The nonprofit You Gotta Believe joined in on LGBTQ pride celebrations last month by hosting an event featuring a panel of LGBTQ current and former foster youth at their monthly Nobody Ages Out meeting in New York City.
You Gotta Believe is one of the few organizations across the country that focuses on finding permanent families for young adults and teens in the foster care system. Nobody Ages Out is a You Gotta Believe-led movement aiming to ensure that every young person in foster care will have a family before they reach the age of 21 when they “age out” of care and are left without a support system.
The New York-based organization has been involved in LGBTQ issues for many years and formally launched the YGB Pride initiative in 2014. June’s Nobody Ages Out meeting specifically focused on the trials of LGBTQ foster youth. The youth panel talked about how their lives in foster care have been impacted as a result of their sexual orientation.
Concerns about services for LGBTQ foster youth have grown as recent national studies have found that nearly 1 in 5 young people in foster care identify as LGBTQ, even though they represent 5 to 7 percent of the nation’s overall youth population.
Coordinators from the Nobody Ages Out Youth Collaborative of You Gotta Believe orchestrated the event, posing questions to each of the five panelists.
A former foster youth named Richard, 27, signed himself out of care at age 20. His mother was taking care of six children and experienced a severe mental breakdown after the sudden passing of Richard’s father. “I signed out because nobody told me the benefits of staying in,” he said. “I thought I was ready to go, I wasn’t.”
Others faced challenges directly related to their sexuality. Twenty-six 26 percent of LGBTQ young people are kicked out of their homes and rejected from their birth or foster families solely because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Jasmine, 20, grew up between New York City, Trinidad and Jamaica, constantly switching schools.
At 17 she moved back toNew York City from Jamaica and attended an all-girls school, which Jasmine said, “brought out my lesbian-ness.”
Jasmine explained that her mother often made her feel uncomfortable because of her sexuality, that it was “her way of indirectly telling me to leave.”
After leaving home Jasmine was homeless for three months. She tried staying with friends and was eventually taken into care by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.
A lack of family acceptance and/or abuse causes many LGBTQ youth to be removed from their homes, leading to another set of unique challenges as they enter the child welfare system. Many of the panelists were placed in multiple foster homes, treatment centers, and group homes throughout their time in the system.
Richard lived in over 20 different homes or placements throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Justice, 20, reflected on the transitory lifestyle. “Sometimes you’re living with six kids, sometimes you get into conflicts, and they tell you to move,” he said.
Moves to different homes would happen suddenly, within an hour or two. Belongings would be packed in trash bags, and “like cattle, you just go,” Justice said. “There was never an explanation, always an assumption.”
Beyond the challenges of being in foster care, the panelists faced discrimination and other struggles related to their sexuality.
“I think about it often when I’ll sit down with my mom and tell her I won’t have kids with a man. I’ve never been direct with it,” Jasmine said.
In sharing their sexual identifications, similar themes arose. The foster care alumni explained that there are always a bunch of follow-up questions after “saying yes or no” to being gay. Some shared their experiences of feeling safe while coming out to family and friends. Others were more apprehensive.
“I’ve never officially come out because I’ve always just been me. I probably have insecurities because of what’s going on in our society today,” said one panelist.
New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has implemented LGBTQ-specific policies to include best practices designed to overcome the widespread abuse, harassment and discrimination LGBTQ young people experience at home and in their communities. ACS created an LGBTQ office in September of 2012 to raise awareness and ensure that services meet the needs of LGBTQ youth. However, many youth reflected troubling instances related to their sexual identities while in foster care.
In group homes in particular, “It’s either eat or be eaten,” one of the panelists said.
Studies have shown that 78 percent of LGBTQ youth experience some form of anti-LGBTQ bias or harassment in their foster care placement.
“You would think the staff would help but they wouldn’t,” Justice said.
ACS has developed a series of trainings specifically for NYC child welfare staff “to help them understand our policy expectations and to provide concrete skills to translate our LGBTQ policies into everyday practice,” according to the ACS website. Current policy includes a mandatory LGBTQ training for all staff.
Panelists reflected a common sentiment that more support groups and trainings are needed to ensure that all foster parents, ACS workers and support staff are LGBTQ friendly.
“I believe that there are services out there but there aren’t enough,” said Richard.
Others appreciated the growth of progressive policies for LGBTQ youth, but explained that the policies are not properly implemented or do not work.
Since 2001, ACS has welcomed feedback from community leaders and organizations on strategies to improve the overall health and well-being of the LGBTQ young people in ACS’ care. ACS unveiled its LGBTQ Strategic Plan in 2006 and has since implemented a reporting and monitoring system to identify policy gaps.
Conversations stemming from events like the Nobody Ages Out panel can help facilitate open discussions about child welfare policies leading to improvements in the lives of LGBTQ youth across the city.
While the policy conversation surrounding LGBTQ is not new at ACS, panelists offered advice for generating total acceptance within the community, where there is still work to be done.
“Be accepting because I am accepting of me,” Richard said. Another panelist chimed in, “be accepting because I am not accepting of me.”
A communal sense of trepidatious hope loomed in the air. Panelists expressed feelings of “wanting to be normalized” and to be treated as fellow human beings.
“After Orlando, 49 people lost their lives. So much hate for just being ourselves,” Justice said.
Panelists urged all attendees to go back and spread the word that things aren’t right with LGBTQ youth and the foster care system, to educate and to teach.
“I always advise people to just sit back and listen. I advise everyone to look at the other side. The grass may be greener on the other side but that doesn’t mean it’s real,” Jasmine said.
As the event came to a close, a final reminder was given: regardless of the role you play in the foster care system, openness is crucial.
“What it all comes down to, we’re all human.”
Last names have been withheld in the interest of privacy.