In a state that prides itself on being “pro-life,” Texas lawmakers sure seem hell-bent on ensuring that children in the foster care system experience the absolute worst possible outcomes.
Signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month, House Bill 3859 will soon allow child welfare agencies that receive taxpayer money to claim religious objections to certain groups of people — effectively giving them a license to deny adoption and fostering opportunities to LGBTQ, single, or non-Christian parents. The bill further enshrines discrimination in Texas law by allowing these same publicly funded child welfare agencies to send LGBTQ foster children to so-called conversion therapy, an attempt to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual.
For the almost 30,000 children in Texas foster care, the consequences of HB 3859 will be devastating and, yes, potentially deadly.
In 2015 a federal judge ruled that Texas violated the constitutional rights of foster children by exposing them to an unreasonable risk of harm in a system where children “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.” In her scathing ruling, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi found that “years of abuse, neglect and shuttling between inappropriate placements across the state had created a population [of former foster youth] that cannot contribute to society, and proves a continued strain on the government through welfare, incarceration or otherwise.”
In an ideal world, child welfare agencies would be able to remove children from abusive family environments and either provide services to their families of origin with the goal of eventually returning the children home, or find other families that can better care for them through foster care or adoption. In Texas, however, far too many children linger in the system until they become adults. For queer and trans youth, that almost certainly means a childhood hallmarked by a closeted identity, extreme instability, and a constant threat of violence by peers and caregivers.
It’s difficult to describe what it is like to spend your childhood growing up in the foster care system. Most queer and trans youth are deemed “unadoptable” early on. HB 3859 will almost certainly exacerbate that. Practically, this means that these children will spend their childhoods in facilities or “group homes” with other children who are cared for by rotating staffs of caregivers. Children eat, sleep, take their medicine, and go to school all within the confines of these facilities, oftentimes having very little interaction with the outside world. For the most part, these facilities function as prisons, except the “inmates” are abused and neglected children.
As a gay child in the foster care system, I spent my childhood in facilities like that. My Child Protective Services caseworker told me at one point that I could either “keep being gay or straighten up” if I wanted to be placed with a foster family. I didn’t even really know I was gay at the time, but I guess my fervent love of all things Beyoncé and Sailor Moon gave it all away. I’d go on to spend my childhood shuffling through a series of nearly 25 different foster homes and facilities — each imbued with the same culture of abuse, neglect, and blatant disregard for the wellbeing of the children they were caring for.
At age 13, I was moved to a facility in Denton. It was one of the most abusive places I ever lived. I remember being taunted daily for being a “faggot” by peers and caregivers. Children there were routinely locked for days in a “de-escalation room” the size of a walk-in closet. Withholding food was often used as a form of punishment. And it was there, at that facility, that I was molested for the first time by a caregiver in what would become a terrible ritual I was forced to succumb to multiple times a week.
Give or take a few details, that is exactly what most foster children who grow up in Texas’s system will describe as their childhood.
The cycle of abuse we are forced to endure inflicts a degree of trauma that lasts well after we exit the system. Homelessness, unemployment, instability, and incarceration are the norms once foster children become adults. I’ve written about my experiences living on the streets of Houston after aging out of the system — and I have had to watch far too many of the young people I grew up with face similar struggles. For some, the burdens were simply too heavy to bear. In the past four and a half years, I’ve lost three people I knew in the system to suicide. Two others were found dead after drug overdoses.
Children need families. Not facilities. At the very least, HB 3859 does little more than create an atmosphere of confusion and discouragement for families who potentially want to foster or adopt in a state that desperately needs more families to do so. At it’s worst, it will rob children of their livelihoods by unduly denying LGBT, single, or non-Christian parents opportunities to save children from the cycle of abuse and neglect they will almost certainly encounter growing up in the Texas foster care.
KRISTOPHER SHARP, based in Washington, D.C., is a program consultant for the Administration of Children and Families.