Let’s bring hope, homes, and forever families to foster children this holiday season

Every child deserves a family. For some children, the path to a safe, loving, forever family can be arduous — as was the case for Xavier and Nathaniel, the adopted children of one of my Florida constituents, Martin Gill. Xavier and Nathaniel had a difficult start, moving from a situation of neglect to a foster care placement, before finally being adopted into Martin’s family. Though this story has a positive conclusion, it also illuminates the need for a responsible, pragmatic and human legislative approach.

One day in 2004, four-year-old Xavier, now Martin’s adopted son, was caring for his four-month-old brother Nathaniel, as he was accustomed to doing. He wandered outside to the neighbors to inform them that he and his brother had no food. Florida’s Department of Children and Families stepped in, and Xavier and Nathaniel were removed from a situation of horrible neglect and placed with Martin and his partner as foster parents. The boys arrived with the tattered and dirty clothes on their backs and each other – all they had in life. Xavier was so accustomed to feeding and burping Nathaniel and changing his diapers, that he tried to force his way in to help as his new foster parents cared for his baby brother. A year later, when Nathaniel and Xavier were legally freed for adoption, they had grown into a close, loving family.

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At the time, Florida’s discriminatory law prohibiting gay people from the adoption process prevented Martin and his partner from creating a true family with the children they had come to love and cherish. Heartbroken, Martin and his partner agreed that the boys needed to be adopted into a forever home. The state of Florida informed them that Xavier was “not adoptable” due to his age, but his toddler brother was, so the boys would be separated. Here they drew the line. Those brothers were the closest family each had had since Nathaniel’s birth, and the touchstone in each other’s lives. Martin and his partner fought to keep them together – with their true family. Over the course of keeping their children together, Martin and his partner challenged and ultimately overturned Florida’s discriminatory adoption ban.

Martin’s story as a gay foster parent is not unusual. Same-sex couples are four times more likely to foster and six times more likely to adopt than opposite-sex couples. They are also more likely to adopt older children and children with disabilities – children who have the most difficulty finding forever homes. Finally, they provide affirming households to the 19 percent of foster children over age 12 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).

It breaks my heart to think of the 111,000 foster youth left waiting to be adopted each year – more than twice the number that find permanent placements annually. Most of all, I worry about the over 20,000 youth who age out of foster care each year without having found a safe, loving, forever family. Anecdotal evidence shows these numbers are increasing as our foster care system becomes overwhelmed by the opioid crisis; the most recent public foster care data published by the Department of Health and Human Services is from 2015.

Imagine turning 18 without a family to go home to for the holidays, to cheer on your successes, and to help you recover from life’s setbacks. Unsurprisingly, life holds more roadblocks, and frankly, tragedies for these youth than those that are adopted. Twenty four percent of foster youth who age out of the system experience homelessness within five years; 71 percent of female foster youth who age out become pregnant by age 21. Foster youth who age out experience greater rates of trafficking, unemployment and incarceration.

I dream of a time when all foster youth find a forever family. That’s why I’m proud to be lead sponsor, along with Rep. John LewisJohn LewisThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Trump, Pence fan out to protect the Rust Belt Atlanta mayor signs bill to change Confederate street names Under attack: Because we don’t vote Republican MORE (D-Ga.), of HR 2460, the Every Child Deserves A Family Act. This bill would expand the pool of prospective foster and adoptive parents by prohibiting discrimination against qualified potential parents by federally funded child welfare agencies based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. The bill would also prevent discrimination against LGBTQ youth who are overrepresented in foster care, and help agencies and foster and adoptive parents provide them with safe, affirming, and culturally competent care.

According to an Urban Institute study, an estimated 2 million LGBTQ people would consider serving as foster or adoptive parents but face discriminatory barriers to doing so because of existing state laws, policies and practices. Forty years of research overwhelmingly confirms that children raised in LGBTQ-headed households have the same advantages and same expectations for health, social and psychological adjustment, and development as children whose parents are heterosexual. Because of these facts, and their fervent desire for foster children waiting to be adopted to join families, major child welfare and public health and medical associations support the Every Child Deserves a Family Act - including the Child Welfare League of America, National Association of Social Workers, North American Council on Adoptable Children, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics.

Americans support the goals of the Act too. Faith, child welfare, and civil rights organizations from across the political spectrum have joined the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign, led by Family Equality Council, to support these goals.

I’ve watched Martin fight for the right to adopt his children, watched the boys grow into adolescence and welcome a third adoptive sibling who is severely autistic, and am proud to be called a family friend. I’m grateful that because of Martin’s legal victory, Florida children in foster care can now be adopted into loving homes like his. I look forward to the day when all child welfare decisions are made in the best interest of the child, the number of children adopted dwarfs the number waiting to be adopted at the end of each year, and “aging out” of foster care, with all its costs to our youth and to our society, becomes a rarity.

I urge my colleagues to join me in cosponsoring and voting for the Every Child Deserves A Family Act to help make this dream become a reality.

 Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida's 27th District.