States Fight Discrimination Toward Gay Foster Kids
MIAMI - Sixto Cancel says his ultra-religious foster family frequently talked about their disdain for his homosexuality at the dinner table, trashed his room and called him homophobic slurs. While he was still a teenager, he says, they kicked him out of their Connecticut home after he had lived there for nearly a decade.
"I’ve had foster homes who completely said you can’t live here if you’re gay," said Cancel, a 21-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University who bounced between half a dozen foster homes while in care. "For a long time I had that self-hatred and uncomfortableness with who I am."
Discrimination against gay and lesbian youths in foster care is prevalent enough around the country that federal health officials sent a letter in 2011 encouraging states to develop training for caseworkers and foster parents on the issue. Advocates in a handful of states including Florida, California, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts have increased efforts to train caseworkers, recruit foster parents and assign mentors. Officials don’t want to force youths to disclose their sexuality, but must try to create environments where they feel safe to come out when ready. Without such support, the federal government memo says, gay and lesbian youths who leave the foster care system can wind up homeless.
"I’ve had conversations with many youth in the system who will not come out because they saw how staff treated their friends in the system after they came out," said Kamora Herrington, mentoring program director of True Colors, an organization that helps gay foster youths in Connecticut.
Last year, a lesbian girl who Herrington worked with was kicked out of a Connecticut foster home after the family’s grandmother, who was very opposed to homosexuality, moved in. Herrington said the last time she heard from the girl, she was hitch-hiking across the country.
The nonprofit True Colors has a mentoring program for more than 75 young people, as well as a policy program that works closely with Connecticut child welfare workers. DCF also has a program liaison in every office where caseworkers can get referral services if they are working with a gay child or need help educating a foster family.
In California, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center received a $13.3 million, five-year grant from the federal government to ultimately find permanent homes for gay foster youths. The center has already trained about 500 child welfare workers on gay and transgender issues this year and is creating a curriculum that can be duplicated nationally. The second part of the program links the youth with services from family counseling to education assistance, and makes sure each service is sensitive to their sexual orientation.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to open a co-ed group home for gay foster teens after child welfare officials said they were seeing too many of the young people living on the streets. Roughly 100 foster youths have lived in the home which is run by gay and straight staffers. Child welfare officials there also recently started mentoring program along with life skills classes that teach things like cooking and budgeting.