When Amanda Cloyd began looking at the files on teenagers being referred to Youth Oasis during her first year or so as a social worker at the Baton Rouge shelter, she started to notice a pattern.
Homeless youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender were apparently being rejected from state foster care in greater numbers, she said. As a last resort, they were seeking placement at Youth Oasis, a nonprofit emergency shelter where children stay on average 41 days.
The apparent shift comes just over two years since Louisiana began trying to slash foster care in favor of adoption or family reunification. The state, which served 7,300 children in foster care in 2012, had the goal of reducing that number by 1,000 by 2015 but ended up with 8,191 foster care children in fiscal year 2015, according to the state Department of Children and Family Services, the agency that manages foster care.
Foster families can say they’re uncomfortable with caring for children who they feel pose problems, which is how they wind up at Youth Oasis, said the shelter’s executive director, Rafael de Castro. Youth Oasis’ leaders said they noticed about 15 LGBT kids were referred to the shelter this year after being turned down by foster families, an increase from the one or two in previous years.
“There’s not a lot of places they can go where they’re accepted,” said de Castro. Some youth, like the teenage girl in Zachary whose mother tried to kick her out of their home for being in a lesbian relationship last month, already face rejection from their biological families, he said.
So Youth Oasis decided to open a new facility called Diversity House specifically geared toward LGBT youth. The building will contain nine fully-furnished apartments where homeless people ages 16 to 21 can live for 12 to 18 months and receive counseling and life-skills training. The center is expected to open in January.
DCFS declined to answer questions about whether LGBT youth were being denied care from foster families.
“We train our staff to ensure that all needs presented by a child are addressed,” DCFS spokeswoman Grace Weber said in a prepared statement.
Youth advocates say specialized housing is essential for LGBT youth in need because the group is over-represented in the homeless population and is more likely to be sexually exploited and dismissed for jobs. Elaine Maccio, an associate professor at LSU who studies homelessness and LGBT issues, said some 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.
“The problem is when they try to seek services, they run into several roadblocks. One is that some services are faith-based and the kids have to keep their sexuality or gender identity hidden,” she said. “Or they’re found out or are open about it, and they are not welcome. Or they’re ‘welcome’ with strings attached.”
In exchange for basic services, LGBT youth are sometimes forced to undergo religious counseling, which can exacerbate shame around sexual identity and prove unproductive for the child in the long run, Maccio said.
Cloyd said identity issues among transgender youth, in particular, can cause young people in the shelter to become especially aggressive, likely as a result of bullying. She worked with a combative 15-year-old — who was born as a boy but identifies as a girl — who learned the word “transgender” for the first time at Youth Oasis.
“I didn’t know anyone else in the world feels like this,” the teenager said, according to Cloyd.
“This is something we’re struggling with as a community — LGBT youth being rejected by their families, being mistreated. So trying to find a place for them in foster care kind of parallels this problem in the general community,” said Stephen Dixon, a Baton Rouge-based attorney with Children’s Rights, an advocacy group.
De Castro said Youth Oasis is already getting calls of interest about Diversity House. Many children who “age out” of foster care are simply let loose at 18, he said, but the new center would allow young people as old as 21 to have a home and receive training in interviewing for jobs, budgeting and other life skills.
“What Youth Oasis wants to supply — for youth in transition — that’s an important piece. You need to have good foster care, but you also need to have a place for people transitioning out of foster care,” Dixon said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.