Sexual Minority Youth are Over-represented and Have Worse Outcomes in the Child Welfare System

Stephen T. Russell, Laura Baams, Jessica N. Fish, Bianca D.M. Wilson, and Armeda Stevenson Wojciak

Introduction

Community-based samples of youth have found that sexual minority youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or same-sex attracted youth) are over-represented in child welfare systems. Their over-representation is probably the result of sexual minority youth being more likely than heterosexual youth to run away or be asked to leave their families of origin, frequently due to families’ rejection of their sexual orientation. 

Once in foster care and other out-of-home placements, sexual minority youth are also more likely to experience further mistreatment from foster parents, foster siblings, and social workers. Research shows that these youth are also more likely than their heterosexual peers to suffer emotional and physical abuse leading to hospitalization.

Until now, it was not clear if the over-representation of sexual minority youth in child welfare systems took place only in certain communities throughout the United States or nationwide.

This brief reports on a study that uses data from two nationally representative studies—the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) and a sample of youth involved with Child Protective Services—to explore the prevalence of foster care or out-of-home placements for sexual minority and heterosexual youth for the nation as a whole. In a companion study, the authors examine data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, a large statewide school-based survey, to explore disparities in psychological and school outcomes for sexual minority versus heterosexual youth.

Key Findings

  • Nationally representative data demonstrate that the over-representation of sexual minority youth in child welfare systems is a national phenomenon (see Figure 1).
  • Sexual minority youth in foster care or out-of-home placement experience more victimization, poorer school functioning, more substance use, and poorer mental health compared with heterosexual youth (see Figure 2).

Figure 1.

Compared to youth with different-sex attractions, youth with same sex attractions are more likely to be in foster care

Nationally representative data show that compared to youth with different-sex attractions, youth with same sex attractions are more likely to be in foster care. In contrast, youth with no attractions are not more likely to be in foster care compared to youth with same sex attractions.
*This figureshows adjusted odds ratios (circles) and 95% confidence intervals (lines). A lines that crosses 1 is no different than the comparison group (youth with different-sex attractions).
Source: Add Health

 

Figure 2.

Sexual minority youth in foster care have higher rates of victimization than heterosexual youth in foster care and sexual minority youth in stable housing

This figure2 shows that compared with heterosexual youth in foster care and sexual minority youth in stable housing, sexual minority youth in foster care report more victimization.

Policy Implications

Institutional guidelines in child welfare systems, such as policies and professional development related to assessing needs, placement, family support, and group home settings, are needed to provide safe and affirming care of sexual minority youth. (See existing guidelines for more information.) In addition, evidence-based practices, including mandated family counseling with a sexuality-affirming therapist before reunification efforts are attempted and better training for child welfare staff and social workers, must also be fostered to provide a better quality of care to these youth.

References

1 Fish, J.N., Baams, L., Wojciak, A.S., & Russell, S.T. (2019). Are sexual minority youth overrepresented in foster care, child welfare, and out-of-home placement? Findings from nationally representative data. Child Abuse & Neglect 89:203-211.

2 Baams, L., Wilson, B.D.M., Russell, S.T. (2019). LGBTQ youth in unstable housing and foster care. Pediatrics 143(3).

Suggested Citation

Russell, S.T., Baams, L., Fish, J.N., Wilson, B.D.M, & Wojciak, A.S. (2019). Sexual minority youth are over-represented and have worse outcomes in the child welfare system. PRC Research Brief 4(3). DOI: 10.26153/TSW/1912.

About the Authors

Stephen T. Russell (stephen.russell@utexas.edu) is Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development, chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Laura Baams is an assistant professor in the Pedagogy and Educational Sciences Department at the University of Groningen; Jessica N. Fish is an assistant professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health; Armeda Stevenson Wojciak is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa; and Bianca D.M. Wilson is a Rabbi Barbara Zacky Senior Scholar of Public Policy of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law and an affiliate faculty member of UCLA’s California Center for Population Research.

Acknowledgements

These studies were supported by grant P2CHD042849, Population Research Center, awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In addition, the Fish et al. study was funded in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (awarded to Fish) grant number F32AA023138; and received support from P2CHD041041, awarded to the Maryland Population Research Center, by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The Baams et al. study received additional support from the Communities for Just Schools Fund and support the Priscilla Pond Flawn Endowment at The University of Texas at Austin (to Russell). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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