HRC Blog

Guest Post: Training All Children - All Families

The following is from Rob Woronoff, Child Welfare Consultant and All Children – All Families Trainer, and is sponsored by the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association:

My phone rang one afternoon in 2005, while I was the LGBTQ director with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) in Washington, DC. The call was from a reporter from the Kansas City Star in Kansas City, MO. She wanted to know what I and CWLA thought of a ruling recently made by a Kansas City judge which upheld the Missouri Department of Social Service’s (MDSS) decision not to grant a foster care license to lesbian, specifically because she was a lesbian. The woman, Lisa Johnston, held a degree in child development and had worked for many years with abused and neglected children. The judge even referred to her as “exceptionally” qualified to be foster parent before siding with the state to deny her a license. I told the reporter that Missouri had no law or policy that would prevent the state from licensing a lesbian foster parent. The reporter relayed to me that MDSS had told her that the denial of the license was based on an “unwritten rule.” As someone who has worked for many years on issues facing LGBT youth and families involved with the child welfare system, I had to admit that this was the first time I’d been presented with a situation based on a something called an unwritten rule. I then wondered what other types of unwritten rules might be used to make licensing and placement decisions by the MDSS. (No redheads, no people who like asparagus. Where does this kind of thing end?)

Not really knowing what to make of an unwritten rule, I was nevertheless curious about what might be the legal or policy foundation for something so unquantifiable. The reporter said she’d been told it was based on the state’s sodomy law. I guessed that news of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 which found sodomy laws to be unconstitutional had been slow to make its way to Missouri. Eventually, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Ms. Johnston and the state ultimately backed down, taking its sodomy law with it. (I remained curious about that unwritten rule thing. Can an unwritten rule be torn up? How does one know when it’s no longer there? Anyway…)

Fast forward to March 2011 and I’m standing in front of more than 70 child welfare professionals in Kansas City who had dedicated an entire day to learning more about HRC’s All Children – All Families initiative. The executive director of the Midwest Foster Care an Adoption Association, Lori Ross, organized the event, which attracted representatives from both public and private agencies throughout the Kansas City area. Most of the participants in the training recruit, train and license foster and adoptive parents. These folks spent seven hours listening to me and my co-trainer, Karey Scheyd, talk about the ways in which they can become more welcoming and affirming of LGBT foster and adoptive parents. Before I get into some of things that were addressed during the training, I’d like to spend a moment talking about Lori Ross. Not only does this woman, a straight-identified ally, run an agency dedicated to finding homes for some of the state’s most vulnerable children, but she and her husband have actually adopted twenty foster children. I’ll say that again. She and her husband have adopted twenty foster children. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Or in Lori’s case, putting your life where your work is.

So this leader in the Kansas City child welfare community knows the importance of finding homes for foster children, on both the professional and personal levels. As someone who has lived in and worked in Kansas City for many years, Lori was well-aware of the Johnston case, which she viewed as a tremendous waste of time and effort that could have been better spent helping Ms. Johnston and her partner, a chaplain at a psychiatric treatment center for children, find the right child or children with whom to share their experience, dedication and love. When Lori became aware of the types of training and support offered by All Children All Families, she jumped at the chance to build capacity among her peers to recruit, train and license LGBT foster and adoptive parents. Even without employing any formal strategies to reach out to LGBT communities in Kansas City, Lori told me that 30% of the parents they’ve licensed are gay or lesbian. Word of mouth, long considered the best and most effective outreach tool for prospective parents, had been spreading throughout the Kansas City area for a few years. But Lori knows that it’s important that agencies other than hers increase their capacity to work well with LGBT parents.

All Children All Families offers a comprehensive training curriculum consisting of four distinct modules. Module 1 covers basic LGBT competency. Module 2 provides a foundation for effective practice with LGBT parents. Module 3 is called Rolling Out the Welcome Mat and discusses the steps that agencies can take to make their environments welcoming and affirming of LGBT parents. And Module 4 addresses issues of conducting home assessments and child-matching. The folks in Kansas City were taken through Modules 1 and 2.

The training was a rousing success from start to finish. I’ve been delivering trainings on LGBT issues for more than 20 years, and I’ve rarely seen any group, no matter how enthusiastic about the material, arrive as early, come back from breaks and lunch as promptly, and be as eager to discuss the issues as the folks Karey and I trained in Kansas City.

Much of the discussion in the first part of the day focused on understanding sexual and gender identity development. Participants were led through a number of interactive exercises designed to deepen their understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. As a trainer, it’s pretty easy to tell when folks are confused or overwhelmed by this type of discussion. Not the folks in the Kansas City training, where, by the way, all but two of the more than 70 participants were women. They were with us every step of the way and really seemed to digest all the information that was thrown at them. The afternoon session brought some very interesting discussion, particularly around some of the commonly held myths associated with LGBT parenting, i.e., that LGBT people will raise LGBT children (in the same way that all straight parents raise straight kids, right?). I loved one woman’s response to this concern. She simply said, “So what if that’s true?” Other myths discussed included a not-uncommonly-held belief that gay men will sexually abuse children (even though the data are pretty clear that more than 98% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men); and that LGBT couples cannot sustain lasting relationships (much in the same way, I suppose, as the 50% of straight couples whose marriages end in divorce).

Moving past these myths, we talked at length about the strengths that many LGBT adults possess which might make them excellent parents. When asked what some of these strengths might be, participants in Kansas City offered that since many LGBT people have known what it feels like to be rejected by friends and family they can relate well to foster children who’ve also known familial rejection. Many LGBT people also know what it takes to be patient with friends, family and with society at large since LGBT people are often stigmatized much in the same way as foster children. One of my favorite quotes from the day was offered by a young social worker who said, “prejudice cannot survive experience.”  When asked to expand on that thought she talked about how easy it is to dismiss those we don’t know by thinking of them as “other” or different. But once we really get to know people, the preconceptions we held about them naturally fall away as we begin to see them less as “other” and more as human beings. She talked about a straight social worker and a gay prospective parent having much in common simply because they both want the same thing for children— that they grow up in safe, stable homes with parents who love them.

So it’s clear that much progress has been made, and will continue to be made, in a part of the country where, just a few years ago, an “exceptionally” qualified woman was denied the chance to love and raise children simply because she shared her life with another woman. When asked at the end of the day about concrete steps that folks in the training could do to increase their ability to work with LGBT foster and adoptive parents, Lori Ross’s hand was the first to go up. She said she will see to it that her agency meets the benchmarks outlined in the All Children All Families promising practices guide so that the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association becomes one of an ever-growing number of agencies throughout the country that achieve the HRC ACAF Seal of  Recognition. Having spent but one day with this remarkable woman, I suspect her agency will don the HRC equal sign in no time and will serve as an inspiration for other similar agencies in the Kansas City area to do the same.

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