24 | A Forever Home for Every Child (Bonus Episode)

November is National Adoption Month! To recognize it, here is a special bonus episode.

Recently we’ve seen a wave of ‘license to discriminate’ bills in ten states that allow foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ children, youth and qualified prospective parents. The Every Child Deserves a Family campaign promotes the best interests of all children in the foster care and adoption system by increasing their access to loving, stable, forever homes, and works to ensure safe and supportive care for LGBTQ youth seeking family formation. Julie Kruse, Family Equality Council’s Director of Federal Policy and Schylar Baber, CEO of Youth Dynamics Inc. and former National Director of Voice for Adoption join the host to share personal stories and dive into what LGBTQ youth and parents are facing in the child welfare system. Get inspired to take action!

Meet the Guests

Julie Kruse is Family Equality Council’s Director of Federal Policy. She has over fifteen years of experience advocating for the LGBTQ community, immigrants, working families, and women and girls. Julie’s efforts have contributed to victories including relief from deportation for tens of thousands of LGBTQ immigrant families, ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and stopping discriminatory tax audits of low-income families. Julie holds a master’s in education from Northwestern University and graduated Summa Cum Laude with Distinction in Honors Biology from the University of Illinois. She is a proud stepparent and grandparent.

Schylar Baber is the CEO of Youth Dynamics Inc. in Montana. He was the National Director of Voice for Adoption from May 2016 to August 2018. He has served as president of the board of Montana Court Appointed Special Advocates and is currently on the board of the ChildWise Institute, FosterClub, and the Protect Montana’s Kids Commission. Schylar’s commitment to improving the futures of children and youth in care is due, in large part, to his own life experiences. He spent 12 years in foster care before aging out without a family. When he was 25, his mentor and sixth-grade teacher adopted him. 

Further Reading

As part of its commitment to family inclusivity, JOHNSON’S® is proud to stand by Family Equality Council’s National Adoption Month campaign in support of happy, healthy babies and all the families that love them.

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Episode Transcript

Emily M.: Welcome to Outspoken Voices, a podcast by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer parents, people with LGBTQ parents, future parents, and everyone else who is part of our family journeys. I’m your host, Emily McGranachan, and I am the Director of Family Engagement with Family Equality Council. As part of its commitment to family inclusivity, Johnson’s is proud to stand by Family Equality Council’s National Adoption Month campaign in support of happy, healthy babies, and all the families that love them. Did you know it is legal for LGBTQ people to foster and adopt in every state in the US? Did you also know that we have seen a wave of license to discriminate bills in nine states that allow foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ children, youth and qualified prospective parents. That’s nine states and counting, which is why our policy team is working very hard on the Every Child campaign.

Emily M.: The Every Child Deserves a Family campaign promotes the best interest of all children in the foster care and adoption system by increasing their access to loving, stable forever homes and works to ensure safe and supportive care for LGBTQ youth seeking family formation. Today I am joined by two leaders in the campaign, Julie Kruse and Schylar Baber. So to get every episode started, I always ask this question, who is in your family and how was it formed? So Schylar, would you tell me a little bit about your own story?

Schylar B.: I did grow up in the Montana foster care system. I bounced around to a lot of homes and at the age of 12 had the option of being adopted by my sixth grade music teacher and mentor and it didn’t happen. And what was the sad part about this story is that it could have been a game changer. So I was offered to be adopted in the sixth grade, my sixth grade music teacher who was providing me activities and local community – things like theater and acting and singing that would keep out of my abusive home. I had the opportunity to be adopted when he offered. But he was denied because he was a single male and single family at that time wasn’t going to be able to adopt very easily, especially a single male. So I was told I was unadoptable and I went through a few more homes and ended up aging out of the system without a family.

