Every child deserves a home. Yet the child welfare system does not have a sound record of developing best practices for serving children and youth waiting to be adopted who have been identified as "difficult to place" -- older youth, children with mental or physical challenges, children in sibling groups, children of a minority culture or race and/or youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered (LGBT).
And we know that there is an elevated risk of these children aging out of care simply because of who they are, what they have experienced or the borders that define them.
For example, children self-identified as LGBT in the United States today remain at risk for intolerance, bullying, abuse and homelessness. One study found that more than 30 percent of LGBT youth reported suffering physical violence at the hands of a family member after coming out. The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services has estimated that 20-40 percent of youth who become homeless each year are LGBT. And of the more than 100,000 youth ages 12- 8 who are in foster care, an estimated 10 percent are LGBT.
Jonathan was one of those children.
Just after Jonathan turned 10 years old, his father was incarcerated. Although initially placed with his grandparents, they ultimately notified the children's services department that they did not feel comfortable keeping Jonathan because of his openly transgendered presentation. He was returned to foster care and began a long journey bouncing from foster home to foster home, with a total of nine placements. Jonathan lived each day knowing that whatever current placement he was in, it was tenuous at best. Something he would do or say would end in yet another move. This had become his life; believing that staying in a place long enough to unpack and feel a small sense of belonging would result in losing it all at a moment's notice.
Eventually, Jonathan's case worker contacted Sandy, a child-focused recruiter supported by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. You see, a decade ago, the Foundation shifted its focus from supporting "business as usual" to practices that more effectively serve children and youth who are most at risk of aging out of care. We developed a groundbreaking child-focused recruitment model to serve youth who are older, part of sibling groups, or have special needs.
Jonathan's case worker asked Sandy if she could find a placement for a transgendered teen. Sandy said yes, explained the child-focused recruitment program in detail, and Jonathan moved -- for the last time -- to Sandy's caseload.
At the time, Sandy had recently met Scott, a potential adoptive parent who was interested in adopting siblings under the age of 8. After she shared a little of Jonathan's history with Scott, he instantly wanted to meet him. The recruiter carefully avoided stressing the concept of adoption; preferring instead to allow the relationship to blossom naturally. Jonathan was very loyal to his biological family and felt adoption would be disrespecting that loyalty. On Christmas Eve of that year, Jonathan moved into Scott's home.
Scott's family had a long-standing tradition of everyone wearing new pajamas on Christmas Eve. Scott's parents were so thrilled with Jonathan that they wanted him to participate in this tradition. His "grandma" asked thoughtfully, "Do we get Jonathan boy pajamas or girl pajamas?" For the very first time, Jonathan was loved and accepted for the person he was.
Over time, Scott carefully and lovingly involved Jonathan with extended family members and some friends Jonathan now refers to as his aunties. They gave him a makeover, helped him pick out a new wardrobe and gave him guidance on how to remain safe in the community. Jonathan made new friends and kept them. Jonathan was home and he began using the name Erica, the name that will be printed on her adoption papers.
On Father's Day, Scott emailed the recruiter saying how surprised he was that Erica just said she loved him and wanted him to be her dad. When it came time to terminate parental rights, both Erica's mother and father were in attendance to give their blessings. Erica's dad had been clean from substances and wanted to apologize for the pain and heartache that his choices created throughout her life. The road was cleared and a new family was formed.
Youth in foster care are by default in a unique and difficult situation. Children and youth who are labeled as "difficult" or "unadoptable" simply because of age or circumstance no longer have to wonder if they will have the birthright of every child -- a family and a home -- when served by child-focused recruitment.
It's our duty as Americans to take care of children. Our children. Children who have suffered abuse and trauma, sometimes just because of who they are. But they're just kids. Kids who need love and support to grow, thrive, and eventually contribute to society.
Who needs the love and support of family? Not just some children. Every child.