2SLGBTQ+ populations are overrepresented in the child welfare system. According to recent studies, 32 to 34% of children and youth in welfare systems identify as 2SLGBTQ+. However, this is likely an underrepresentation given that many 2SLGBTQ+ youth choose not to disclose their identity due to stigma, shame, or fear. 

2SLGBTQ+ children and youth often enter child welfare through various pathways, marked by their higher rates of childhood trauma, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Additionally, they frequently face more rejection from their families than non-2SLGBTQ+ youth. A study of 3,508 community-based 2SLGBTQ+ youth aged 14 to 18 across Canada and the U.S. found that 2SLGBTQ+ youth reported significant adverse childhood events (ACEs). Notably, 43% of participants experienced four or more ACEs, which indicates a high level of trauma exposure and significantly predicts child welfare involvement. 
Exposure to identity-based discrimination, especially for those in the child welfare system, can contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alongside prolonged mental health and substance abuse concerns.

What are the Factors and Reasons LGBTQ2S+ Children and Youth Enter and Remain in the Child Welfare System?

2SLGBTQ+ children and youth enter the child welfare system for multiple reasons, yet they find that their safety is not necessarily improved compared to their families of origin. They often experience discrimination and harassment from staff and peers in group homes, alongside rejection from caregivers in foster care. 2SLGBTQ+ youth also have disproportionately longer stays in care, greater placement instability, a higher likelihood of placement removal or running away due to hostility towards their sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (SOGIE), and a higher risk of mistreatment and neglect compared to their peers who identify as heterosexual and cisgender.
Racialized 2SLGBTQ+ children and youth are significantly more likely to enter and remain in the child welfare systems, compared to their non-racialized and -2SLGBTQ+ peers. In Canada, Indigenous and racialized youth, along with 2SLGBTQ+ youth, are significantly overrepresented in the child welfare system. This highlights the connection between child welfare involvement and systemic forms of marginalization, such as racism, homophobia, poverty, and colonialism. Hence, racialized 2SLGBTQ+ youth in the child welfare system with intersecting identities often face poorer outcomes due to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. 
Moreover, gender-diverse youth face unique challenges in child welfare contexts, including a lack of permanency, lack of worker and caregiver competence, and barriers to gender-affirming healthcare, education, housing, and employment. There is also a higher likelihood for 2SLGBTQ+ youth to age out of the foster care system or transition into congregate care, homelessness or under-housing.
Overall, 2SLGBTQ+ children and youth face both individual and systemic barriers. On an individual level, they are often taken into child welfare due to caregiver abuse, which can lead to further experiences of discrimination and instability in the system. Systemically, there are multiple barriers to supporting child welfare-involved youth, such as a lack of consistent data related to their sexual and gender identities. Challenges at every service point in the system, from referral to discharge, suggest that both SOGIE and the system could benefit from strengthened data collection, policies, programs, and affirming practices.

The Importance of Affirmative Care for 2SLTBQ+ Children and Youth in Child Welfare

It is critical to note that identifying as 2SLGBTQ+ alone does not mean a young person will experience adverse outcomes; however, the significant risks faced by SOGIE demonstrate the importance of affirmative and trauma-informed services in care.
Despite these risks, SOGIE children and youth display and describe remarkable resilience in the face of adversity. This calls for a renewed focus in supporting their coping and exploring how child welfare systems can foster more affirmative care for these youth. 2SLGBTQ+ youth in the child welfare system should be served by workers, foster parents, and staff, including foster and group care strategies who have the knowledge and skills to affirm intersectional 2SLGBTQ+ identities.

What Could Prevention Look Like for LGBTQ2S+ Children and Youth in Care?

As described in the Ontario Child Welfare 2SLGBTQ+ Organizational Self-Assessment, the extensive risk factors faced by 2SLGBTQ+ youth in care may be mitigated by protective factors that include:

  • Family acceptance and support of 2SLGBTQ+ youths’ identities,
  • Access to gender-affirming health care if desired by the youth,
  • Supportive adults (internal and external to the child welfare system), and
  • Engagement with the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

There is a need for increased SOGIE-tailored prevention services for families, interventions to support family reunification and family acceptance, and policy and practice shifts. To improve protective services for 2SLGBTQ+ children, youth, and families, Mallon et al. (2022) recommend that four areas be prioritized:

  1. Development of clear-written policies
  2. Improved staff training
  3. Clinical case consultation
  4. Advocacy across the system

Since content about serving 2SLGBTQ+ communities is often not mandated in training, foundational affirming approaches should be consistently integrated into the core protection curriculum. The reasons for child welfare referrals for many 2SLGBTQ+ youths may initially seem unrelated to sexual orientation (e.g., family conflict), yet they often have a relationship with real or perceived SOGIE. Such training should include the referral stage. In addition to training opportunities, it is crucial to center prevention and clinical case consultation that centers youth voices. 

Finally, to reduce the risk of child or youth maltreatment and promote mental health, it is essential to help families decrease rejection and increase acceptance to strengthen families’ ability to support 2SLGBTQ+ youth in their homes. Research has shown that providing families opportunities to learn about 2SLGBTQ+ experiences, understand the negative impacts of their rejection, and practice new affirming behaviours can lead to increased supportiveness, ultimately contributing to improved outcomes for children and youth.


Given the risks that 2SLGBTQ+ youth and children encounter in their families and communities, affirming child welfare services can play a vital role in rebuilding their sense of safety, promoting healing from trauma, encouraging the development of self-esteem and -advocacy, and supporting their overall wellbeing.