Anastasia is quick to describe her experience with the foster system, and she doesn’t mince words.
“It’s been a bumpy road,” said the 17-year-old who is currently in the permanent custody of the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services (CCDCFS). “A really bumpy road.”
Over the past five years, Anastasia has moved between foster homes to group-living arrangements to a brief time at a residential care facility. She remembers being terrified at age 12 when she was first told that she was going “into the system.”
“I ran down five flights of stairs and it took them about an hour to catch me,” said Anastasia. “I’m big girl, but I can move fast when I want to.”
Complicating that first transition into foster care, Anastasia had come out as bisexual to her family the year before, and was unsure how her sexual orientation was going to play into the foster care living arrangements. In her first foster home, some of her fears were realized.
“They were against LGBTQ people,” she remembered. “There were 8 other girls there in a small house, and it was just a nasty situation.”
Anastasia’s experience is far from uncommon, and is now reflected in “The Cuyahoga Youth Count: A Report on LGBTQ+ Youth’s Experience in Foster Care,” a first-of-its-kind report that explores the representation and experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in the Cuyahoga County foster care system. Conducted by the Institute for Innovation and Implementation at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in partnership with the Division of Children and Family Services in Cuyahoga County, the study collected demographic data on the sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression of youth in Cuyahoga County’s foster care program.
“We have known for decades that LGBTQ+ youth are invisible because systems don’t ask questions about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” said Marlene Matarese, deputy director and principal investigator for the National Quality Improvement Center on Tailored Services, Placement Stability, and Permanency for LGBTQ2S Children and Youth in Foster Care (QIC- LGBTQ2S). “We need research like this because data uncovers what is invisible, and once it is visible, it can’t be ignored.”
The research found that LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in Cuyahoga County’s foster care system and experience disparities in their treatment, increased mental health hospitalizations, greater reported use of substances as well as discrimination and other adverse experiences.
Researchers used phone and text message surveys to reach more than 250 of the 900 youth between the ages of 12 and 21 who were in the foster care system in Cuyahoga County and not being held in juvenile detention. Of note, there was an overrepresentation of Black and multiracial youth in the study, resulting in the data largely reflecting the experiences of Black and multiracial youth.
Among the key findings:
- 32% of youth in Cuyahoga County’s foster care system identified as LGBTQ+, compared to 9.2% nationwide average of youth age 13-17 identifying as LGBTQ+.
- LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for substance abuse, placement instability, and adverse physical and mental health conditions.
- LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to have adverse experiences in care and more likely to be hospitalized.
- 42.3% of LGBTQ+ youth reported that they could never be themselves in the place they are currently living, compared to 23.8% of non-LGBTQ+ youth.
That these foster youth are reporting adverse experiences and that there is an overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ youth are not disconnected pieces of these findings. 27.1% of all youth who indicated they had discriminatory experiences in the past year reported that at least one of these experiences was related to their LGBTQ+ identity.
As the Trump administration nixed data collection on LGBTQ+ youth in foster care in 2019, Cuyahoga County staff had previously been relying on more informal methods to determine the demographics of the youth with whom they work. With regards to LGBTQ+ youth, this report helped them see that their previous methods were yielding estimates that were significantly lower than both the national average and the 32% statistic in the study..
“When we were asking staff about the LGBTQ+ youth they were working with, we were getting estimates back of 2-3%,” said Karen Anderson, special projects coordinator at CCDCFS. “Over 30% is far beyond where we were operating.”
Hearing the negative experiences of LGBTQ+ foster care youth in Cuyahoga County was disheartening, researchers said, but not surprising. Similar research conducted in New York City and Los Angeles revealed both the overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ youth in the system as well as the accompanying adverse experiences. Still, this is the first study indicating that the numbers in the Midwest are on par with those far more populous areas.
“The data helps illustrate that the Midwest is in the same boat as what’s happening in those larger cities on the east and west coasts,” said Angela Weeks, project director, QIC-LGBTQ2S.
The report was not only significant for its findings, but also for its identification of the geographical site for the study. Often, research sites choose to remain anonymous, and indeed the principal researchers here were prepared to approach this study with that tenant in mind.
“We could have just published a report that said, ‘a Midwestern county,'” explained Weeks. “It says a lot about the dedication of the Division of Children and Family Services in Cuyahoga County that they were willing to undertake this work and be identified directly.”
For those working within the Cuyahoga County system, this research represents an opportunity to collect key data and to test assumptions built into the system. The numbers also serve as a clarion call to action.
“If we found out 30% of our kids were autistic, we would be offering specialized services, and that’s exactly what we need to do here to support our LGBTQ+ youth,” said Anderson.
Cuyahoga County staff have already begun meeting with all of their caseworkers through both group and one-on-one conversations to create a more supportive environment to work with LGBTQ+ youth.
“We want youth to be able share their whole lived experience, and we need to make sure that staff are creating the best interactions possible so that LGBTQ+ can be their full and authentic selves,” explained Jennifer Croessmann, social program administrator for CCDFS.
Future plans include more specialized training for staff and foster families, networking with local schools to help support their LGBTQ+ initiatives, and just generally making sure that important questions are asked.
“We need to achieve having a practice, policy and procedure that make it clear that young people are to be asked about their identity and then be provided tailored services accordingly,” said Anderson.
As for Anastasia, she shared that she has seen other LGBTQ+ youth in the foster care system experience hardship, and is thankful that the home where she currently lives allows her to be open about her bisexuality. As she completes her high school education and works towards her plans to attend Cleveland State University, she is hopeful that the acceptance of her sexual orientation she has in her current foster home will remain.
“I’ve been through a lot, so I know things can change,” sighed Anastasia. “But for right now, everything is fine, we’re going strong, and we’re keeping it together. We just need to keep it going that way.”
- Read The Cuyahoga Youth Count: A Report on LGBTQ+ Youth’s Experience in Foster Care.
- From staff at CCDFCS, “We need foster and adoptive parents, and what we need in particular people who want to take in teenagers. Call 216-881-5775 to become a foster parent/caregiver.”