MIAMI – Sixto Cancel says his ultra-religious foster family frequently talked about their disdain for his homosexuality at the dinner table, trashed his room and called him homophobic slurs. While he was still a teenager, he says, they kicked him out of their Connecticut home after he had lived there for nearly a decade.
"I've had foster homes who completely said you can't live here if you're gay," said Cancel, a 21-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University who bounced between half a dozen foster homes while in care. "For a long time I had that self-hatred and uncomfortableness with who I am."
Discrimination against gay and lesbian youths in foster care is prevalent enough around the country that federal health officials sent a letter in 2011 encouraging states to develop training for caseworkers and foster parents on the issue. Advocates in a handful of states including Florida, California, Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts have increased efforts to train caseworkers, recruit foster parents and assign mentors. Officials don't want to force youths to disclose their sexuality, but must try to create environments where they feel safe to come out when ready. Without such support, the federal government memo says, gay and lesbian youths who leave the foster care system can wind up homeless
"I've had conversations with many youth in the system who will not come out because they saw how staff treated their friends in the system after they came out," said Kamora Herrington, mentoring program director of True Colors, an organization that helps gay foster youths in Connecticut.
Last year, a lesbian girl who Herrington worked with was kicked out of a Connecticut foster home after the family's grandmother, who was very opposed to homosexuality, moved in. Herrington said the last time she heard from the girl, she was hitch-hiking across the country.
The nonprofit True Colors has a mentoring program for more than 75 young people, as well as a policy program that works closely with Connecticut child welfare workers. DCF also has a program liaison in every office where caseworkers can get referral services if they are working with a gay child or need help educating a foster family.
In California, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center received a $13.3 million, five-year grant from the federal government to ultimately find permanent homes for gay foster youths. The center has already trained about 500 child welfare workers on gay and transgender issues this year and is creating a curriculum that can be duplicated nationally. The second part of the program links the youth with services from family counseling to education assistance, and makes sure each service is sensitive to their sexual orientation.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to open a co-ed group home for gay foster teens after child welfare officials said they were seeing too many of the young people living on the streets. Roughly 100 foster youths have lived in the home which is run by gay and straight staffers. Child welfare officials there also recently started mentoring program along with life skills classes that teach things like cooking and budgeting.
But officials in Massachusetts, Illinois and many states say recruiting foster parents and mentors is one of the biggest challenges.
"What is typical across the country is also typical here, in that LGBT couples are more interested in adoption than becoming foster families so we have a dearth in interest in foster families," Colby Swettberg executive director of Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring, which contracts with the Massachusetts child welfare system.
Finding adoptive homes for gay youths in foster care is part of a national push for all children in the system, but advocates say many are still left out.
"Many of our kids have been told they're not family appropriate: `We're not even going to look for a family for you. We're going to look for a group home,"' said Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors.
Illinois child welfare officials began hiring 29 new recruiters this year. Part of their job will be finding foster families and mentors for young gay people. The department estimates that about 450 gay youths come into the system each year.
Efforts in Florida include a regional task force on gay foster youths started by the Village Counseling Center in the northern part of the state and increased training for Department of Children and Families caseworkers in a 20-county region that includes Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
David Abramowitz, a regional director for the Florida Department of Children and Families, sent a memo to staff in December saying he's also heard stories that gay youths facing discrimination in foster care. Abramowitz said he mentors a young man "who tells me horror stories of how he was treated" while living with a foster family that forced him to shave his head and tried to turn him straight. Abramowitz said he's also encountered difficulties trying to help gay youths in foster care in his region because many aren't disclosing.
After being kicked out of one foster home, Cancel went to live in another, but when his foster mother found out he was gay, she said she didn't want him living there because it conflicted with her religious beliefs. A few days later, she relented, explaining she hadn't changed her mind on the issue, but he could still live in the home as long as his sexuality wasn't discussed.
For Cancel, who was about to graduate, it was a condition he accepted, but he said he realizes it's an unfair burden placed on many other foster youths.
"It's not OK for some people to live in a home where they know they're not welcome and they're not part of the family because of that specific aspect," he said.