RICHMOND — Patrice Ismael-Gantt knew she always wanted to foster kids. When she was a special education teacher and intensive in-home therapist, she spent a lot of time with children in dire home situations.
“You see so many cases where you’re in these situations where you can’t help because you’re not their legal guardian,” Ismael-Gantt said. “And that you wish that ... you can make a difference. Or even if it’s just in your head, you’re thinking, ‘Oh wow, I can really help this person,’ but you can’t because you can’t take them home.”
Young people in child welfare systems have long faced challenges: a sense of housing and job instability. Emotional trauma. Uncertainty about the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has added further unpredictability to their lives.
For LGBTQ youths, those challenges may be further exacerbated. The pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of millions of Americans, but has overwhelmingly affected LGBTQ children and young adults.
Roughly 70% of LGBTQ youths said the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, according to a study conducted by the Trevor Project. That number jumped to 85% when focusing on transgender and nonbinary youth.
LGBTQ children and young adults in foster care were experiencing unique challenges even before the pandemic. Oftentimes, LGBTQ youths are placed in foster care after their families of origin reject them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a report from Children’s Rights, a children advocacy organization.
It then becomes a cycle of young people struggling to find permanency, which Alex Wagaman, associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work, attributes partly to barriers in local policies.
Equality Virginia, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in Virginia, has worked to reduce barriers faced by the LGBTQ community within child welfare agencies.
“What we’ve tried to do legislatively is increase the pool of qualified prospective parents so that more LGBTQ families are able to foster and adopt,” said Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia.
A law went into effect July 1 that expanded stepparent adoption to people who are not married to a parent of a child, establishing a legal pathway to parenthood for unmarried LGBTQ couples.
Virginia’s adoption laws contain a “conscience clause“ that allows religious adoption and foster care agencies the right to refuse placement that would “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
“We have barriers for LGBTQ adults to become foster parents and adoptive parents in the commonwealth, and then there’s also stigma” about LGBTQ people’s ability to parent, Wagaman said.
That stigma, she said, may be internalized by the LGBTQ community, which creates hesitancy for many to adopt. Roughly 26% of Virginians raising children identified as LGBTQ, according to Movement Advancement Project, an equality-oriented independent think tank.
Child welfare agencies can help break that stigma, Wagaman said, by creating safe, affirming spaces for LGBTQ parents and young people by doing small, yet impactful, things like respecting one’s preferred name and pronouns. But she said it shouldn’t end there.
“This for me is about more than just turning on a light switch — ‘OK, now we will accept all parents and families,’” she said. “I think in institutions where there has been systematically consistent experiences of discrimination and exclusion, agencies have to go over and above to actively reach out to communities.”
Agencies should have fully trained staff with a level of cultural humility around the LGBTQ community, Wagaman said, and establish support networks with LGBTQ organizations to help children foster connections with the LGBTQ community and have a space for kids to explore their identities.
Referrals to Child Protective Services in Virginia have gone down during the pandemic, said Allison Gilbreath, policy and programs director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, a children’s policy research and advocacy organization. But the decrease could be for a number of complex reasons, she said.
Experts say that as children have fewer options to get out of their homes during the pandemic, there are fewer eyes on children, including from counselors and teachers. Reunifications or permanent placements became more challenging as well, Gilbreath said.
In the past year, the pandemic has led to a halt to in-person activities, including visitations. Older teenagers and young adults in the foster care system have a harder time reaching permanency, but studies show it’s even more difficult for young LGBTQ people of color.
“Simply being in foster care is traumatic in itself,” said Gilbreath, noting that LGBTQ youths also are less likely to return home or be adopted. “All of those things become compounding factors that make their trauma even greater than when they first enter the foster care system.”
There are nearly 5,400 children in Virginia’s foster care system, according to the state Department of Social Services’ website. According to a spokesperson, the department does not keep data on the number of young LGBTQ people in the foster care system, but experts say statewide numbers are reflective of national data.
Research shows that LGBTQ youths are over-represented in foster care and unstable housing; 30% of young people in foster care identified as LGBTQ, yet only 11% of youths in the U.S. identified as LGBTQ, according to a 2019 study.
Virginia law permits either a single unmarried individual or a married couple to adopt. When same-sex marriage became federally recognized in 2014, Ismael-Gantt and her wife, Jessica Ismael-Gantt, began to explore fostering options. The Hampton couple settled with United Methodist Family Services.
“We really wanted to get to a place where we had our own little person that we could take home and be there for and help out,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said.
In August 2016, about a month after their wedding, the Ismael-Gantts were placed with then-8-year-old Zane Ismael-Gantt. Two years later, they were able to adopt him.
Patrice Ismael-Gantt said that time in their life was a “transitional period” for Zane as well as for her and Jessica. Zane was trying to process his new environment as the couple tried to have him understand the love and attention they have for him.
“A lot of kids, they don’t realize permanency, they don’t understand forever because their life has been non-permanent,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said. “And so I think after adoption, everything changed for us because he really realized, ‘Wow, these people love me and they care about me.’”
It was a learning process for the couple that they say was made easier with the resources and tools UMFS provided them, including trauma-based training.
“I don’t even think we could have done it without that backbone support,” said Patrice Ismael-Gantt.
UMFS, a nonprofit family service organization, offers more than 20 programs, including foster care and adoption.
Emily Clark, regional director of the central region for UMFS, said the agency is dedicated to providing resources and assistance not only for LGBTQ foster parents but also for LGBTQ foster children.
“They are at higher risk for abuse and neglect, but also for things like substance abuse, depression and a whole host of extra challenges,” Clark said, “and so having an affirming foster home can be extremely healing.”
UMFS works alongside Side by Side, an LGBTQ youth organization, to provide support groups and other resources for LGBTQ foster kids in the agency.
Clark said there are many LGBTQ parents who foster through UMFS and that the organization does its best “to make sure that they are feeling really affirmed and supported in their journey” through information sessions, training and other programs.
Patrice Ismael-Gantt remembers the moment when she could see that Zane, who is now 12, fully embraced his foster parents.
“It was that small moment that I realized that, wow, this kid is just taking pieces of us and actually making it a part of his life,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said. “And it was a freedom for me, for him, to be able to just be that comfortable with us to be able to just be a part of us.”
Desmond and Stacey Pagan had always wanted a family of their own. Having been together for 16 years and married for 11, the Henrico County couple were exploring options to extend their family and landed on fostering through UMFS in 2018.
Right off the bat, Desmond said, the couple felt comfortable at the agency and, as a gay couple, they were not treated any differently from the other foster couples. They adopted then-16-year-old Michael in 2019 and are currently fostering a child.
“We are human beings as well, and if we want a family, then that’s perfectly fine,” Desmond Pagan said. “There shouldn’t be a reason as to why we shouldn’t be able to have that family.”