Schylar B.: I didn’t get to have much contact with him, but he was the one phone number that I memorized back in the day before cell phones were a thing. You actually memorize phone numbers and he was the single phone number that I remembered. I would check in every couple of years and just let him know that I was alive. After I aged out, I maintained a relationship with him. I still never really even lived with him except for when I go home for holidays now. It took a few years for me to accept that I maybe could have an adopted family again because after you’ve been told that you’re unadoptable, you kind of harden yourself to the idea of family. So he offered it to me again and I denied him. So it wasn’t until after my grandmother passed, which was his mother and my unofficial grandma, that realized that we had become close enough as a family that adoption was something that we still wanted to pursue. It’s easier to get adopted as an adult because you don’t have the custody. And the paperwork and the processes that are involved with being a ward of the state and a minor. We decided to get adopted on Christmas Eve and it was kind of a cool experience and it makes Christmas Eve all that much more special every single year.

Emily M.: Wow. Thank you for sharing. Julie, just because I love to ask everybody who is in your family and how was it formed?

Julie K.: Well I am very close to my family of origin and I met my wife 18 years ago and we got married five years ago. But before that I was married to another woman and have two wonderful step kids – my son is now 35 years old, my stepdaughter, 39. And I have a grandson who is six.

Emily M.: Thanks Julie. You’ve really been hearing a lot of stories from parents, foster youth professionals that have to do with the Every Child campaign. People are sharing their stories. You’re meeting with a lot of people who have that personal connection to the child welfare system. Are there any stories that have really stuck with you?

Julie K.: Yeah. The other day I met with a young man in his early twenties who aged out of foster care and really had horrific experiences in the system. This was in Minnesota, and quoting from his story, he said, “As an LGBTQ foster youth, was not allowed to feel comfortable in my environment. They discriminated against you, like they basically segregate you from everybody. I couldn’t go to the bathroom with other girls without a staff member there. I couldn’t sleep in my own room because I had a roommate. I felt as if I was an animal that wasn’t good for stock. Now that I’m out of care and on my own, I don’t take crap from nobody. I literally am who I am. I don’t care.” And I’ve been talking to many LGBTQ foster youth in foster alumni as well as reading their stories. And unfortunately many of them say they felt like they’ve been treated like animals. And I just think it’s remarkable that the Administration for Children and Families – that Health and Human Services is responsible for oversight for our foster youth and for their safety, wellbeing and permanency – they are failing at their job as states are not ensuring that LGBTQ foster youth are treated well.

Emily M.: And how did both of you come to do this work on the Every Child campaign?

Schylar B.: I was invited by the Family Equality Council. [At time of recording] I’m the Director of Voice for Adoption in DC and we specifically advocate for children in foster care waiting to be adopted. And some of our work has overlapped with the various discriminatory legislation that has been implemented around the country. Because right now our country is facing a crisis in child welfare, specifically in foster care where we have more children in care than we have, you know, in recent history, we don’t have enough foster homes or what we call ‘beds’ or places for those children to stay. There’s not really been a significant investment in child welfare from the federal government in a long time. And then we’re also being attacked by the opioid crisis and all of these little pieces, believe it or not, overlap with the work that both PFLAG and the Family Equality Council do. Voice for Adoption is excited to advocate for our families because right now with the shortage, we need every family that we can get. And that includes single families and families that are same-sex couples.

Emily M.: Julie, what is your own road to the campaign?

Julie K.: Well, I advocated for years for LGBTQ immigrant families to be able to stay together and not be deported away from each other. And so this work seems a natural extension of that. You have LGBTQ adults that are willing to parent Kids that are desperately seeking parents. You also have people doing innovative work to try to reconnect LGBTQ kids to their families of origin, even though there may have been some neglect or some trauma or some rejection. To go back and see, can we connect LGBTQ kids with their families of origin? Maybe it’s not with the mom or the grandmother, the aunt, but maybe there’s someone in that family that’s an affirming, accepting person so that this child can be reconnected with their family, reconnected with their culture and feel accepted and loved for who they are. And if that’s not possible, then to find another family that will be loving and supportive and provide a great home for kids.

