Testimony of Heidi Dalenberg
Director of the Institutional Reform Project, ACLU of IL
Before the Senate Health Committee
Subject Matter Hearing re: DCFS’ care for LGBTQ youth
October 26, 2021
My name is Heidi Dalenberg, and I am the Director of the Institutional Reform Project of the ACLU of Illinois.
Thank you Chairperson Morrison, Vice Chair Joyce, and Minority Spokesperson Syverson, for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today.
I am here in my capacity as one of the attorneys representing all children in the care of the Department and Family Services in the B.H. v. Smith case. This Committee called this hearing to address the findings of the DCFS LGBTQ Youth in Care performance audit published earlier this year.
Let me begin with the auditors’ finding that the Department currently is not able to accurately report on mistreatment of LGBTQI+ youth in care. While we do not know exactly how widespread such mistreatment is, there is no question that it does occur for many youth. In our individual contacts with these children we hear reports from transgender youth who should have been able to trust their caseworkers, but who were ignored, put off, and yelled at when they ask for transition-related healthcare. These youth also frequently describe being deadnamed and misgendered by their caseworkers and caregivers. And we regularly hear from LGBTQI+ youth in care that their caseworkers and direct care staff mock them, demean them, and stand idly by while these youth are bullied by their peers or their caregivers. It is within that context that I’ll focus my brief comments today on two points – the implementation of Appendix K, which is the Department’s policy mandating affirming care for LGBTQI+ youth, and the Department’s plans for SOGIE data collection.
Perhaps the most significant finding from the audit was that DCFS has not timely or effectively implemented Appendix K. That finding, with which we wholeheartedly agree, has been a source of extreme frustration and a tragedy for LGBTQI+ youth in care. The policy itself says all of the right things, and sets appropriate high goals for caseworkers, foster parents, staff at residential facilities, and other caregivers. The policy also states that all caregivers, and all direct service staff who interact with youth, must receive training about LGBTQI+ youth and what it means to create the affirming environment they need in order to thrive.
In our view the two most important features required for effective implementation of Appendix K are training and accountability. DCFS remains significantly deficient in both of these areas, but we want to acknowledge that we are now seeing some slow progress.
- The Department has developed basic webinar training that covers basic LGBTQI+ terms and their meaning and introduces the concept of affirmation. This training as we understand it is now required for foster parents and caseworkers, but we remain concerned that the Department still is not ensuring that all direct care staff at residential facilities and group homes are trained as Appendix K requires.
- The Department still does not have critically important advanced training for foster parents, caseworkers, and direct care staff. This further training is essential to reinforce LGBTQI+ youths’ rights and ensure their well-being because it goes beyond a mere vocabulary lesson. This is the level of training that must drive home youths’ absolute entitlement to be who they are without fear of disapproval, discipline, or maltreatment. To be effective, this training must be conducted live, in-person, by qualified trainers. We understand that the Department is working with respected advocates to develop this variety of training, but we have yet to see or provide our input on those materials and have no way to estimate when delivery of this training can begin.
- As for accountability, the Department still has not ensured that DCFS and private agency workers’ performance reviews regularly incorporate consideration of whether the worker is providing affirming care and taking action for youth when they learn that a youth is being mistreated because of who they are. Without that regular oversight and appropriate corrective measures for workers who ignore or actively participate in mistreatment of LGBTQI+ youth these children will continue to suffer far worse outcomes than their peers.
The bottom line here is that LGBTQI+ youth in care will not receive the care they are entitled to just because caseworkers and foster parents have been required to sit through a basic vocabulary lesson and have been told to be affirming. The steps the Department has taken so far are appropriate first steps, not solutions.
Let me turn now to the auditors’ finding that DCFS lacked reliable, consistent information regarding the youth in care identifying as LGBTQI+. The audit found that DCFS had no process or procedure for speaking with youth about their identity or for recording information youth chose to share in a system that assured proper protection of youths’ privacy rights. We deeply appreciate the measure that the Legislature passed earlier this year, which now requires DCFS and many of its sister agencies to begin systematic collection of Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE) data from the populations they serve.
We acknowledge that the Department is working to develop SOGIE data collection protocols. We remain concerned, however that the Department has a very long way to go before its efforts will generate reasonably reliable data, and it is critically important that its data collection processes be framed in a manner that affirms youth and respects their right to control when, how, and to whom they disclose their information.
The audit concluded that the Department should implement a formal process for gathering SOGIE data, but we caution that simply implementing formal questioning on an annual basis will not result in success. Youth will not self-identify if they are not comfortable with the person asking for their information, and if they do not trust that their information will be kept entirely private if that is their preference. The audit’s findings clearly demonstrate that LGBTQI+ youth in care generally do not have the necessary comfort level with their caseworkers or their caregivers. As the audit of DCFS noted, DCFS was only able to identify approximately 90 youth in care who identified as LGBTQI+, while the auditors estimated that the correct number could be as high as 2,500. The extraordinarily low rate of self-identification raises serious questions about who is best positioned to talk to youth about their SOGIE information and the context in which those conversations will occur. And we also want to emphasize that SOGIE data collection is yet another area where it is essential that DCFS and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services work cooperatively together. Nearly all DCFS youth receive Medicaid coverage, so they are served by both HFS and DCFS. That should not result in barraging youth with duplicative and invasive questioning, duplicative data entry, or the increased risk of potential exposure of their data if it is stored in multiple data systems.
Our work with the Department regarding SOGIE data collection is still at a very preliminary stage, but we appreciate that the Department is involving us in this process and look forward to working with the Department on this very important issue.