When Mary Carroll and Lee Brigido became certified as foster parents, they were unsure what children would enter their home. The Bellevue couple first cared for some children during short-term respite stays. Very soon after being certified, though, they got a call from their caseworker at their foster care agency about a teenager who needed a safe place to land.
“They said there was a 14-year-old trans kid who was in the hospital for self-harm,” Carroll recounted. They were looking for a placement for the child and thought Carroll and Brigido, a queer couple themselves, might be able to meet the child’s needs.
“They explained some things about their interests — like that they loved animals, art and music,” Carroll continued. She had the sense that this teen was supposed to be with them, and her partner felt the same pull.
“This kid was made to cross paths with our lives,” said Brigido.
“It’s hard when you hear about someone very much like you in some ways, who connects with things you understand and you’re interested in. It’s hard to say no to a past version of you,” Carroll added, blinking back tears.
While all foster parents in Allegheny County receive training in LGBTQIA+ issues, Carroll and Brigido are among a too-small number of queer foster homes in Allegheny County.
The county contracts with the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation to handle training foster parents in LGBTQIA+ competency. Their training program is called AFFIRM and is generally required for Allegheny County foster families.
Hugh Lane Executive Director Sarah Rosso said there is a need for families who are knowledgeable about queer youth. “And not just knowledgeable, but affirming as well. When we look at the child welfare systems across our region, we know that there’s a need for more families in general,” said Rosso. “And that’s especially true of families who are capable and willing to support transgender, nonbinary and LGB youth.”
Outsized prevalence, elevated trauma
A 2020 survey of youth in foster care in New York City found that 34% of respondents identified as LGBTQIA+, which is a higher percentage than in the general population. With about 1,300 children in foster care in Allegheny County at any given time, that number is consistent with local findings, said Rosso. “The Allegheny County Youth Voice survey typically shows somewhere between 30-33% of older youth in out-of-home placement identify as part of the LGBTQ+ communities. This is consistent with national data.”
One East End teen ended up in foster care due mostly to their gender identity, said Cori Fraser. Fraser and their platonic life partner are foster parents to a 16-year-old child who is transgender. This is the couple’s second placement of an LGBTQIA+ child. Their oldest child, Corey, is now over 18 and living independently.
When Fraser and their partner became certified to foster, they were very clear that they wanted to use their own experiences as queer individuals to help other kids. “We specifically came in saying, ‘We are here for queer kids, it matters less how old they are.’ Technically speaking, we have the most skill in the 12-and-up crowd, but if you have a 6-year-old trans kid in care, we will make that happen,” said Fraser.
Fraser said Allegheny County was generally supportive of their child’s name change and gender-affirming care, but the treatment the child received in the rural county they came from was emotionally damaging. “The judge will not let kids start hormones, the guardian ad litem said it was not in their purview to do a name change,” said Fraser.
Fraser said the need for more families like theirs is critical. “For trans kids, this is life or death, and I don’t think people realize that.”
Both foster families use Every Child Inc., one of Allegheny County’s contracted foster care providers. It’s the only local agency to receive the highest tier of recognition by All Children – All Families, a training program developed to promote inclusive and affirming practices in the child welfare system.
Every Child’s chief engagement officer, Jaime Simmons, said placing queer kids in unsupportive foster homes just compounds the trauma of being in care. “Foster care is traumatic for every child. Can you imagine the abuse or neglect stemming from a child’s identity? That is the reality of some of the queer youth experiencing foster care.”
Simmons said queer youth who do not reside in affirming homes sometimes run away, choosing housing instability over a non-affirming home. They may report increased levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm or suicidality.
Feeling less lonely
For Carroll and Brigido’s foster child, their gender identity contributed to emotional damage in their family of origin, and that trauma was compounded in foster care.
Their foster child, who we’ll call Quinn at their request to protect privacy, is now 17 and lives in an independent living facility as they prepare for adulthood. They said their grandfather never understood how they felt. “Before I was in the foster care system, I lived with my grandfather and he was not supportive of my gender identity and sexuality. That affected a lot of my life, such as my mental health,” they said.
It also affected their schoolwork. Since Quinn’s teachers used their preferred name and pronouns, the teen worked hard to stop their grandfather from interacting with the school — it made their home situation even more unsafe. “My grandfather loved what I used to be, not who I have grown and become. And yeah, that was very difficult for me. I’m sure it’s difficult for him.”
Prior foster homes tossed Quinn into support groups they found unhelpful or flat-out questioned their identity. “I wish I heard more of, ‘What do you need? What can I do to help you? What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?’ Instead of just signing me up for a whole bunch of support groups at once.”
When they came to Carroll and Brigido’s home, they found something different. “They helped me with my transitioning process physically and they also helped me trying to figure myself out and who I want to be, mentally,” Quinn said. The connections and resources the couple offered were helpful and supportive because both of them had walked a similar path.
Brigido said his own experiences as a queer person have shaped this entire experience. “You’re never going to fix the things in my life by proxy of another person’s life, but having lived experience in the LGBT community and being a teenager once, it gives me a clear path to forge ahead in a way that’s hopefully better for the kid than what we experienced.“
When there’s cause to advocate for Quinn, “I put my fighting gloves on a lot faster,” Brigido said, laughing.
“I think that’s very important to have someone in your life who’s experienced the same things you do,” said Quinn. “It makes you feel less lonely in the world.”
Supporting identity while averting crisis
Rosso said the prevalence of trans youth in the foster system is not yet fully understood. One reason may be the lack of support for biological families.
Hugh Lane is working to support families raising a biological child who is queer so that the family does not end up fractured. “Part of investing in families and communities also includes providing support and resources for parents who are struggling to support their LGBTQ+ children,” said Rosso.
The agency has spent the last five years building models that support families in their parenting and relationships with their queer children. “This has helped families move from rejecting behaviors, both intentional and unintentional, to more affirming behaviors.”
Rosso said they are excited to collaborate nationally and expand their work, both on recruiting and training foster families and reducing the need for placements. “We can’t just look at this from the perspective of trying to recruit more substitute caregivers.”
Correction: Mary Carroll’s last name was incorrect in a prior version of this story.
This story was fact-checked by Terryaun Bell.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.