The state Department of Children and Families has repealed proposed protections for gay and transgender foster youth — including one that would have banned the highly controversial practice of conversion therapy intended to make gay teens heterosexual.
Advocates for the youth, who learned of the change this week, are angry the protections were quietly removed after they worked with DCF for months on the recommendations. They are hoping to reverse the situation at a public hearing Friday.
“These are children in the foster-care system that are already extremely vulnerable … and to put them in an environment where they are not supported or are subjected to conversion therapy is unacceptable,” said Hannah Willard, policy and outreach coordinator for the civil-rights group Equality Florida.
Nearly a year ago, DCF began rewriting the rules for the state’s 360 foster-care group homes — all of which segregate girls and boys. Officials initially embraced changes recommended by advocates for kids and teens who are LGBTQ: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sense of gender identity. According to documents obtained through a public-records request, in November DCF Secretary Mike Carroll approved the proposed changes and set a hearing for Jan. 11.
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Officials from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Florida Baptist Children’s Home testified at the hearing, and a week later both filed letters with the state objecting to the changes — though DCF had already scrapped the protections three days before the letters were received.
Advocates for LGBTQ youth accuse the religious groups of taking their case directly to Gov. Rick Scott before the hearing, though they have no evidence of that.
“The governor does have a relationship with Florida Baptist Children’s Home — his previous secretary of DCF was the chief financial officer there,” said Robert Latham, supervising attorney at the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, referring to former DCF Secretary David Wilkins, who resigned in 2013.
Discussing the issue with the governor would not be improper, but Latham said any objections should not outweigh months of work and widespread support for the changes.
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Carroll did not respond to questions on whether the governor’s office issued a directive on the matter, but he did say the issue “should not be politicized” and that “DCF absolutely does not and will not tolerate any discrimination against any vulnerable child for any reason.”
In its letter to DCF, an official with the Baptist Children’s Home wrote that protections specifically for LGBTQ youth should be dropped.
“Faith-based milieus allow for spiritual guidance that respect the differences among God’s creations and can do so in a safe, non-judgmental manner. Therefore, a special designation for sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is unwarranted,” the letter said.
It is unclear who wrote the letter because the state did not include a cover sheet with the comments when it released the documents.
The Baptist Children’s Home also did not respond to a request for further comment. The nonprofit organization operates group homes throughout the state that contract with DCF to serve kids in the foster-care system.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also declined to elaborate on its letter, seemed to focus its objections mainly on how the proposed rules would deal with foster youth who identify as transgender.
Executive director Michael Sheedy said the term itself represented a “tragic misconception” that gender could be changed and that believing otherwise causes “profoundly negative consequences for many.”
“Clearly, every child should be safe from bullying and harassment in the care of [the] state of Florida,” Sheedy wrote. “An expectation of abstinence for school-aged children from sexual activity should be established. The policy goal should be to promote the healthy development of children, including their sexual development, and acceptance of their gender rightly understood.”
The hearing Friday morning in Tallahassee will accept public comments on the most recent language before DCF issues a final ruling.
Latham, whose legal clinic solely represents current and former foster youth, said reports of harassment in the system is rampant. Two of his clients reported that they were sent to mental hospitals after being subjected to extreme pressure from foster parents to change their sexual orientation.
And in 2012, an unidentified foster teen told reporters in South Florida that he had been subjected to conversion therapy, expelled from a Christian school, prevented from seeing his best friend and screamed at by his foster mom after admitting he was gay. The youth wrote to his court-ordered guardian, but DCF declined to intervene in the case.
“A lot of foster parent recruitment has been done by evangelical churches,” Latham said. “And lots of really, really, great foster parents have come through those channels — but it can also make it harder to find a good environment for an LGBTQ youth. It’s much harder to recruit out of the LGBT populations. It has only been five years since gay people could legally adopt in Florida. And all that prejudice is still out there.”
Institutions have only recently addressed the issue of transgender youth in foster care, advocates said, and finding a good fit for a child whose body may look male but whose persona is female can be difficult.
“All we wanted was a conversation so that a trans kid has a shot being in a home that is supportive and safe,” Latham said. “What happens too often now is that those kids are forced into an environment where they’re not welcome and they don’t feel safe and accepted.”