Eric Charles-Gallo June 10, 2015 USA Today
Today’s system leaves gay children at a higher risk for physical abuse and homelessness.
When Darnell’s case came across my desk at the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association in Independence, Mo., it never occurred to me that some day my husband and I would welcome this young man into our home.
After all, Louis and I already had six beautiful children under the age of 12 — the big family we always wanted, and a busy, full house.
But as I tried calling everyone I knew to get Darnell placed, and the more I learned about him, the more it seemed that fate had routed his file to my office, and my desk. You see, Darnell, like me and Louis, is gay. And after he came out to his biological family, his mother told him that if he “chose” to be that way, he was no longer welcome in his own home.
Darnell, then 14, ran away after his mother’s edict, and, when found, a county judge gave him a choice. He could go back home, or go into foster care. He chose foster care.
What Darnell couldn’t have known is that his county social workers would be unable to find a gay-affirming foster family for him, a situation that’s true in most counties across the country. The reality faced by LGBT youth— fewer accepting, inclusive foster homes than are available to their non-LGBT peers, and the heartbreaking consequences — is revealed in two important studies.
In New York City,78% of LGBTQ youth were removed from their foster homes or ran away because of hostility toward their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 70% reported experiencing physical violence in group homes. And a 2014 study by the Williams Institute shows that nearly 1 out of 5 youth in the Los Angeles foster care system is LGBTQ. That same study found that LGBT youth in Los Angeles foster care, like Darnell, were bounced around much more than non-LGBTQ youth, were more than twice as likely to be placed in group homes, and experienced homelessness and hospitalization for emotional reasons at far higher rates.
This crisis isn’t limited to the nation’s coasts: Scores of agencies like the one I work for in Missouri have been turning to organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation for help as we see more and more youth like Darnell in need of homes, but thrust into a system that leaves them frustrated and rejected.
I have chosen to tell our story — Darnell’s story — to drive home this painful reality.
Darnell never should have to had to suffer like this. From a small Missouri town, he loved school, 4-H, his friends, and cheerleading (you should hear him talk about the Bring It On movies). But because of his sexual orientation, he found himself shifted from foster home to foster home, told that it was “fine” if he was gay, he just had to be gay somewhere else.
He started falling behind in school, and after being placed in a residential facility, Darnell told his placement team: “I need a real home.” That’s when his story reached my desk at MFCAA, which just happens to be the only foster care and adoption agency in Missouri certified by HRC as a leader in LGBT inclusiveness among child welfare agencies.
When Louis and I were growing up, we both knew we wanted big families. We wanted to watch our kids grow and learn, tuck them in at bedtime and get them up for school every morning. Because we were gay, we never thought we’d get that opportunity, but when Louis and first started dating eight years ago, we made a promise to each other that we’d try.
Today, we’re raising a full house of seven children: a little girl, Ava, and six boys, ranging in age from our oldest son, Darnell, now 16, to four-year-old Justice. Our littlest ones love Darnell, and look up to him.
Darnell knows it, so he’s always the first at the kitchen table to do his homework and the first to volunteer to do chores. Having to be the one to set the right example makes him want to try harder and do better, he says. He’s flying high at school — student council, yearbook, and two national championships in cheerleading. He’s even been accepted to a prestigious pre-college medical program. We couldn’t be prouder of him.
Before he came to live with our family, Darnell wasn’t sure if he could dream of a better life. He didn’t know if he could get past being rejected by his family, bounced from home to home, told that being himself wasn’t good enough. But now he knows that no matter what he’s been through, if he can dream it, and if he’s willing to work hard, there’s nothing he can’t do. And there’s nothing his family won’t do for him.
Every child deserves to have a family, and all loving, committed couples should be able to experience the same feeling of absolute awe Louis and I do as we watch our children grow and change every single day.
But there are many more youth like Darnell who aren’t so lucky. In fact, the federal government believes that the issue of LGBTQ youth in foster care is so critical that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a historic call to child welfare agencies to guarantee that every child has access to a “safe, loving and affirming foster care placement, irrespective of the young person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”
This is not about politics or simply policy. It’s about family. Because that’s exactly what we are.
Eric Charles-Gallo is Director of Training at the Midwest Foster Care & Adoption Association in Independence, Mo.