When Mary Keane began doing volunteer work with gay and lesbian teens in New York City 10 years ago, she knew little about the plight of homeless youth in the foster care system. But after working at a residential treatment center with over 200 youths, she made a life-changing decision.
Keane, now 57, gave up her studio apartment in the city, used her retirement money for a down payment on an old Victorian house in suburban Yonkers, and renovated it as a 12-bedroom foster home for girls. "My original intention was to just take lesbian teens so that they could grow up in a place where they could be who they wanted to be," says Keane. But when she asked the agency she was working with if it had any lesbian teens, she was told it did not.
Years later Keane, who went on to foster many young girls and is now the Family Permanency Advocate at You Gotta Believe, a New York-based adoption placement agency for teenagers, learned that officials at the foster care agency she had dealt with--like many around the country at the time--were probably homophobic. They may have had lesbian teens but were nervous about placing them with a lesbian adult.
Even today, gays and lesbians considering becoming foster parents to one or more of the over 500,000 children in need of a home may be welcomed or dissuaded by social workers depending on where they go. The issue came to a head this spring when Catholic Charities in Boston decided to get out of the adoption and foster placement business rather than abide by a state law requiring them to consider gay and lesbian parents. "It is truly a shame," says Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition and a former Massachusetts resident. "For political reasons Catholic Charities sacrificed children in need of loving and stable homes."
And gays and lesbians are the ones who often take special-needs or older children, Chrisler adds. "Our community has a real ability to serve the needs of these children."
But Catholic Charities may now be in the minority as a growing number of agencies wake up to the reality that they need any and all potential foster homes, including those led by gays and lesbians. "In the past, we have not put the spotlight on LGBT families and included gays in our campaign," says Virginia Pryor, chairwoman of National Foster Care Month, a partnership of 14 agencies across the country that raises awareness about the issue during May. This year, however, the organization advertised in the gay media, and next year officials plan to use gay family images in their media campaign and Web site. "We need to abolish the idea that there is only one type of family," says Pryor, who is manager of strategic alliances at Seattle-based Casey Family Programs.
The Child Welfare League of America, the nation's oldest and largest organization of child welfare advocates, partnered with Lambda Legal in 2003 to focus on making child welfare systems more welcoming to LGBT people. "What people need to understand is that this is not a gay rights issue. …