In the United States, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) collects demographic and other types of information on all youth who enter the foster care system. This practice allows the government and the public to track how well the system is meeting its ultimate goal — to place all children into stable and loving homes.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF) made a final rule that would require child welfare departments to gather and report data related to the sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression of youth in the foster care system. This was an important addition to AFCARS, as research shows that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system and experience health and wellness disparities while in care.
In March 2018, however, HHS asked the public to comment on whether the new AFCARS data requirements, set to go into practice in 2019, should be maintained. It should. When we know the characteristics and experiences of youth coming in and out of the system, we can analyze whether there are gaps in care and whether there are certain groups experiencing disparities.
Delaying or eliminating data collection on LGBTQ youth puts the long-awaited opportunity to track the system’s efforts to reduce disparities among these kids at great risk.
A 2013 study conducted by my colleagues and me, under the Administration of Children & Families Permanency Innovations Initiative, found that nearly 20 percent of youth ages 12-21 in foster care in Los Angeles were LGBTQ, which is nearly twice the percentage of LGBTQ youth estimated to be living outside of foster care.
In addition to being disproportionately represented in the system, the Los Angeles study found that LGBTQ youth experience worse conditions and outcomes in foster care. LGBTQ youth had a higher number of foster care placements and were more likely to live in a group home, two challenges toward finding permanent homes. Over twice as many LGBTQ youth reported being treated poorly by the foster care system compared to non-LGBTQ youth, and they were also more likely to have become homeless.
Further, both the Los Angeles study and a recent national study showed that LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience psychological distress. The absence of administrative data on a national level makes it impossible to track whether the system is making improvements in the treatment and care of this vulnerable and significant population of youth in out-of-home care.
Aside of the great need for this data, the final rule for AFCARS data collection has already undergone rigorous scrutiny. When HHS released the proposed rule in 2016, it went through a thorough notice and comment period, during which the burden of all data elements, including those related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, were discussed and addressed by scores of researchers, advocates, and child welfare and social service experts. The final rule reflects the adjustments made to AFCARS to minimize the onus on the foster care system and maximize the benefits for LGBT youth.
We need to ask who it serves to revisit the issue and delay the collection of this critical information.