Fred Elia, age 2, in recently discovered photo, with his birth mother. She died shortly later. Fred and his brother Tony then entered the foster care system, in which both grew to adulthood.
A Thousand Moms’ “Network of Support” Addresses Holiday Season Pressures for Gay Youth in Foster/Adoptive Care
As the holidays approach, unfortunately one group of young people do not automatically join in the spirit of the season: the thousands of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (LGBT/Q) youth in foster/adoptive care in New York. “Many of these youth feel trauma upon trauma and the holidays can add pressure with the feeling of ‘forced happiness,’” said Marcia B. Novey, MSEd, LMSW, network facilitator for A Thousand Moms. In time for the holidays, the recently organized, non-profit community organization launched its inaugural “Network of Support” teleconference, Thursday, December 10, across New York State. Participants addressed “Home and the Holidays for LGBT/Q Youth in Foster/Adoptive Care.”
The issue of gay youth in foster care is especially dire in light of recent statistics. According to New York State, gay young people or those questioning their sexual identity make up to 30% of the population in group homes or residential settings. It is a disproportionate number, considering that 10% of the general population is considered LGBT/Q. In addition, gay teens are eight times as likely to attempt suicide compared to the teen population as a whole, according to a 2009 study by San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project. Drug abuse, homelessness and incarceration are also at disproportionately high levels in this population.
A Thousand Moms “Network of Support” brought together for the first time committed community members representing various professions with those responsible for the care of LGBT/Q youth in the child welfare system. Member “Moms,” foster/adoptive parents, advocates, agency staff (public and private), and interested professionals from related fields took part in the event. Participants, representing all regions of New York State, offered practical advice and strategies to help foster/adoptive families, agency staff and youth cope with the stresses of the holiday season.
“Developmental processes for gay youth are often different and delayed. These youth can be delayed, emotionally. Feelings of being gay, etc., are layered on top,” said Fred Elia, MS, president of A Thousand Moms. Elia grew up in foster care and is gay. “These youth have to deal with a triple loss: loss of childhood innocence due to neglect and/or abuse, loss of birth family due to foster care placement, and now feeling ‘I’m not what people think I am.’ Behavior is the language of emotions and the reason for a behavior is there someplace: loss of contact with siblings and friends, developing an alternative sexuality.”
The next “Network of Support” teleconference will be held in late January. Please visit www.athousandmoms.org to check for date, time, and topic.
From Buffalo to Bridgehampton and Back
Or A Thousand Miles for A Thousand Moms
One fall day in October Fred Elia and I set off on a swing around New York State. The leaves were in their full glory and the weather was mild. We met up in Canandaigua where we trained a small but eager group from the Rochester area regarding recruiting gay foster parents. We were in a beautiful resort facing the lake as a heavy storm with high winds beat rain and lake water against the picture window. Having a small group enabled us to listen to many individual concerns and to offer insights and suggestions.
That afternoon we took off for Buffalo and had a dinner of beef on kimmelweck and German potato salad at the world famous Scwabl’s. I had last eaten there about 50 years ago with my parents. It hasn’t changed a bit. The next day we had a very interesting work shop. One person came in addition to Sue Cordoso from GLYS, Gay and Lesbian Youth Services. We had a very interesting conversation about language straight people use and feel comfortable or uncomfortable with when talking to LGBT people. Sue said she prefers to be called queer because it seems less like being put in a pigeon hole by a more specific label. We all then went to visit GYLS and learned about their wonderful program.
After that we headed off to Cuba for training with folks from the southern area of the Buffalo region. We had a great training there with about 25 people from both foster care and other youth services, including Sue who came down from GLYS for the day. It was great to have people with different roles discussing how they could help and supplement each other’s service to families. We tend to get so compartmentalized in our work. We hope their collaboration will continue and expand.
Once again we hopped into our cars and took off east. We stopped for the night at my cottage in PA after grabbing a quart of lo mein. We set off early Saturday for Bridgehampton where we were expected at a fund raising gathering for A Thousand Moms. This was very good gathering and was both successful and a great learning opportunity for us.
Fred and I then went our separate ways, exhausted but exhilarated by what we had seen and heard. By the way, the entire 1,000 miles was driven through the beautiful foliage in pouring rain.
The fall 2009 issue of The Connection by CASA for Children discusses the importance of addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth in foster care. The challenges and risks faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in care can be summarized in three broad categories: intolerance, lack of safety and barriers to permanency.
A teenage boy is singled out by his foster parents and worker solely because of his non-gender-conforming appearance and mannerisms. A recommendation is made for placement in a residential center known for treating youth who are sexual offenders.
Youth in foster care who are LGBTQ are less likely to find a permanent home than other children, whether that means reunification or adoption …“One of the issues that affects youth in the system who are sexual or gender minorities is not enough focus on permanency,” says Jody Marksamer, staff attorney and youth project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). “Child welfare workers often give up on the idea that these youth will find a family that’s excited to have them.”
Transgender youth may have the hardest time with permanency. “I’ve worked with a lot of homelesstransgender youth who couldn’t find anyone who would accept them for who they are,” says Lydi Davidson, MSW, director of resource development for the National CASA member program Advocates for Children in Columbus, IN.
“The bigotry they face in the community is incredible. Institutions that most of us take for granted such as family, education, health care and religion often have turned their backs on them.” Davidson formerly ran Indiana Youth Group, an agency that offers a safe house and otherservices for gay and transgender youth ages 12–18.
Georgia Feiste is a volunteer advocate and trainer with CASA for Lancaster County in Lincoln, NE. She has also been active for 15 years with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) because her son is gay.
“One of the things that I have observed about LGBT people is that there is often a great deal of introspection,” says Feiste. “And that is unusual for a teenager.
What I found with young teens is that at first most didn’t want to be gay. There is this self-hatred that starts to permeate their personality. Many teenagers who have not accepted the fact that they are gay become very angry and often end up self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and our son was not an exception. What they are really looking for is someone to help them understand who they are—and help them learn to love themselves.”
What is Feiste’s message when she helps train new CASA volunteers? “The most important thing that these teenagers need is someone to tell them that they are okay just the way they are….”
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To provide support for agency workers, parents, and LGBT/Q youth, A Thousand Moms announces its first statewide conference call, Home and the Holidays for LGBT/Q Youth in Foster/Adoptive Care. Join our team of social workers on December 10 via conference phone line. Check www.athousandmoms.org in upcoming days.