Opinion editor's note: This article, part of our New Voices collection, was written by first-time contributors to Star Tribune Opinion. For more information about our efforts to continually expand the range of views we publish, see startribune.com/opinion/newvoices.


Being a queer foster is an isolating and challenging experience. While we have learned to celebrate our identities, it's bittersweet to do so when we've experienced discrimination from the very system that is meant to protect us.

We represent a group of LGBTQ and two-spirit fosters who worked with nonprofit organization Foster Advocates to explore issues that impact LGBTQ and two-spirit (LGBTQ2S+) foster youths and identify solutions to make our vision for systems change possible. Our group had fosters from all corners of Minnesota and across the range of LGBTQ2S+ identities. We'd like to elevate some key issues and opportunities we identified for you.

First, Minnesota has never gathered data on the LGBTQ2S+ population in foster care. We do not believe child welfare agencies can provide affirming care if they do not know who they are serving. As far as we know, the only Minnesota data on this was gathered in a 2020 statewide survey by Foster Advocates for fosters age 14 to 26. In it, a third of respondents identified as LGBTQ2S+. This is much higher than our non-foster peers! We're overrepresented in foster care, and these Minnesota numbers match trends from Ohio, New York and other states. The Department of Human Services (DHS) needs to direct counties to start collecting this data — but it must learn from other states to make sure confidentiality and safety is maintained in that process.

Second, resources are lacking for LGBTQ2S+ fosters. While we know the DHS is in the process of updating its "best practices" guide, which is more than 10 years old, it's extremely disappointing that we, along with so many of our peers, did not receive best practices while in care. LGBTQ2S+ fosters deserve not just an updated guide but easily accessible resources and someone they or their case worker can call with support questions — like designated LGBTQ2S+ champions across the child welfare system. Most of us didn't have access to resources or cultural connections while in care, even after we came out. Google should not be our only teacher about our identity (especially since many fosters don't have access to phones and computers).

Even with this updated guide, we have concerns about counties, case workers and placements being held accountable to these best practices. Everyone in our group experienced homophobic or transphobic comments from the very system that is supposed to protect us. That's why it's important that child welfare workers aren't just "neutral" when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. Neutral is not affirming. It does not allow fosters to feel excited or proud or safe to talk about their orientation. Fosters need and deserve proactive acceptance, support and inclusion for who they are. That must be offered to all fosters even if a worker doesn't know how they identify, so that fosters feel safe enough to be their full selves in the system.

Finally, it wasn't just experiencing discrimination in the system that was hard, it was the added uncertainty of not knowing our rights. Could we tell our case worker about a homophobic foster parent? When group homes isolated those of us who were out for our "safety," was that allowed? The unknown kept us all on edge. In hindsight, we all feel like our rights were violated. Through our time in this group, we've learned that fosters should have rights against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity under the Minnesota Constitution and Human Rights Act, and have rights to affirming services confirmed by the Children's Bureau. However, these rights are not made clear to fosters while in care, and there is not a designated way for fosters to report if these rights are violated. We call on DHS to clarify these rights and establish a policy for how fosters can report when they believe their rights have been violated. This is especially important given the ways child welfare systems are being used in other states to push anti-LGBTQ2S+ practices.

We have shared these recommendations with DHS and other child welfare partners. While we are leading this work, it's important that LGBTQ2S+ fosters are not alone in it. We hope readers will recognize how important it is to speak up for and support LGBTQ2S+ fosters, and hope you will support Foster Advocates and our foster leaders network in this ongoing work.

Jana Harris, Shawna Bullen-Fairbanks and Travis Matthews are youth leaders with Foster Advocates in St. Paul. They were all in Minnesota foster care and experienced numerous out-of-home placements across all corners of the state.