Mass Media Dives into Queer, Foster Care Issues

By Erica Hellerstein

At first glance, the family eating dinner in the pilot episode of ABC Family’s new drama, “The Fosters,” seems like any old America family.

An adolescent boy sits across the table from his polished twin sister, in a kitchen with white walls and sleek hardwood floors. His mother hovers nearby in a crisp white blouse. Their conversation, however—ranging from foster care to Child Protective Services—quickly reveals what the setting does not.

“The Fosters” tells the story of an interracial lesbian couple (police officer and school principal) with adopted Latino twins, a white biological son, and the latest addition to the family, a teenage foster child fresh out of juvenile hall.

She arrives at their home in the first episode with a scabbed and bloated lip from a recent fight, visibly disdainful of her jovial parents and cultural kaleidoscope of a family.

“So you’re dykes,” she says drily when Stephanie — the cop — joins her family at the dinner table. She jerks her head towards Stephanie’s son. “And he’s the real one.”

Her wry attitude underscores the show’s intention to tackle complex issues, ranging from juvenile detention to foster care, interracial adoption, and biracial and lesbian coupling.  According to producer Peter Paige in a recent New York Times article, it espouses “a very simple belief: that we’re really fundamentally all the same.”

Promotional poster for the "Be the Reason" campaign. (c) Administration for Children's Services
Promotional poster for the “Be the Reason” campaign. (c) Administration for Children’s Services

That message coincides with another movement to raise awareness about gay youth and foster parents.

In New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) recently launched the “Be the Reason” advertising campaign to recruit a more diverse set of foster parents, including gay foster parents.

“This is a public awareness campaign to raise awareness amongst New Yorkers about the possibility of becoming a foster parent,” said ACS Deputy Commissioner Michael Fagan in an interview. “That’s what we’re hoping to achieve.”

The administration introduced the campaign in June, in an effort to encourage gay New Yorkers to become foster parents, and provide emotional support and resources for gay foster youth, a group that often faces bullying and discrimination in the foster care system.

According to the report, “LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning] Youth in the Foster Care System” by the National Center for Lesbian Rights:

“Many LGBTQ youth in the foster care system experience verbal harassment and physical or sexual abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In one of the only studies of its kind, 100 percent of LGBTQ youth in New York City group homes reported that they were verbally harassed while at their group home and 70 percent reported physical violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Promotional poster for the "Be the Reason" campaign. (c) Administration for Children's Services.
Promotional poster for the “Be the Reason” campaign. (c) Administration for Children’s Services.

Another study found that 78 percent of gay youth ran away from or were removed from their foster care placements as a result of their sexual orientation.

But 2012 research conducted by the ACS found that gay adults in New York City contemplating foster care are significantly more likely to consider fostering a teen or gay youth. Of a survey of 100 adults who identify as gay, it found that “Roughly three in five gay adults who would consider fostering would foster a teen or gay youth.”

To encourage this group to consider fostering gay youth, the campaign will feature ads placed in different locations throughout the city, including subway stations and selected newspapers.  One advertisement poster, boasting the slogan “Be the Reason She Has Hope,” features an interracial gay couple cooking with a young girl.

Another pictures features a middle-aged woman with a smiling, shaggy-headed teenaged boy. “Be the Reason It Gets Better,” the advertisement says. “Help an LGBTQ child by becoming an LGBTQ-affirming Foster or Adoptive Parent.”

When profit-driven industries like television and advertising decide to highlight an issue, it often means the public is ready to do so as well. Now — as children watch network television or wait for a train in the subway station — they may learn a little about gay foster parents and youth.

 Erica Hellerstein is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Bonita Tindle and Evan Molineux produced this video.

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