The Florida Department of Children and Families is again facing a barrage of criticism from conservative and Christian groups over a proposal that would allow transgender children in group foster homes to dress and be housed in keeping with their gender identity.
The department that oversees the state's foster care system also wants to add more protections from bullying for LGBT children in foster care and to prohibit so-called "conversion therapy," attempts by caregivers to change a gay child's sexual orientation.
Similar changes were first proposed in December but dropped after a backlash from religious conservative groups, including some that run foster homes.
But DCF officials revived the protections for LGBT children in proposed new policies they unveiled earlier this summer. That has provoked a new outcry from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Hillsborough County Republican Party, among others.
An email from the Hillsborough Republican group sent Wednesday called on people to "contact Governor (Rick) Scott immediately and ask him to stop the madness."
And critics inundated a public hearing held via telephone conference call Thursday to voice their fears that girls in foster care would be forced to sleep and share bathrooms with boys who identify as girls.
"Obviously, they need help. The solution is not passing legislation to put them into a female's complex or bathroom," said Darrell A. Johnson, senior pastor with the Cathedral of Prayer, Praise and Power in Orange County. "Now you're going to open it up for rape, for lawsuits."
But many child welfare professionals say the protections are needed for LGBT children in care who are often victims of bullying and pressure to conform.
"You're dealing with children who really need a lot of help. Some of them are being kicked out of their homes because they are gay, lesbian or transgender," said Jim Aiken, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers. "All the rules are doing is trying to add a little more protection and make a safe environment for these children."
If adopted, the preference of a transgender child would be only one consideration used to determine placement. Child care agencies would also consider the physical safety and emotional well-being of the child and recommendations from the case manager, Guardian ad Litem and biological parents if they still have parental rights.
Training given to child care staff would also have to include instruction on "sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression," under the proposal.
There are roughly 2,300 children in group homes in the state. Some of those are run by the Catholic Church and other faith-based organizations.
"The rule goes too far in failing to consider the well-being of other children in a residential facility," said Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, which lobbies for the Catholic Church. "Many of these children are victims of abuse and may not be well-served by sharing a household or even a bedroom with someone who 'identifies' as the same gender, but remains biologically different."
The percentage of LGBT kids in foster care is often higher than among the general population because they are often thrown out of homes by parents, said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
If they end up in a group home where staff members are not familiar and accepting of LGBT issues, it can add to the trauma, McCoy said.
"The worst things you can do with a LGBT kid is tell them there is something wrong with you that can be fixed and put them through some 'strange' counseling aimed at changing part of them that is central to the core of who they are," he said.
DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said there could yet be another version of the policies before they are formally adopted, and admitted his department faces a "difficult challenge" balancing privacy and other concerns with needed protections for LGBT children.
If another public hearing is required, it could take up to 120 days before the new rules go into effect, he said.
"There are folks who have very strong opinions about this, but this is not about the bigger issue of gay rights; it's not an attempt to be politically correct," Carroll said. "This is an effort to make sure these kids are equally protected along with all the other kids we serve."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.