreaking national effort to build new evidence-based strategies for improving services for LGBTQ youth and their families. 

Harry Morgan, AFFIRM caregiver specialist, told Equality that he considers the agency to be a safe space for LGBTQ youth, but there is always more work to be done.

“Having this epiphany sparked a major interest in LGBTQ advocacy and education,” Morgan said.

Social worker Tia Brooks, a youth specialist at AFFIRM, said that in order to be successful, county officials are taking an intersectional approach -- recognizing that barriers and experiences around race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and other identities can create different environments for youth in care.

“In today’s climate we must always remember that this work is intersectional,” Brooks told Equality. “The way youth filter life or deal with discrimination may have a different impact on their emotional well-being. They may need to know that you are comfortable with their LGBTQ+ identity if things arise that are impacting their intersecting identities.”

HRC’s 2018 research report in partnership with the University of Connecticut found troubling trends among more than 12,000 LGBTQ youth respondents. Nearly half of LGBTQ youth who are out to their parents say their families make them feel bad for being LGBTQ. Trans youth are more than twice as likely as their LGBQ cisgender peers to be taunted or mocked by their family. LGBTQ youth of color are twice as likely as their white LGBTQ peers to hear their family make negative comments about their LGBTQ identity and only 11 percent of LGBTQ youth of color respondents believe their racial or ethnic group is regarded positively in the U.S.  

These groundbreaking ACAF trainings could have an impact on child welfare systems nationwide.

“These trainings afford child welfare systems the opportunity to examine current practices and policies to determine if they are equipped to deal with the needs of youth,” Morgan said. “Those agencies who rise to the call to overhaul their system and become more inclusive and affirming can serve as models to other counties across the U.S.”

As the agency continues to serve as a model for LGBTQ inclusivity, county officials know they have long ways to go.

“This work requires compassion, not only for LGBTQ youth and their families, but for human service professionals as well, who are embarking on this journey of inclusion,” Morgan said.

Learn more about the HRC Foundation's work to support LGBTQ youth in foster care at hrc.org/acaf.


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