Robin Kane, HRC Family Project, Nov. 30, 2006
Three hundred people recently gathered in Nashville to pave a safer path in the nation's child welfare system for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and families. It was a historic event, marking the first national conference dedicated to increasing the capacity of the child welfare system to serve GLBT children, youth and families. The Human Rights Campaign served as a conference sponsor.
The child welfare system poses multiple challenges to GLBT youth and families. Youth who question or become aware of their sexual orientation or gender identity while in the system may face social workers who do not know how to handle their identities. The youth may be less likely to be placed in foster care or adoptive homes and may face hostile or dangerous situations in group home settings. Other youth may first enter the child welfare system after being rejected by their families of origin after coming out. At the same time, GLBT adults who want to serve as mentors, foster parents or adoptive parents often face restrictive policies or unwelcoming agencies.
"We believe that LGBTQ young people involved in the child welfare system are entitled to a competent, supportive system of care that is prepared to offer them the caring, nurturing and love all children need and deserve," said Rob Woronoff, LGBTQ program director at the Child Welfare League of America. "And we believe adults who are committed to supporting these young people should be judged by the quality of care they provide, and not by their sexual orientation or gender identity."
CWLA presented the conference as part of its annual "Finding Better Ways" forum to improve practices in the field. The organization worked in partnership with Lambda Legal and other groups to coordinate the conference, which convened a broad range of participants � researchers, parents, service providers, school counselors, policymakers, healthcare workers, youth advocates, agency administrators and, importantly, people who are or were in the foster care system.
Conference participants came from 42 states, with heavy representation among southern states. Woronoff said the conference was hosted in Nashville with the intention of making travel easier for participants who don't live on the coasts and ensuring diverse experiences. Child welfare workers attended from locations as disparate as Guthrie, Ky. (population less than 1,500), and New York, N.Y.
As a conference sponsor, the Human Rights Campaign coordinated a plenary session on religion and faith. HRC Family Project Director Ellen Kahn attended the conference and came back energized and excited about the prospects for positive change.
"The conference featured leaders in GLBT youth issues who are raising the bar in their field," Kahn said.
One such leader is Caitlin Ryan, of the C-sar E. Ch�vez Institute at San Francisco State University, who presented research on family acceptance and its impact on the success of GLBT youth. Ryan and a team of clinicians conducted in-depth interviews with parents and other family members of GLBT youth of diverse ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Her research shows that children from families who accept and support their children's sexual orientation or gender identity adjust better and achieve more � in academics, relationships and work settings. Those from families who reject them struggle more with school, mental health and substance abuse. These youth are more likely to require social services and enter the child welfare system. Ryan and her team at the Family Acceptance Project are creating tools and a campaign to help parents move from rejection through acceptance to celebration.
Ryan's presentation featured a panel of GLBT youth and their families, including a transgender woman whose parents fully supported her transition at age 19, giving her the support she needed to go to college and work toward a career.
"It was extremely inspiring to hear the youth speaking out," Kahn said about the many panels that featured young people currently or formerly involved in the child welfare system. "Not all stories were positive, of course. Many faced painful challenges, but most were moving into new and better chapters in their lives."
Another pioneer in the field addressed the improving climate within many child welfare agencies juxtaposed against the conservative political climate that creates obstacles for improving policies. Gerald P. Mallon, a professor at Hunter College School of Social Work and author of numerous books, discussed the dramatic changes. Through the CWLA Press, Mallon recently published Lesbian and Gay Foster and Adoptive Parents: Recruiting, Assessing and Supporting an Untapped Resource for Children and Youth. He is also the author of Child Welfare for the 21st Century: A Handbook of Practices, Policies and Programs.
Kahn was intrigued by new approaches to increase outreach to GLBT adults to serve as a resource to youth in foster care. Cities that are aware of the needs of GLBT youth have created new ways to recruit adults to serve as mentors to this population, including specific outreach to GLBT adults.
"Even though I had an accepting family," Kahn said, "there were periods when I was young when I felt alone and didn't know where to turn." Of those GLBT youth in foster care, Kahn said, "My heart was saying, 'I could be a resource,' and I would think some other GLBT adults would feel the same way � if not as adoptive parents, maybe as mentors."
Kahn said the conference affirmed her commitment to a new campaign HRC is supporting to improve the nation's child welfare system for GLBT youth and families. The campaign, called "All Children/All Families," will bring together leaders in the child welfare field in two phases. First, the campaign will train child welfare professionals on GLBT issues, so they can treat the youth in their system fairly and be open and supportive of GLBT adults who want to mentor, foster or adopt. The second phase will be to enhance recruitment of GLBT adults to serve in multiple roles for youth in the system.
"The conference illuminated how much more work there is to do," Kahn said. "But it also showcased the number of people committed to improving practices, including so many straight, fair-minded social workers who want to do what's best for the children and youth in their care."
Woronoff echoed the need for training and competency-building in the field. He noted that many new resources have been produced that never before existed. In addition to the resources by Ryan and Mallon, Woronoff cited the following:
In partnership with Lambda Legal, CWLA held listening forums around the country to hear from youth and adults involved in the child welfare system. The sessions led to a document of those experiences, Out of the Margins.
A special edition of the Child Welfare Journal was devoted to GLBT youth.
CWLA published guidelines on best practices for serving GLBT youth.
The next steps are clear, says Woronoff. First, teach people how to use all the new resources and recruit new families. Then, make sure all GLBT people can be parents if they want to be parents. Finally, "Aim for obsolescence.
"We don't want to have another special conference," Woronoff said. "These are competencies that anyone who works in these agencies needs to understand."
Thankfully, CWLA has secured grant money to fund some of the trainings so that cash-strapped child welfare agencies need only be willing to accept the training � they won't need to pay for the training. Woronoff is now working with sources of funding from the GLBT community to better understand families and child welfare issues so that the training can be taken to the scale it needs for success.
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