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Social Working the LGBT Child

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To effectively perform social services, providers must understand where a person comes from. It is taking the time to recognize a person’s background, culture, and personal story. When it comes to children, this can be even more important to helping them develop. It is taking into account their background and making sure they have all the resources they need, especially those in the LGBT community.

Within the foster system, social service providers have the goal of making sure children are placed in an environment that is least restrictive to their development. When it comes to children of different races, ethnicity, gender, etc., caseworkers should ensure that children’s caregivers can match their specific needs. This can often be a task with lack of foster homes, distance between homes and resources, difference in culture surrounding a child, and many other issues within personal communities. When it comes to children of the LGBT community, this becomes even more of a task.

The LGBT (QIA) community is still not something that gets a lot of attention. Specifically, in Illinois, the policies within the Department of Children and Family Services address LGBT children, however, it is not something that is well known to most workers and there is still a major lack in literature, policies, training, and advocacy for those children. While policies directly protect them against discrimination, the fragility of those identities in children is not necessarily taking into account. This is the same for the policies in most states across the U.S. It is a phenomenon that is still not fully discovered.

Children typically start to question their sexual identities as early as age 5. Most children won’t come out until much later, but they will begin to face an internal struggle, trying to understand the parallel between what they feel inside, and what the world around them is assigning to them.

One of the main issues with sexuality is that sexual education in schools does not address the possibility that not all children will be heterosexual. Puberty is a huge time in a child’s life where they begin to question themselves, and their emotions become heightened,  and they feel less “child-like”. It is during this time that we must be active as parents, educators, and social service providers to make sure that children understand that it is OKAY to not be sure about who or what they like. This is something lacking in our education system. Often it is left up to the parents, but this leaves a lot of foster children to fall through the cracks. Children who do not end up in permanent placements or who get passed from home to home are left even more confused.

As social service providers, it is crucial that we are paying attention to a child that might be questioning themselves. Gender identity and sexuality is an extremely fragile thing. While we definitely want to make sure we are providing children with resources, we also want to ensure they don’t feel singled out or like they have a problem. Often times service providers might refer a child to counseling to deal with the emotions of questioning their identity, but it is crucial that providers leave that up to the child themselves.

Often children feel like something is wrong with them, if they’re sent to counseling. Depending on the age of the child, this should not be something that is forced, rather encouraged and left open as an option for them. Furthermore, if a caseworker does not feel they have enough resources they should look up the policies within their state child welfare system.

Many caseworkers are not trained on the specific policies for the LGBT community, due to differing opinions of those who do the trainings. For example, in Illinois there is very little training that addresses how to work with LGBT children specifically, however, the state does have their own LGBT liaison. Many offices are unaware the state liaison exists, which is why it is crucial to do extra research when the possibility of having a child with these specific needs enters your caseload.

The biggest piece in working with children of the LGBTQIA community is to make sure they are in a supportive, open-minded, and safe environment. This means making sure the caseworker, foster parents, and those working with the child, have no personal beliefs that would interfere with the child thriving in their environment with their personal sexuality. Some private agencies have religious affiliations which could be a hindrance to some children.

Open mindedness and a willingness to learn are the key factors in looking for an LGBT placement. Children of the trans community will need a large amount of support and advocacy and a lot of that will need to come from a caregiver, due to the emotional toll of day to day living.

Caseworkers and agency staff should still remain sensitive to the child’s specific needs and ensure their foster placement is supporting them. This does not mean children need to be in a home of homosexual couples or caregivers. While that certainly  might help, it does not mean they cannot get what they need from other caregivers. It just comes down to making sure foster parents are trained to have the same open minds as social service providers and that children are matched to the best, most supportive homes.

The last thing to remember is that children have the right to choose when they “come out” to others. Even if a worker suspects something, they should ALWAYS seek specific permission from the child, before addressing anything with sexuality. This includes counseling, LGBT advocacy, foster placements, support groups, service planning with specific tasks on LGBT, life skills training with specific LGBT elements, etc. It is never a service provider’s job to out a child. Unless that child is in specific danger, their sexuality should remain a private matter.

Children have a right to privacy and they have a right to support. As service providers, we must always remain sensitive to our client’s needs, and if a child is suspected to have some questions, workers should be very careful on how they proceed. The last thing anyone wants to do is traumatize a child more, by simply being unaware of the proper proceedings. Please also remember that personal opinions and religious beliefs should have no bearing on how a child is addressed. Children deserve the same care and respect, no matter their gender, race, religious belief, or sexuality. I encourage everyone to read up on their state policies and for agencies to add trainings to ensure children are getting everything they need within this community.

Alyssa is a social worker and feminist currently getting her Master's in Social Work at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Alyssa has a Graduate Degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and is a social advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial equality.

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