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LGBTQ+ foster youth could face different experiences as Tennessee and Colorado pass opposing laws

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Lawmakers in Tennessee and Colorado have passed bills that would have very different impacts on LGBTQ+ foster children

DENVER — LGBTQ+ children in foster care in Tennessee and Colorado could have vastly different experiences if they are subject to conflicting laws passed by state legislatures this week.

With a Republican in Tennessee's governor's mansion and a Democrat in Colorado's governor's mansion, both bills are expected to become law in the coming days or weeks. States like South Carolina and West Virginia have bills similar to Tennessee's amid a national tug-of-war as red and blue states debate bills that target and protect LGBTQ+ rights.

Colorado's proposal calls for a bill of rights for foster children. Most controversially, foster parents must adhere to an LGBTQ+ child's preferred name, pronouns and gender expression, such as clothing choices. The rules are already set in law as guidelines, but the bill would provide accountability and actively inform foster youth of their rights.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, one of the bill's sponsors, gave an impassioned defense during Thursday's final debate, pointing out that she has foster siblings and a transgender child.

“If something were to happen to me and my child ended up in foster care, I would 1,000% not want the caregivers to name my child Sophia. Because my child’s name is Soren,” Zenzinger said, looking across the floor. “Just because their parents can no longer care for them and they are temporarily separated from their parents doesn't mean they have to give up their lives.”

Much of the Republican resistance has been to restrict foster parents' ability to raise children. The criticism includes both explicit and subtle references to comprehensive LGBTQ+ protections.

“This bill prevents these parents from providing the guidance they may need most in the interest of something that may not be in the best interest of the child,” Republican Sen. Mark Baisley said on the Senate floor.

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

The state Department of Child Services is not required to place LGBTQ+ children in anti-LGBTQ+ families. Ministry spokeswoman Ashley Zarach said officials asked prospective parents questions “about their preparedness to raise a child who identifies as LGBTQI+” and they looked for the “most appropriate placement to meet the individual needs of each child in the country.” to do justice to our care.”

Tennessee Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocates warn that even if the state agency has the opportunity to weigh religious and moral beliefs, children in state care still have the option of being placed with caregivers who reflect their gender or sexual identity do not support or accept.

They point out that LGBTQ+ children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system nationwide. According to the federal government, studies have shown that 32% of foster children between the ages of 12 and 21 reported having a “different sexual orientation or gender identity.”

If passed, the Tennessee proposal — called the Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Parent Protection Act — would likely face a legal challenge. Advocates repeatedly pointed to newly proposed federal regulations that would require states to ensure that children in foster care are placed in homes “free from hostility, mistreatment, or abuse based on the child’s LGBTQI+ status.”

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

Republicans in Tennessee have largely dismissed concerns about the bill. Advocates have argued that the legislation is necessary to protect prospective families from being permanently barred from fostering or adopting children because of their faith.

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

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Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee. 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.