Estimates and surveys have long indicated that LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate share of the foster-care population.

But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wants to discontinue efforts to officially collect those numbers, prompting complaints from advocates who say the information is needed to improve care for some of the nation's most vulnerable children.

"It could help us to create better outcomes," said Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization.

"Missed opportunities to collect data can lead to setbacks," Kahn said. "In my mind, that's unconscionable."

In a draft rule published earlier this month in the Federal Register, the Trump administration said that about one-third of states surveyed didn't want sexual-orientation information to be gathered on youth and on foster and adoptive parents because it is self-reported and might be unreliable.

The Obama administration had been working to include sexual orientation data in the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), which is the only federal national data set that collects case-level information on all children in foster care and on children adopted with the involvement of a publicly funded child-welfare agency.

The new rule seeks to abandon that plan. The public has 60 days from the proposal — until June 19 — to comment.

"How can we adequately support them if we don't know the numbers?" said Rita Soronen of the central Ohio-based Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. "I'm disappointed."

She said accurate information on family composition is even more critical now that a handful of states (Ohio not among them) have passed so-called "license to discriminate" laws that permit state-licensed foster and adoptive agencies to decline to facilitate child placements that conflict with their religious beliefs.

As a result, Soronen said, agencies could shrink the pool of desperately needed adoptive parents by using sexual orientation as a disqualifier.

"All of this crosses political lines," she said. "We just need to do the best we can for these kids."

The Human Rights Campaign said a recent study found that more than 70 percent of LGBTQ people surveyed worried they might be turned away from applying to become a foster or adoptive parent.

Soronen said LGBTQ youth are over-represented in the foster system, sometimes because their families refuse to accept them. They also are far more likely to age out of the foster system and to experience homelessness.

At Star House, a Columbus drop-in center for homeless youth, 25 to 40 percent of the youth served say they identify as LGBTQ, said Ann Bischoff, the agency's CEO.

Half have been in foster care at some point, and about 20 percent of them are among the more than 23,000 young people in the United States who age out of care without a family of their own.

"Youth who identify as LGBTQ have unique needs," Bischoff said. "At Star House we do pay attention to this information, and we think it's important."

 

rprice@dispatch.com @RitaPrice