Julie K.: And, you know, Schylar’s story about his teacher who offered to adopt him breaks my heart because I talk to parents every day that are turned away from foster care and adoption agencies because they’re gay, because they’re transgender, because they’re single and also in very many cases because of their religion – because they are of a different religion than the religion of the faith based agency that is taking care of the kids who are wards of the state. And the people who promote this kind of discrimination say, well, those parents can just go to a different agency. But Virginia is one of the states that allows this discrimination. I live near Virginia and I can’t tell you how many parents that have been through that experience of hours of paperwork, hours of caseworker visits to their homes and then simply being rejected because of who they are. They’re not willing to go through that humiliation again.

Emily M.: So could you both explain even a little bit more about what is the every child deserves a family campaign and why is it important?

Speaker 2: The Every Child campaign is targeted at ending the discrimination that was going on around the country, specifically at children and child welfare. It would protect LGBTQ couples as they attempt to adopt. It would also protect the minor or the use of the situation. So there’s a few reasons that we’re doing this. We thought that we had ultimate protections when marriage equality happened and that would really support children getting families. But now we’re seeing kind of a reversal of that where different states are implementing different laws and we’re also looking at a time when there is a more conservative situation in DC. There are little tiny attacks that seem to be happening specifically on the children in child welfare and we are tasked with protecting. We believe that children should not have to hide who they are. If we’re going to be accepting responsibility for these youth and taking them into our custody, we shouldn’t have to ask them to be anybody who they are not, or to hide any parts of their identity for fear of any type of retaliation, specifically from those that are tasked with protecting them. It’s important that they express those identities without fear.

Schylar B.: Foster care was intended to be a short term safe haven, not a long term situation. And it’s important that they understand that when we take them into our custody, we were going to protect them at all costs. And at all cost means that we elevate the wellbeing of the child above anything else involved in the situation, including the faith. LGBTQ foster children are often not provided with the same permanency that are required by statute for all foster youth. A lot of them can end up in group homes, hospitals, or the juvenile justice system. When it comes to youth that are involved in juvenile justice system as well as child welfare, we call those cross-over youth.

Julie K.: So Emily, the campaign is working to end discrimination against foster children based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as any discrimination against potential parents based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status, in order to broaden the pool of homes for all kids in care. And we’re trying to do that through passage of federal legislation. The Every Child Deserves a Family Act that would provide technical assistance and do a better job with our families and our kids. Schylar really hit the nail on the head that the cardinal rule of child welfare is that the best interest of the child comes first. But nine states have passed laws now that say if the provider who’s receiving taxpayer dollars to care for these children who are wards of the state, if they have religious beliefs, then they can put those beliefs above the best interest of the children.

Julie K.: They can turn away qualified parents in loving homes based on their religious beliefs and they cannot consider the best interest of a child. It’s a very real concern we have is that these agencies are allowed to have clear anti-LGBTQ policies that are discriminating against children as well as against adults. And because they’re allowed to base placement decisions on their religious beliefs rather than the best interest of the child. They could look at a gay child or a gender nonconforming child and say, you know what? We don’t like how this child is. We want to change this child. We were going to place them in an institution or with a family that believes in conversion therapy, which of course is a medically discredited practice to that is very harmful to try to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a child.

Emily M.: So you mentioned before that often you hear the sort of counter, it’s not even an argument, this idea that – well if someone is being denied or being discriminated against by an agency who wants to be a foster care or adoptive parent, that they should just go elsewhere, which is as you really as you clearly pointed out, not possible. So what happens then for youth in care? If a child is in the child welfare system and is placed with an agency that is discriminating against them or seeking to place them in a harmful place, what about any arguments of, well that kid could go to a different agency? Is that even possible?

Schylar B.: Well, it doesn’t quite work like that. When a child is placed in foster care, they’re placed in the control of the state and the agencies that serve those communities. If it’s a private organization, they’re usually based in a targeted area. If you are removed in a certain area, then moving them to a completely different culture or different state can be even more traumatizing for that youth. And within certain rural areas there are not more than one provider. There may be hours away from another opportunity for that child, but why would we make a child have to commute that far? The family isn’t going to have the ability to get the child to that service. So why in the same situation would we look at any child and tell them that we’re not going to serve you because of this and it’s your job to have to go and get these services. To me, that’s traumatizing within itself. I mean, what are we trying to teach the youth that we’re trying to protect? We’re taking your life into our hands, yet we’re not going to take full responsibility to ensure that you’re going to be protected.

