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LGBTQ+ foster youths could expect different experiences as Tennessee and Colorado pass opposing laws

DENVER (AP) — LGBTQ+ children in foster care in Tennessee and Colorado could have vastly different experiences in where they are placed under opposing legislation advanced by state legislatures this week.

In Tennessee, the Republican supermajority passed a measure that would allow LGBTQ+ children to be placed with families that hold anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs. Meanwhile, Colorado’s Democratic majority passed a bill that would install protections for children in such placements.

With a Republican in Tennessee’s governor’s mansion and a Democrat in Colorado’s, both bills are expected to be signed into law in the coming days or weeks. States including South Carolina and West Virginia have bills in line with Tennessee’s amid a national tug of war as red and blue states debate bills targeting and protecting LGBTQ+ rights.

Colorado’s proposal establishes a bill of rights for foster children, most contentiously requiring that foster parents follow an LGBTQ+ child’s preferred name, pronouns and gender expression, such as the clothes they choose. The rules are already established in statute as guidelines, but the bill would allow for accountability and actively inform foster youths of their rights.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, one of the bill’s sponsors, gave an impassioned defense during final debate Thursday, noting that she had foster siblings and a transgender child.

“If something were to happen to me, and my child ended up in foster care, I absolutely, 1,000% would not want the caregivers … to start calling my child Sophia. Because my child’s name is Soren,” Zenzinger said, staring out over the floor. “Just because their parent can no longer take care of them, and they are temporarily separated from their parents, does not mean that they have to give up their very essence.”

Republican pushback has largely been over throttling foster parents’ ability to parent. The criticism has been tied to both explicit and subtle digs of the broad LGBTQ+ protections.

“This bill restricts those parents from being able to give them the guidance that perhaps they need the most, and for the sake of something that may not be in the child’s interest,” Republican Sen. Mark Baisley said on the Senate floor.

Tennessee’s bill would allow state officials to take into account the “religious or moral beliefs” of prospective adoptive or foster parents when determining appropriate placement.

It does not require the state’s Department of Children’s Services to place LGBTQ+ children with anti-LGBTQ+ families. Department spokesperson Ashley Zarach said its officials ask prospective parents questions “regarding willingness to parent a child who identifies as LGBTQI+,” and they seek the “most appropriate placement to meet the unique needs of each child in our care.”

Tennessee Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocates warn that even with the state agency having the ability to weigh religious and moral beliefs, there’s is still an opportunity for children in state custody to be placed in with caregivers who don’t support or accept their gender or sexual identities.

They point out that LGBTQ+ kids are disproportionately represented in the foster care system nationally. According to the federal government, studies have shown that 32% of foster children between the age 12-21 reported they identified as having a “diverse sexual orientation or gender identity.”

If enacted, the Tennessee proposal — dubbed the “Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Parent Protection Act” — would likely face a legal challenge. Advocates repeatedly pointed to newly proposed federal rules requiring states to ensure children in foster care be placed in homes “free of hostility, mistreatment, or abuse based on the child’s LGBTQI+ status.”

“The name of this bill implies that parents need protection from children who have different gender identities,” said Rep. Aftyn Behn, a Democrat from Nashville. “This piece of legislation is discriminatory.”

Tennessee Republicans have largely dismissed concerns surrounding the bill. Supporters have argued that the legislation is needed to protect prospective families from being permanently banned from fostering or adopting children due to their beliefs.

“Tennessee should welcome a diverse range of qualified adoptive and foster parents, including those people of faith … and this bill enforces that,” Republican Rep. Mary Littleton said while defending the proposal on the House floor earlier this week.

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Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tenn. Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Kimberlee Kruesi And Jesse Bedayn, The Associated Press


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