Q&A: A Client Advocate Explains How LGBTQ Homeless Youth Can Petition for Child Support

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A judge's gavel landing on cash.

Deborah Lolai knows firsthand what it's like to be forced onto the street because your family rejects your sexual orientation. Homeless for a time in college, she’s now a client advocate with the legal advocacy group Bronx Defenders, in New York. Through independent research, she is promoting a legal option she hopes may help minor young people in similar situations support themselves and get off the streets.

Writing recently in the Tulane Journal of Law and Sexuality, Lolai argues that some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people could petition their parents for child support. The idea is based on a legal precedent Lolai came across in law school. In several cases, young people have succeeded in securing child support because their parents' demands, such as forcing them to be sent away to boarding school or join the military against their will, were deemed unreasonable by the judge, and as minors the children were still dependent on their parents.

[Read the abstract of her article, “’You're Going To Be Straight or You're Not Going To Live Here’: Child Support for LGBT Homeless Youth” in our library.]

By using this strategy for LGBTQ youth who are eligible and willing, shelters and transitional living programs could put youth on a path to self-sufficiency and reduce long wait lists, Lolai writes.

“If one kid does this successfully,” she told us in an interview, “that’s one less kid that needs to be in a shelter and one more free bed another kid can be in.”

We spoke with Lolai about who is eligible and how youth workers might help young people who want to consider this route.

NCFY: What makes youth eligible or ineligible for child support from their parents?

Lolai: In New York youth are eligible up to 21 years old. It also depends on the actual circumstances that led to a child being homeless. A kid could have left voluntarily or been kicked out. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether they [left] for good reason. If a parent is not accepting of their child’s gender identity or sexual orientation, abusing them, or demanding that they be straight or cisgender, that is unreasonable and therefore that child would be entitled to collect child support. Parents are only permitted to make reasonable demands of their children.

It’s all up to interpretation by judges, on a case-by-case basis.

NCFY: You write that this course of action is not for everyone. What are some of the barriers?

Lolai: If the relationship between parent and child is not already damaged, this could potentially do that. There is a possibility that some parents who reject their children may come around in the future. There is also a possibility that they won’t. I think that a lot of kids hold onto that hope that parents will someday come around.

[Learn how you can help families support their LGBTQ children.]

Another thing we have to remember is that many parents are poor. This [option] may work for some kids from middle class or affluent backgrounds. For other kids, it won’t work, and if your parents are poor and you petition them for child support, there’s a possibility they could go to jail for failure to pay child support.

NCFY: How do you envision the process of staff presenting youth with this option and guiding them through?

Lolai: One of the ways we can [do that] is by incorporating questions into the intake process about where [youth] were living before they became homeless. Who was taking care of them? Why and how did they end up homeless? Did they voluntarily leave their home or were they kicked out of their home by their caretaker? That information is all very important in determining whether this person would be eligible. Then, perhaps at some later point, provide youth with the option of petitioning parents for child support.

Sometimes we are not going to have luxury of conducting an intake interview, and waiting until the time is right to present youth with this option. One idea is to create a pamphlet with a list of legal services providers, eligibility requirements, and bullet points with the potential positive and negative outcomes. You can also put information on agency websites. If a young kid is homeless and using a library computer, looking for resources online, they can easily come across a resource like this.

[Libraries can be allies for homeless LGBTQ youth.]

The thought of going to court can be really scary for [youth]. A case worker can help them make appointments with legal service providers, or check in on a regular basis to see if they need guidance or support.

Cornell University Law School has a list of the criteria for emancipation (which makes young people ineligible for child support) in each state.

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