Emily M.: So why is the Every Child campaign so important right now? What is the difference from a few years ago? Or why is this the moment that we need to be talking about this and really getting involved?

Julie K.: Well, I think Schylar spoke to this earlier when he talked about kind of death by a thousand cuts. Our opponents frankly have seen that this is the one area of attack where they’re having some success in rolling back the rights that LGBTQ families gained with marriage equality. And unfortunately they’ve been successful going after the children, which is just unbelievably cruel. But that’s what’s happening. We have nine states that have license to discriminate bills for faith-based providers in child welfare or for any provider – an individual case worker who has certain religious views or even if it’s not based on religion, even if it’s just based on their personal beliefs that they can prioritize those over the best interest of children. And five of the nine states that passed those bills have passed them in the last two years alone.

Julie K.: We’ve had two bills passed this year in Oklahoma and Kansas and those are the only anti-LGBTQ bills to pass anywhere in the United States in 2018. So our opponents are gaining some momentum. In addition, before the election HHS was just starting to say we’re going to fund people who are trying to serve LGBTQ youth and we’re going to try to find programmatic approaches to serve these youth who are dramatically over-represented in the care. LGBTQ youth form 20 percent of foster youth, which is about twice their presence in the population overall and they suffer much worse outcomes.

Emily M.: Is there other information or statistics about why this is in particular important to the LGBTQ community? You just mentioned that LGBTQ youth are over-represented from the general population in the system. Why is this also a LGBTQ issue for people who want to be parents or caregivers?

Schylar B.: When we’re talking about over-represented youth, there’s a couple of populations that are over-represented and these include children that are LGBTQ, children of color, tribal children and disabled children. And these children often don’t have the same permanency outcomes, which means they don’t get adopted or they don’t have a long term foster care connection. That they often age out of the system means that they age out without a family and they’re expected to succeed at all costs on their own. A lot of people don’t realize that, for our whole lives, a family provides a lot more than just being a connection. It’s also someone that the youth and the family talk to on a regular basis. So who do you call when your college shuts down for Christmas break or when you have a financial crisis or a medical crisis? It’s a lifelong connection.

Schylar B.: When I was in the system, not only did I have the option to be adopted, which was a huge loss, but I also had the situation where it was hard to be an LGBTQ youth or a gay kid. I had an experience in foster care were I wasn’t quite set in understanding of where I was headed with my own sexuality, which I think is quite common for a lot of young people. But I had a foster mom who thought otherwise. And I was put through a situation where it wasn’t a medical procedure, but through the face of the organization, which was Foursquare Evangelical, I was exposed to conversion therapy. And conversion therapy isn’t as traumatizing for everybody as it sounds, but it can be something as simple as having a religious mentor who teaches you that being gay means that you technically have a demon in your soul and that you need to get that demon out of your soul or you risk burning in hell. That may not be physical abuse and it may not be something that you can see on the surface. But think about that. What happens when we’re telling the children that we’re intending to protect that whatever is inside of them is wrong and that they are possessed and that they have to get it out. It’s another level of abuse and not all the time is easy to identify. Not all the time will we be able to even know that it’s happening, but we need to set a hard line that again, that is not in the best interest and not elevating the wellbeing of the child. And that’s actually doing more damage. And even today, I’ll admit, you know, I’m a somewhat well-adjusted adult. Statistically I’m an anomaly within the foster care system itself because only two percent of children from my background ever go on to obtain a bachelor’s degree. That’s a shocking, serious statistic because there’s a lot of children that have a lot of ambition and what that tells me is that there are children that are following falling through the cracks of society. And that it’s not just LGBTQ youth, but if that’s a significant portion of the system itself, we have to be doing something better and we to be protecting these children because if we’re not protecting them, we’re not helping the process. We’re only part of the cycle.

