Research Watch

Over 15% of youth involved with child welfare services in the US identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Nico Trocmé

Dettlaff, A. J., Washburn, M., Carr, L. C., Vogel, A. N. (2018). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth within in welfare: Prevalence, risk and outcomes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 80, 183-193.


There is a growing concern that sexual minority youth are overrepresented yet under-served by child welfare services. This study is the first nationally representative survey in the United States to examine the prevalence and needs of sexual minority or LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) children and youth involved with the child welfare system. Using data from the Second National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW-II), the authors estimate the size of this population and compare their health, mental health, placement and permanency outcomes to those of non-LGB youth. Nearly one in six (15.5%) of the 1,095 youth ages 11 to 17.5 who self-identified their sexual orientation identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Weighted up to the U.S. national level, the study estimates that there are approximately 146,000 youth within the child welfare system openly identify as LGB. Compared to non-LGB youth, LGB youth were significantly more likely to meet the criteria for adverse mental health outcomes. There were no significant differences in risk factors. Both LGB and non-LGB youth in this sample came from families with high levels of poverty, low levels of parental education, high family stress and other reports of abuse. There were also no significant differences in forms of investigated maltreatment, nor permanency and placement outcomes. In discussing implications for policy and practice, the authors emphasize the importance of taking an inclusive approach to meeting the unique needs of LGB youth in care and understanding the multiple aspects of their identity, especially in the case of permanency planning.

Methodological Notes

The NSCAW-II longitudinal data set comprises a nationally representative sample of 5872 youth ages birth to 17.5 years who had been referred for a formal child protective services investigation as a result of reported child abuse or neglect over a fifteen-month period in 2008 and 2009. Data were collected in three waves of in-person interviews, the third of which occurred approximately 36 months after the first wave of data collection. Youth ages 11 years of age and older at the third wave of data collection were asked to self-identify their sexual orientation as: 1) totally straight (heterosexual); 2) mostly straight; 3) bisexual; 4) mostly gay (homosexual); 5) totally gay (homosexual); or 6) not sexually attracted to either males or females. The authors do not report the rate of youth who did not answer or refused to answer the question. No questions were asked about gender identity or gender expression. In addition, given that some LGB youth may not have been comfortable disclosing their sexual identity, the study findings should be treated as a lower bound estimate for the number of youth who self-identify as part of the larger LGBTQ+ population. Nevertheless, this study clearly demonstrates that it is feasible to ask children and youth involved with child welfare services about their sexual orientation, and that when asked, a significant number of youth and children will self-identify as LGB. This is an important population whose needs must be better understood.