As deadline for Abbott to veto anti-LGBT measure approaches, lives of foster kids hang in balance.
Update: Gov. Abbott signed House Bill 3859 on Thursday, June 15.
By Kristopher Sharp
For a state that prides itself on being “pro-life,” Texas lawmakers sure seem hell-bent on ensuring that children in the state’s foster care system experience the absolute worst possible outcomes.
House Bill 3859, which passed the Legislature last month, allows child placement 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. Assuming Gov. Greg Abbott doesn’t veto HB 3859 before a Sunday, June 18 deadline, the law will also allow these publicly funded child welfare services to send LGBTQ foster children to so-called “conversion therapy.”
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.”
Yes, that is the actual language a federal judge used to describe Texas’ foster care system.
In an ideal world, child welfare agencies would be able to remove children from abusive family environments and either provide services to that child’s family of origin with the goal of eventually returning that child home, or find another family that can better care for the child 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 sometimes hundred of other children who are cared for by a rotating staff 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 are prisons, and the inmates are abused and neglected children.
As a gay child in the foster care system, I spent my childhood in facilities like this. My CPS 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 tim,e but I guess my fervent love of all things Beyoncé and Sailor Moon gave it away. I’d go on to spend my childhood shuffling between a mixture of nearly 25 different foster homes and facilities—each of them imbued with the same culture of abuse, neglect, and blatant disregard for the well-being of the children.
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. Here, children were routinely locked in a “de-escalation room” the size of a walk-in closet for days. Food was often used as a form of punishment. And it was here, at this 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, this is exactly what most foster children who grow up in Texas’ 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 norm 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 with whom I spent time in foster care to suicide. Two others were found dead after drug overdoses.
Children need families, not facilities. At best, HB 3859 creates an atmosphere of confusion and discouragement for families who want to foster or adopt in a state that desperately needs more families to do so. At 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 system.
Kristopher Sharp is a 27-year-old native Texan. He formally served as a legislative aide for Senator Patty Murray and was a congressional fellow for the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus in the U.S House of Representatives. As a former foster child and homeless youth, Kristopher has spent his entire professional career working to improve public policies affecting children, youth, and families. He holds a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Houston-Downtown and a Master of Public Administration from Texas Southern University.