For Pam Cornwell, it is difficult not to listen to children who struggle with sexual and gender identity.
They need support, she says, and the stakes are high. LGBTQ children are much more likely to become depressed, and the number of youth suicides in Kansas is growing.
As a family therapist with St. Francis Ministries, a nonprofit that provides adoption services in Kansas for the state-run child welfare program, Cornwell helps families establish a stable and loving environment.
“Adolescence is such a huge time when kids are developing their sexual identity, their gender identity," Cornwell said. "When they don't have the support of their family, they’re in the foster care system, it makes it much more difficult for them to find they kind of support they need to get through this very challenging developmental period.”
The issue is more complicated for some faith-based organizations.
The Family Policy Alliance, which promotes "a Kansas where God is honored" and the idea that "God's timeless design for the family is the strongest foundation for a free society," objects to new guidelines from the Kansas Department for Children and Families that direct child placement agencies to place LGBTQ youths in homes that respect the children's gender identities.
For the alliance, the guidelines issued under the administration of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly clash with legislation passed in 2018 that allows child placement agencies to refuse service to gay couples on the basis of firmly held religious beliefs.
The new policy, which DCF says is just a draft, demands confidentiality about a child's gender identity or sexual orientation. Parents are to recognize children by their preferred identity if it differs from the gender assigned at birth, and to allow children to express themselves accordingly through clothing and hairstyles.
Brittany Jones, a lobbyist for the alliance, accused Kelly of forcing an "invasive sexual agenda" on foster families and warned the guidelines could limit opportunities for children in a system already suffering from a shortage of homes.
"We believe that the policy from DCF mandates foster families adhere to a sexual ethic with which they may not agree and one which could directly affect other children in their home," Jones said. "Facing that choice, it is likely that some families, despite their deep desire to help children in need, could quietly exit the foster care system at a time when more families are needed."
Kansas doesn't track the number of LGBTQ children within the foster care system.
The DCF directives are consistent with research that shows LGBTQ foster kids who are placed in a safe environment have better outcomes than those in a hostile setting.
LGBTQ children are three times as likely to end up in the foster system, often because of abuse or neglect, said Adam McCormick, an assistant professor of social work at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.
McCormick studies the experience of children and parents in foster care. He said LGBTQ children who are placed in a caring home are more likely to stay in one place and get better grades. Those placed in a hostile setting are more likely to suffer from shame and depression.
A support network, McCormick said, is one of the most important components for eliminating troubling outcomes for LGBTQ children.
"We need to be really intentional about meeting their needs and providing safety, and sometimes that means upsetting a faith-based group," McCormick said.
McCormick said resistance from foster parents is less about convictions and more about a lack of understanding. Training can help.
Many of the parents ask basic questions, he said, such as: Why are kids gay? Why do they express themselves these ways? More mature conversations lead to questions like: How can we alleviate a child's emotional pain?
"I haven't seen research that shows having protections for LGBTQ kids discourages people from being foster parents," McCormick said.
DCF spokesman Mike Deines said the agency drafted guidelines, which include a recommendation to offer training to parents, in response to questions from child placement agencies that wanted to know the best practices. He said the guidelines are several weeks away from being finalized.
"This document was meant for discussion purposes only and will be revised," Deines said.
Some organizations view the guidelines as a directive. Emails show DCF referred to new LGBTQ and social media policy memos as changes to be aware of.
Jones expressed concerns with the confidentiality rule, which she described as "a gag order" that forces agencies to place LGBTQ children with parents who might have objections based on religious beliefs.
"Children who end up in foster care have likely already experienced a lot of trauma," Jones said. "The current method of handling these scenarios, though not perfect, does allow for the foster care family, private agencies and the state to fully share all relevant information with one another to provide a complete picture of the history and story of the child who needs a home. This new guidance shuts down discussion on the best fit possible for the child and their foster family."
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said the point is to find safe homes for kids.
“What’s happening is those kids might hurt themselves or run away," Witt said. "There is just not good outcomes.”
Cornwell said children are more impulsive and struggle to resolve emotional pain. The latest data shows Kansas has the eighth-highest suicide rate among adolescents.
Child placement agencies already work to provide the best match for children and caregivers, Cornwell said, which includes being sensitive to things like cultural and ethnic identities.
She wasn't bothered by the new guidelines for LGBTQ children.
"We try to find homes where they find support and care," Cornwell said. "Is it going to make us work a little harder? Probably, but I don't think it's an insurmountable task."