Bridging the Gap: How Child Welfare Can Work with Faith Communities to Support and Affirm LGBTQ+ Children, Youth, and Families

getREAL (Recognize. Engage. Affirm. Love), an initiative of CSSP, works to improve child welfare, policy, practice, and knowledge to ensure all children and youth are affirmed and supported in the healthy development of their full identity, including their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE). As part of this work, in February 2019, getREAL brought child welfare leaders, administrators, researchers, and advocates together to address challenges and opportunities facing child welfare systems and to consider how child welfare systems can continue to improve their responsiveness to the specific needs of LBGTQ+ children, youth, and families.

Faith and spirituality and faith communities are often overlooked, or even seen as antagonistic, to LGBTQ+ children and youth, but insights gleaned from the getREAL convening underscored the importance to many LGBTQ+ children and youth who identify faith and spirituality as a significant element of their identity. While some faith communities adopt and encourage harmful beliefs toward LGBTQ+ communities, LGBTQ+ children and youth still seek affirming faith communities. Research shows that about 84 to 87 percent of all young people report some type of affiliation with a religious group, and almost 80 percent of youth of color identify as being religious or somewhat religious. Spiritual development is also an essential aspect of healthy development. As CSSP’s Executive Vice President Megan Martin points out in Supporting All Our Values, affirming all aspects of children and youth’s identity furthers the development of key Protective and Promotive Factors, including self-esteem and resilience. In addition, protective and promotive factors are strengthened when children and youth can form meaningful social connections.

Child welfare agencies are better able to promote safety, permanency, and well-being when all children and youth feel affirmed and supported in all aspects of their identity, and agencies should assess if faith/spirituality is important to children and youth entering care. If child welfare agencies are to fully support LGBTQ+ children and youth—including and especially those who identify faith and spirituality as an important part of their identity—then those agencies must explore ways to partner with faith communities.  Acknowledging the important role that faith and spirituality plays in fostering a greater sense of well-being and belonging in children and youth’s lives, the getREAL convening challenged child welfare leaders to think about ways to support children and youth’s faith and spirituality through exploring ways to partner with affirming faith communities.

Building on the impetus from getREAL’s convening, one of CSSP’s getREAL partners in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, led by Shauna Lucadamo, took up this challenge and began work to create partnerships between child welfare and local affirming faith communities. In September 2019, leaders from Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and faith leaders met to strategize ways to create sustainable partnerships between affirming faith communities and DHS. During this meeting, participants developed several ideas about how to build these partnerships, including:

  • Providing a SOGIE training for faith leaders and their congregations to support education about needs specific to LGBTQ+ children and youth and to ensure that congregations understand what is necessary to create a community of belonging for LGBTQ+ children and youth.
  • Building a committee of mentors to provide support to parents and caregivers of LGBTQ+ children and youth. These mentors could provide peer-to-peer support for parents and caregivers when questions and challenges arise.
  • Holding “faith” and LBGTQ+” conversations with DHS staff and LGBTQ+ youth to provide open forums for youth to communicate their needs, related to faith and spirituality, to DHS staff.
  • Developing resources for parents and caregivers that identify affirming faith communities, especially affirming faith communities that participate in local social justice movements and are led by Black activists.
  • Convening a faith community of practice events for caregivers of LGBTQ+ youth to ensure that parents and caregivers are aware of how to best support and affirm children and youth in their homes.

Allegheny County’s approach ensures that parents, caregivers, and faith communities are equipped to nurture the healthy development of children and youth through building opportunities for learning and peer-to-peer support. The County also committed to reaching out to voices missing from the conversation, especially to faith leaders and communities of color. This step is particularly important as data show that while LGBTQ+ children and youth are overrepresented in child welfare, Black, Latinx, and Native LGBTQ+ children and youth make up a disproportionate number of kids in care. In addition to the ideas generated by DHS and faith leaders, Allegheny County has also created priorities for DHS to ensure that LGBTQ+ children and youth are able to connect to affirming faith communities. These priorities include ensuring that DHS staff have the knowledge required to connect LGBTQ+ children and youth and their families to affirming faith communities and to increase local faith communities’ and congregations’ understanding of how to create communities of belonging.

The work in Allegheny County provides one example of how faith communities and child welfare agencies can work together to support LBGTQ+ children and youth and affirm all parts of their identities, including their faith and spirituality. Moreover, this work provides an important step toward changing the narrative about child welfare, faith, and LGBTQ+ children and youth. Not only are faith and spirituality important to LGBTQ+ children and youth’s identities, but there are also communities of faith who are affirming, welcoming, and seeking ways to support LGBTQ+ children, youth, and families’ well-being. At CSSP, we believe that children and youth are best supported when all aspects of their personhood and identity are affirmed. Together, child welfare agencies and faith communities can work to increase young people’s connections to communities of faith that affirm all aspects of their identity.

If you are a child welfare leader or an affirming faith community, we would love to hear what you are doing to support and welcome LGBTQ+ children, youth, and families.

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Wallace, J. M., Jr., Forman, T. A., Caldwell, C. H., & Willis, D. S. (2003). Religion and U.S. secondary school students: Current patterns, recent trends, and sociodemographic correlates. Youth & Society, 35, 98-125. doi: 10.1177/0044118×03254564

Wilson, M. (2004). A part of you so deep: What vulnerable adolescents have to say about spirituality. Boxborough, MA: New England Network for Child, Youth and Family Services.