Busting out of the Child Welfare Closet: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender-Affirming Approaches to Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don't speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.

-Audre Lorde (1984, p. 42)

This special issue of Child Welfare emerged from a series of conversations with child welfare colleagues who partici pated in the work conducted by CWLA and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund as they developed a unique partnership entitled, Fostering Transitions: CWLA/Lambda Legal Joint Initiative To Support LGBTQ Youth and Adults Involved with the Child Welfare System. A special issue about this topic never has been published before, and many wondered why so little concern has been expressed about the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) persons affected by child welfare in national, state, and local policies; child welfare agency practices; and professional publications.

For the most part, with few exceptions, the situations that gay and lesbian children, youth, and families endure are representative examples of child welfare in its most challenged state. The very existence of this population is generally unacknowledged publicly by most child welfare professionals except when a particular case that pertains to sexual orientation is blared across the print news or sensationalized in the mass media. This lack of acknowledgement by traditional child welfare practitioners and policymakers is in stark contrast to the heightened consciousness about the population, as evidenced by the runaway and homeless youth programs across the nation, who seem to have a much higher level of comfort in addressing the needs of LGBTQ children, youth, and families.

In this special issue, we have brought together an array of diverse opinions by practitioners, policymakers, and others concerned about children, youth, and families who struggle with issues of gender and sexual orientation in their deliberations of policy and practice alternatives. This special issue is written from an unapologetic and decidedly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)-affirming perspective to assist practitioners, scholars, and policymakers in shaping these deliberations. Clearly, issues of sexual and gender orientation have been assigned to a low position in public debates about how to improve child welfare practices and programs. The issue is seldom raised as a determining factor in the development of policies for families and youth and children. As highlighted in this issue, however, it is a critical factor in the lives of countless children, youth, and families who are affected by issues of gender and sexual orientation on a daily basis, and some great programs for LGBTQ children, youth, and families are emerging around the country.

Changes in the country's attitudes toward LGBT persons and civil rights struggles by LGBT persons themselves demand a conscious effort to include issues of gender and sexual orientation in child welfare practice and policy debates. A deferral will serve only to increase social costs to society and perpetuate harm to thousands gay and lesbian children, youth, and families whose lives are affected by the child welfare system.

One might ask, "what could be gained by elevating gender and sexual orientation issues as a factor in the policy-development phase?" We would respond by asking, "what could be lost by not incorporating the unique needs of LGBT persons?"

What Child Welfare Needs to Do to Respond to LGBT Children, Youth, and Families

Resolving the child welfare imbroglio for LGBT children, youth, and families-as well as all children, youth, and families-requires changes in both the policies and practices of child welfare agencies (Mallon, 1999). These changes must be based on an intentional and deliberate recognition of the uniqueness of one's sexual orientation, so that approaches can enhance family functioning and the well-being of children and youth. …