Finding a welcoming home for gay teens in foster care has long been a challenge. Advocates are calling for a city database that would identify and reserve supportive foster homes specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, but so far, city officials say there's no easy solution. No one knows how many teens in the city's foster care system identify as LGBTQ. Advocates who work with young people estimate the percentage to be high, because many gay and transgendered teens are kicked out by their parents and relatives, or leave home on their own, in part because their families don't accept their sexual orientation.
Often, teens report the same lack of tolerance and acceptance in foster care. Vanessa Fuentes, now 26, remembers being called names and getting beaten up in a group home for identifying as transgender. "Most of the time I ended up spending time alone walking the streets of NYC because I did not want to come home," Fuentes recalls.
Attorneys representing foster youth from Lawyers for Children, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Lambda Legal, and Legal Aid Society describe in excruciating detail the difficulties their LGBTQ-identified clients have experienced while in the city's custody. Their cases include incidents of foster parents seeking to turn gay kids straight, and others using religion as a justification for shunning gay people.
Many gay teens end up living on the streets, with one survey of New York City street youth finding that about one-third identify as LGBT. "By the time a young person calls my office, they've been through at least 13 failed placements," said Kimberly Forte, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Practice, at a recent City Council hearing.
Over the past two years, ACS has amplified its efforts to recruit supportive foster parents for LGBTQ youth, which include a downloadable poster on its website to help find more of these homes. But all foster parents are managed by the private non-profit foster care agencies that ACS oversees, and the city has no systematic way to identify those that are LGBTQ-affirming or to connect them to gay youth.
When a young person is slated to move to a foster home, officials at the ACS Office of Placement Administration look at a database listing of homes with empty beds. The list shows where the homes are located, which private foster care agencies oversee them, and the number, gender and ages of children they will accept. But it does not report which homes are earmarked for LGBTQ youth.
This means lawyers working with teens can locate these homes only through an ad hoc network of advocates. "For kids who are LGBT, we don't have any way to clearly match them so they literally get placed in a clearinghouse, a network of LGBT advocates, where you give a description of a child, like 'I have a 14-year-old lesbian youth who seeks a placement preferably in Brooklyn and the Bronx,' and through word of mouth try to find an agency with a home that's a fit," says Linda Diaz, co-director of the LGBTQ project at Lawyers for Children. Diaz argues that as a result, LGBTQ youth spend more time than other teens in temporary, isolated situations.
At the recent City Council hearing, ACS Commissioner John Mattingly suggested there was a limited number of foster parents willing to work with teens. He said it wouldn't be helpful to set up a system to help match LGBTQ young people to the right homes, because even homes recruited for LGBTQ youth must go to whomever needs them first, regardless of the young person's sexual orientation. "The challenge in foster care in general is the more you set up specialized foster homes for LGBTQ kids or for this or that neighborhood, the more you bump into the fact that you have to leave them open for some time," Mattingly said.
City officials say they will increase sensitivity to LGBTQ youth in foster care by requiring staff at the private foster care agencies to attend specialized training, and by urging the state to provide similar instruction for prospective foster parents. "We are requesting that all training have some LGBTQ focus," said Lorraine Stephens, ACS deputy commissioner. "We want to make sure that all our placements are safe."
Jarel Melendez, who runs a support group at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center for youth in foster care, says that until the placement system improves, many young people will opt out of the foster care system and stay on the streets.
After hearing one too many times from his foster mom that he would burn in hell for being gay, one young man told Melendez, "I'm hungry, I've been prostituting, and I think I'm HIV positive." Melendez helped introduce him to a new foster family. "He met with a lesbian couple, and it was an instant connection," Melendez remembers. Less than a year later, he was adopted.
"This young man was ready to live on the streets the rest of his life. He wouldn't have gotten the medical attention he needed. He would have been prostituting himself," says Melendez. "It was a success, but only because he came to the meeting that night and I stepped in. Usually these kids have no place to go."