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When Terrell Calloway was in 4th grade, his foster mother saw him kiss another boy in the group home where he was living. She locked Calloway in a bedroom, and the other boy in the cellar. Within two weeks, both boys had been transferred to other group homes.
“She said, ‘Why did you kiss him? You should have rejected it. You disgust me,’” Calloway said.
Calloway, now 20 years old and attending Los Angeles Community College, said he didn’t know a single LGBT youth who had a positive experience in the foster system. But now, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center has been awarded $13.3 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — the largest federal grant ever awarded to an LGBT organization — to fund the creation of a program to support LGBT youth in the Los Angeles County foster care system.
The six-year program will be the first in the United States ever to specifically address the needs of LGBT youth in foster care. Darrell Cummings, chief of staff at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said the goal is to create a model that can be replicated across the country.
“This has never been done before,” Cummings said. “The objective is to impact all of the systems that are designed to care for these young people, but are currently failing to one degree or another, so LGBT young people can have a great chance of success.”
The grant—one of six doled out by HHS to address needs in the foster care system — comes on the heels of a spate of gay teen suicides across the country, which has highlighted some of the difficulties LGBT teens face. Research suggests that those difficulties — physical and verbal abuse, rejection by family — are exacerbated in the foster care system. The HHS request for proposals, which was issued in June, noted that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning youth tend to experience longer stays as well as multiple placements.
“These grants represent an important step in addressing the inadequacies in the child welfare system, and will help some of the most vulnerable children in that system,” said David A. Hansell, acting assistant secretary for children and families.
According to a 2001 study in New York, 78 percent of LGBT youth either ran away or were removed from foster care placements because hostility towards their sexual or gender identities. In addition, 70 percent of LGBT youth in foster care suffered physical abuse, and 100 percent suffered verbal abuse.
In addition, Calloway said the fear of being moved from a home also keeps some LGBT foster youth in the closet longer. After the incident in 4th grade, he said he repressed his sexuality for as long as he was able, and lived in near-constant fear that he would be discovered.
“I think the fear that I would be kicked out was much stronger than what most people deal with,” Calloway said. “When you come out in a home where the only thing that connects you is that they get money for having you there, then it becomes a huge fear. I’ve seen people get moved because they spoke up about their sexuality.”
Still, despite the statistics, there have been no specialized resources for LGBT youth in the Los Angeles County foster care system since the closure of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Services, a group home, in 2008.
According to Robert F. Myers, executive vice president of Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, a group that works with foster youth in Los Angeles County, the first priority is to change other children’s attitudes towards LGBT youth.
“I think it’s a big challenge, and a very worthy challenge, to change other kids’ attitudes,” Myers said. “We need comprehensive training for all staff, and we need to use that training and expertise to help remove the stigma many of these youngsters experience, and create a safe environment for them.”
The details of the Gay & Lesbian Center’s program will be developed during the course of the next year, and then implemented in the subsequent five years. Cummings said the program would use a two-pronged approach to serve 100 LGBT youth who are in foster care or at risk of entering the system.
The program seeks to implement systemic changes like training staff at foster care agencies to work with LGBT youth, and working to accelerate permanent placements. In addition, Gay & Lesbian Center staff will also work one-on-one with families to build acceptance of LGBT kids and prevent children from entering the foster care system.
“Experience has taught us that parents want good things for their children, even if they have difficulty with a child’s sexual orientation,” Cummings said.
Cummings said he hoped the recent string of suicides would help bring about systemic change in the way LGBT youth are treated, not just in the Los Angeles foster care system, but across the country.
“This is something we’ve been living with for a long time, and the rest of the world has not paid attention,” Cummings said. “I think if these tragedies don’t bring about change, something is terribly wrong with our culture.”
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