How Texas' Foster Care System is Failing LGBTQ Youth
As a child, Kristopher Sharp never knew what love was.
"I can tell you about the first time I felt I was loved," Sharp says. "This is after I aged out of the foster care system."
Sharp was 18 when he aged out. He was living in Houston. With no job and no skills, he soon became homeless.
A drug dealer noticed him and took him under his wing. They became lovers. But the relationship was physically abusive. At times, the beatings were so bad, Sharp had to be hospitalized. Every so often, Sharp's lover would tend to him gently.
"I didn't want to give it up," Sharp says. "I didn't want to give up the idea of having someone stable in my life."
Sharp entered the foster care system a few days before his 10th birthday. Sharp is gay, but he says he didn’t know that as a 9-year-old. He says he didn't even know the meaning of the word.
What he did know was that he had been removed from his home because every time his mother was high she would light up the stove, use it to heat up wire hangers and lash Sharp and his siblings with the hot metal.
Sharp asked his caseworker to find him a family within the safety of the system.
Texas is home to more than 27 million people – 16,000 of them are children in foster care. But for those 16,000 kids, there are fewer than 2,000 foster families. In order to house the rest, Texas hires subcontractors. Children who identify as LGBTQ, like Sharp, are most often cared for by these subcontractors, rarely by families.
"Whenever I first entered foster care, she (the caseworker) told me that it would be hard for her to find a family for me because I was gay," Sharp says.
So, that was that. The sexual orientation Sharp’s caseworker assumed Sharp had was the reason he spent his childhood in institutions where he says he was molested and beaten, instead of with families.
Professor Adam McCormick says Sharp’s story is more common than he ever could have imagined.
McCormick teaches Social Work at St. Edward's University in Austin. Over the last year or so, he's been documenting the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer kids. He’s found that of the thousands of children in foster care, the ones who have it the worst are LGBTQ kids.
"The state has failed to do really what it's intended to do – to protect youth – as well as to establish some sense of permanency," McCormick says.
McCormick says the first challenge for these children is that there are so few foster families to begin with.
Then there's the second reason: "We tend to recruit foster parents from very conservative faith-based backgrounds – churches and faith-based organizations – and so the pool of individuals who are capable of providing affirming and accepting environments, capable of empowering LGBT youth is very limited," McCormick says.
McCormick says he is not dissing families of faith. On the contrary – they're the ones stepping up to the challenge of foster care. What he is advocating for is sensitivity training.
"We know from national studies that LGBT youth who experience rejection from their families, from their care-givers, are significantly more likely to attempt suicide, more likely to experience depression, more likely to engage in risky sex," McCormick says.
Kids are also more likely to develop a substance abuse problem.
McCormick believes it's time for Texas to start strategically recruiting foster parents who can commit to supporting and affirming kids who are LGBTQ. A handful of subcontractors do it. But at the state level several legislative attempts to put it in the books have failed.
Federal legislation has been stalled since last year. But Kristopher Sharp believes it won't stall forever. Last year, he left Texas for Washington, D.C. He graduated college and accepted an offer to work as a legislative aid in Congress. He’s now advocating on behalf of children in the system – and he’s found love doing it.
"I'm in a relationship with a very sweet man who is a great advocate and works all across this country, who genuinely loves me and cares about me," Sharp says.
Sharp's even thinking about becoming a father. He says he's ready to have the family he could never have before.
"I know what love is now," Sharp says.