A portrait of Tristan Torres. Photo via Tristan Torres
The proposed federal legislation follows several states that have made it legal for adoption agencies to refuse to serve queer children and families.
Tristan Torres, a 16-year-old from Las Vegas, Nevada, decided that Thanksgiving would be the ideal day to come out to his mom as transgender. He chose that day in the hopes his mom would be more supportive on a holiday oriented around gratitude and family. Torres told me that immediately after he tried talking to his mom and her boyfriend about his gender identity, he found they weren't willing to accept him; Torres's mom took away his house key, told him to leave their house, and locked the doors.
"I didn't even get the chance to get anything from my room," Torres recalled. "I was just wearing my clothes and that was it."
In 2014, Torres became one of over 400,000 youth in the US foster care system, a system that's teeming with LGBTQ youth. Like Torres, many young LGBTQ people wind up in the system because of family rejection or abuse due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. A recent report from Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ civil rights organization, estimates that queer youth make up nearly 25 percent of those in the nation's foster care system.
In states like Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico and others, demand foster care placement outstrips the number of available beds. Despite the need for more adoptive families, a federal bill introduced this April, the Child Welfare Inclusion Act of 2017, could make it much harder for LGBTQ kids to get adopted. If passed, the legislation could allow adoption and foster care agencies to claim religious or moral objections to fostering LGBTQ youth or providing for LGBTQ couples looking to adopt.
Currey Cook, director of Lambda Legal's Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project, said this legislation is "a government-endorsed message that LGBT youth and families are not worthy or are less than."
But the bill's sponsors, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, believe that foster care providers should continue raking in government dollars even if they turn away LGBTQ couples, mistreat kids, or force queer homeless youth to turn elsewhere.
"There is no good reason why any of these care providers should be disqualified from working with their government to serve America's families simply because of their deeply-rooted religious beliefs," Senator Kelly wrote in an April press release about the bill. Representatives for Enzi and Kelly did not respond to requests for comment.
Before 2017, states like Michigan, Virginia, and North Dakota already had laws that permit anti-LGBTQ discrimination toward foster youth or couples. This year, South Dakota and Alabama were able to pass their own bills that do the same, and this May, a version in Texas passed in the House and now awaits the state governor's signature. Alabama's law would apply only to private agencies that don't accept state or federal funds.
Illinois, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia have made it illegal for providers (faith-based or not) to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Cook says that this is the reason Enzi and Kelly created their bill.
"All types of families come into the [foster care] system. Every faith, race, and background. You have to have a system in place to serve everybody equally because you are serving a representation of our entire country," Cook explained. "There are amazing churches and communities that support LGBT people. Bills like these are pitting communities of faith against others."
Protecting one's "deeply-rooted religious beliefs" to withhold a child from a loving home could also mean that more kids stay stuck in a severely overpopulated system. But the bill and state laws similar to it aren't just ridden with between-the-lines bigotry—they're also bad for the economy. The Department of Health and Human Services' 2016 budget for foster care and related programs was $8 billion, which doesn't include significant state-level costs. In 2010, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services estimated that it can cost the state and federal government up to $29,000 annually to keep one child in foster care. Those costs could be driven down systemwide by placing more children into stable adoptive homes.
A 2013 report by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ legal rights organization, calculated that same-sex couples are four times more likely than heterosexual couples to be raising an adopted child and six times more likely to be raising a foster child. By cutting off LGBTQ couples from adopting, fewer kids will find permanent and loving homes, something many of these bill's proponents ironically fail to mention.
Kate Stevenson and Jennifer McGowan have been married for over 10 years. Today, the Alabama-based couple are among the thousands of LGBTQ partners hoping to adopt children.
"We have a lot of love to give," Stevenson told me. "And we thought we'd be really great moms."
When Stevenson and McGowan began looking into adoption, they chose a more LGBTQ-friendly (and costly) agency, rather than go through a state adoption agency. Even though Alabama's version of this federal bill hadn't yet passed, McGowan already sensed the threat of systematic discrimination.
"We knew it'd be more difficult to adopt in the South as a gay couple. And when you do the research, you realize you might have to pretend like you're a single person instead or even say that your partner is your roommate when caseworkers come for home visits," McGowan explained.
Cook worries most about the LGBTQ youth in foster care who already have limited support if any.
"[Turning away LGBTQ couples who want to adopt] is unconstitutional and should not be permitted. But then when you think about young people in foster care, they don't have a choice where they are placed," he explained. "When you're placed in state custody, your whole life is controlled by the people that you're placed with. It's everything from the clothes you wear to who you are allowed to see, what you're allowed to do, and who you see for therapy."
That Thanksgiving, after Torres was kicked out of his home, a caseworker from Child Protective Services came to pick him up. He spent a week in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital before landing in a Christian-based foster home.
"I had no choice whatsoever in anything. I was basically finding out things day-by-day about what my life was going to be like for the next 9 months," the now 19-year-old recalls. "I had two of the worst experiences of my life in the foster home they placed me in."
Torres didn't have time to process anything. As soon as he was released from the hospital, he had a one-on-one interview with a woman who wanted to know about his hobbies and feelings about doing chores.
Torres figured the woman was another CPS caseworker. "Turned out, though, that I was going to be living with her and her three biological kids and one [foster kid]," he said.
After just a few weeks of living with his new foster family, Torres says his foster mom demanded that he stay away from her biological kids. She thought he was "turning them transgender," he says. During the two months he lived there, he says, she often lectured him for hours about why "being trans is wrong."
It would take two more turns through abusive homes before he landed in a supportive environment: The home of Andre Wade, the CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada, and his partner.
"It's the most healthy, caring environment I've ever been in and I'm so grateful for them," he said.
Torres is now studying journalism at the College of Southern Nevada. This year, he provided instrumental advocacy for the passage of AB99, a Nevada bill that requires training for caseworkers and foster parents on accommodating LGBTQ minors' gender identity, pronouns, and preferred clothing.
"We don't have enough foster parents to even consider turning away anyone for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity," Torres said.