I smile as our dogs get reacquainted. My dog is older, and generally afraid of other dogs. Her dog seems to intuitively know to be gentle and respectful.
The young owner, whom I will call Amanda, and I have known each other for a few years as our paths in child welfare have crossed often.
Paths that crossed before our dogs became friends, before we realized how close we live to each other, and before she was back home with her “new” father, an uncle who has been nothing short of exceptional.
Amanda is smart, perfectly expressive, and a bit dramatic in all the ways that bring me joy. And she is healing still.
Amanda’s journey through child welfare mirrored that of others: trauma that was left unaddressed for too long, removal from her home, and a bumpy journey between hospitals, residential facilities, and foster homes until she settled into what everyone expects will be her final home, with kin.
What made her journey more complex was her decision to acknowledge and embrace her queerness. While Amanda embraced herself as queer, many people in her circle struggled to accept her decision to embrace her true identity — as is true for many LGBTQ people.
Schools, some clinicians, some agencies, and even some foster families thought this decision was a by-product of her trauma, instead of realizing that she discovered her true, authentic self — which has been essential to Amanda’s healing.
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Exact numbers nationally and in Colorado are hard to access, but it is widely believed that LBGTQ youth are over-represented in child welfare, meaning there is a greater percentage of children who identify as LGBTQ in child welfare than the percentage of youth who identify as LBGTQ in the general population.
Because of homophobia and transphobia in their homes, schools and social settings, LGBTQ youth enter the foster care system at a disproportionate rate, and then they often end up running away because of hostility and homophobia in their homes, in the “system.”
I hear common stories from fellow LGBTQ child welfare travelers that mirror Amanda’s: verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that is too often linked to the perpetrators’ reaction to their decision to speak out about their LGBTQ identities; a deep sense of loneliness and rejection that is common in most in child welfare, but has the added element of their identity — and the loneliness that can be common within the queer community — layered on; profound harassment that adds to existing trauma; and a sense of being second-class citizens and not being loved “unconditionally,” when such unconditional love and acceptance is so essential.
In contrast to many states, Colorado’s child welfare youth are protected, statutorily, against discrimination on account of sexual orientation and gender identity, and Colorado has a child protection ombudsman whose growing influence is welcomed.
Colorado has rightly rejected moves by some of our neighboring states to limit/restrict LGBTQ-identifying parents to adopt or foster children, knowing that these parents are crucial parts of healing journeys for all children, especially those youth in child welfare identifying as queer or trans.
The right questions are emerging in Colorado’s child welfare sector around building lasting and meaningful supports for LGBTQ identifying youth, and Amanda’s pathway home offers important clues.
Her county case worker and clinical team not only understood her particular trauma, but also how identifying as queer required them to think more carefully about the services she received and the homes in which she was placed to ensure that her healing journey was supported and not upended.
Placement in high school was predicated on long consultations with schools on how LGBTQ-affirming they were, and Amanda found a church where she can worship with an openness that I imagine allows her powerful exuberance to blend beautifully in heaven with all other glorious voices ringing out across Colorado.
A recent interview I did with Ryan Ayala, manager of Outsources: LGBT Culture and Politics on KGNU Radio, as well as discussions with agencies like Queer Asterisk Therapeutic Services about LGBTQ journeys through child welfare push us even further toward the re-evaluation of workforce issues, recruitment, overdue organizational governance and leadership dialogues, organizational culture, and thoughtful queer and trans inclusion strategies in ecosystems surrounding LGBTQ youth in child welfare.
These movements and conversations all point to a future where young women like Amanda can heal more comprehensively.
Amanda and her dog head home, after a final wag toward my thankful pup, to an uncle who stands with Amanda without reservation or hesitation, and who sees, as I saw years ago when I first met her, real strength and beauty.
Amanda makes us all richer and is part of a growing community of children whose journeys toward healing are guided by love and a focus on their trauma, not on their chosen identity.
Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.