WASHINGTON — Jonathan had spent nearly a decade in Louisiana’s child welfare system. The safest places, the gay teen discovered, were the moldy homes he squatted in after Hurricane Katrina.
Roofs sagged, floors caved in, mold veined walls and there were always rats. "It was very uncomfortable," said Jonathan. "Old, dark, lots of insects, rodents. … It was times I cried." Often, he lit fires to keep the rats away.
At 18 years old, Jonathan had just aged out of foster care and was essentially homeless. But those boarded-up dwellings were peaceful refuges compared to the facilities he experienced as a state ward.
Jonathan had logged time in group homes, foster homes, shelters, a secure detention center and even a military boot-camp-style school. It didn’t matter where he ended up. He said he always felt the sting of homophobia.
There were very few adults who hadn’t given up on him.
His parents had left him with a set of grandparents who then abused him over his effeminate demeanor. On one occasion, Jonathan said, his grandmother attacked him with a two-by-four.
In the system, he didn’t fare any better. Group home staff and residents taunted him with anti-gay slurs. At one point, a staffer broke his arm during a restraint. He was jumped at school and left battered and bruised. Foster parents evicted him over his sexuality.
Safety meant being alone with his pens and paper. He’d spend hours drawing lions and tigers or sketching his self-portrait — his face hidden in a hoodie.
"I felt abandoned because of my sexuality," Jonathan said. "[State workers] weren’t trying to help. They were trying to get me out of the way."
No one ever seemed to want him for very long. By his count, he had stayed in dozens of facilities. When Jonathan ended up homeless, he shocked no one.
It has become a typical trajectory for a significant number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) kids in the system.
This all-too-common story is now finding listeners in the White House. In April, the Obama administration sent out a lengthy memorandum calling on child welfare agencies to develop the kinds of interventions Jonathan needed most.
Jonathan, now 21, is still just scraping together a meager existence without much of a fixed address. He said he lives with a transgendered girlfriend. He doesn’t have a phone.
Just last year Jonathan tried to kill himself, slashing his wrists with a razor blade. Friends found him and called the police, he said. He spent the night in a hospital.
"I felt like it wasn’t worth it — being in this world," Jonathan recalled. "Like I was nothing, like I was empty inside. It felt like I wasn’t meant to live."
THE FEDERAL RESPONSE
The U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families sent out a memo on April 6 directly addressing the crisis facing gay teens in the system and encouraging local child welfare agencies to ensure their protection.
"This Information Memorandum (IM) confirms and reiterates my fundamental belief that every child and youth who is unable to live with his or her parents is entitled to a safe, loving and affirming foster care placement, irrespective of the young person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression," wrote ACF Commissioner Bryan Samuels. "I encourage child welfare agencies, foster and adoptive parents and others who work with young people in foster care to ensure that their physical and emotional well-being are protected."
Samuels cited a numbing list of statistics showing just how vulnerable LGBTQ youth are in the system. Although five to 10 percent of the general population is estimated to be gay, anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth are gay, according to the National Network of Runaway and Youth services. They are also far more likely to age out of the child welfare system without finding an adoptive family.
"The data demonstrates that efforts to support these youth are warranted," Samuels wrote. "It is the caseworker’s responsibility to assess and serve the needs of each child without bias and to ensure the safety of all children in foster care."
Samuels goes on to mention that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded several efforts to develop resources for local child welfare agencies that address homophobia.
The Samuels memo explicitly states that LGBT parents "should be considered" as foster and adoptive parents, a sentiment that has been hotly debated by state legislators across the country.
"[LGBTQ kids] need all the protection we can provide," Samuels told The Huffington Post. "That was what the memo aimed to do — to give people immediate, practical strategies that they could take to better serve this population."
Samuels said he has received no push back over the memo. "We’ve got nothing but positive reaction. Nothing," he explained. "I have traveled around the country and met social workers who came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘finally, finally, finally.’"
Under the previous administration, advocates couldn’t recall the phrase LGBTQ being uttered once. It was as if those kids just didn’t exist.
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