Testimony on Georgia’s SB 375

A proposed bill in Georgia could have devastating and long-lasting effects on the lives of countless LGBTQI youth. Christina Remlin, Lead Counsel at Children’s Rights, provides testimony about the potential harm of this proposed “religious exemption” bill (download as PDF):

Thank you for the opportunity to be heard on this important matter. Since joining Children’s Rights in 2011, I have represented classes of thousands of children in foster care in suits challenging violence, inadequate medical care, inappropriate conditions and over-institutionalization. I have worked on cases in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Connecticut, and have conducted investigations in other jurisdictions. My clients include those at risk of discrimination associated with their LGBTQI identity, gender, race, immigration status and class. I am from Atlanta and grew up in DeKalb County and have worked extensively on our Kenny A. suit, which was settled with a Consent Decree in 2005.  In the context of monitoring DFCS’ efforts at compliance with the Consent Decree, I spend a considerable amount of time analyzing structural problems impacting DFCS’ performance and having regular meetings about those problems with stakeholders, the Department, and the monitoring team.

LGBTQI young people are over-represented in foster care, where they are more likely to experience discrimination, abuse, neglect and the risk of harm. A survey by the Williams Institute found 13.6% of foster youth identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 5.6% as transgender, compared to 7.2% and 2.25% of the general youth population, respectively. LGBTQI youth in child welfare systems are at a heightened risk of being physically, verbally and sexually assaulted or exploited, being placed in inappropriate and overly restrictive settings, receiving inadequate and non-affirming healthcare services, experiencing rejection, violence, trauma and religious condemnation due to their gender identities or sexualities, having suicidal thoughts, abusing substances, being vulnerable to sex trafficking and resorting to survival sex to access safe places to stay. For example, The Urban Institute did a study in NYC and found that 78% of LGBTQ youth interviewed were removed from or ran away from their foster care placements because of hostility toward their gender identity or sexual orientation, and that 56% of LGBTQ youth chose to live on the street, rather than in a foster care placement, because they felt safer there.

Here in Georgia we can do better than this. Atlanta is the epicenter of the LGBTQ South and has many couples that would provide loving forever homes to children in need. I know from years of experience working on the Kenny A. case that our foster care system suffers from a lack of homes. Indeed, we currently have youth sleeping in hotels across the state due to a lack of placements.  Children are even sometimes forced to sleep in offices overnight.  We simply cannot afford to alienate any appropriate foster or adoptive family resources.

Furthermore, young people come to understand their sexual orientation and gender identity at different times in their upbringing.  Some much later and some earlier on.  So it will be impossible under the framework of this bill to ensure that a young person who may be questioning these things will not be inadvertently placed in the custody of one of the providers who discriminates against LGBTQI people. I interviewed a young man who aged out of foster care, and managed to beat all the odds: he was doing well in college, he had recently purchased a car, his housing was stable, he had a part time job working for the Methodist Children Home.  He had it all together.  And yet, with tears in his eyes he confessed to me that he still believed what his foster parents had told him for years, that gay people were condemned to hell.  He had not felt comfortable disclosing his identity so his foster parents never knew they were talking about him when they made those comments, but their words haunted him.  This is why all foster placements must be affirming of all young people’s differences.

The unacceptable reality is that SB 375 could have devastating and long-lasting effects on the lives of countless LGBTQI youth. Children who have already faced trauma, rejection and maltreatment from their families or caregivers will find themselves in a foster care system that already has a shortage of homes. While there are faith-based providers who are doing incredible work, with more and more addressing this shortage by serving all children and families, others may use SB 375 to turn away loving foster or adoptive parents because of their identities and to discriminate against LGBTQI youth. This would be both unfair and bad for kids. SB 375 would be a dangerous step backward and create a real risk of subjecting these children to further bias and discrimination in the very system that is supposed to protect and care for them.

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