Julie K.: I just want to add to that there’s 20,000 kids a year who age out of foster care and Schylar talked about what that means not to have a forever family for the rest of your life, not to have people to go to with your triumphs or your challenges. And the fact we have statistics that there’s 2 million same-sex couples that might consider fostering or adopting, but face barriers to doing that is just maddening to me

Emily M.: Can you just dive a little bit more into the landscape of the child welfare system? We’ve talked about foster care and aging out of the system, but then there are people who are adopted from the foster care system, and there’s foster care that is intended to be temporary. What does that landscape.

Schylar B.: You definitely just covered a lot of it. There’s so many different types of outcomes that we try to get for these young people, but the end goal that we always want is to find, what we call in the industry, permanency or that lifelong connection that a child can have for stability. And federally there’s different types of permanency that are classified, but if we’re taking a child into our care, our goal should always be to get them stabilized and into a permanent situation. So there’s reunification which is getting the child back with their biological placement that they weren’t in previously. There’s kinship care, which is when a family member ends up taking care of a child, and kinship care often becomes adoptive families or they can also be foster families. You get some of that support. There’s APPLA which is actually what we call foster care, Another Permanent Plan Living Arrangement (APPLA).

Schylar B.: APPLA legally cannot be a permanency outcome for any child that is over the age of 16. And what we mean by this is that for every child the stat maintains what is called a record or a file. And in that file there’s a designation that tells you what is the situation and what is the goal for the child. And so we know, for instance, that there’s around 118,000 of those children out of the half a million that are currently in foster care that are waiting to be adopted or have that designation in their file.

Schylar B.: Then adoption is a form of permanency. The whole goal of all of these systems is to treat that trauma of the child because if you get a child in foster care, or child who’s been abused or neglected, or gone from home to home or from group homes in different cultures, there is going to be trauma. So the goal is to repair that trauma, get them permanency or connected to an adult because that gets them connected to society and increases basically every outcome for them. Once the child achieve permanency, their outcomes for education grow, for employment go up, and a decrease in things such as becoming a crossover youth. A crossover youth is a child that is involved in both juvenile justice and child welfare. It also provides them with a lifelong connection that is vital to all of us. And it just changes everything. It’s a game changer across the board. That’s why we do what we do – because we know that children do better in families, period. It improves every outcome.

Emily M.: Is there a way that this campaign or maybe some of what Voice for adoption is doing that is addressing ways to prevent children from becoming involved in the system in the first place. We know that the reality of the child welfare system is tied in with racial and economic discrimination and injustice and oppression and that at times complicates and is involved with that child being removed from a particular situation. So, it’s complicated. So how does the campaign work with some of those realities or acknowledge some of those realities?

Julie K.: Emily, what you said is so important. Because as Schylar said, it’s so important for kids to be connected to family but also to be connected to their cultures and their communities and not to be simply moved around. But what kids urgently need is a normal life with a strong identity with the people they’ve grown up around. There’s been legislation Congress passed this year of ‘family first’ that really focuses on trying to keep kids with their families of origin and there’s some really innovative work being done around the country on this. Unfortunately what we see from the research, and we don’t have good nationwide data because HHS seems to be refusing to collect data on gay kids even though they have to. But what we see in some communities, what we see a lot of places around the country is that if a kid is rejected by their family of origin because they’re gay or transgender or gender nonconforming or have a different gender expression, that a lot of times the provider will say, well, we can’t really reunite the kid with their family. And what happens is that a lot of these LGBTQ kids really get parked in congregate care, which is not much more than group homes, not much more than really old fashioned orphanages, and kept there for a long time. But we don’t have good data, again, because it just isn’t collecting it on LGBTQ parents either, but anecdotally we hear that it’s is likely that LGBTQ parents are over-represented in terms of taking sibling pairs, disabled kids, and older kids in their homes – the kids that have the hardest time finding forever family. And this campaign is about all of those kids and especially kids that are disproportionately over-represented in care. They deserve competence here, deserve to be accepted for who they are, for what their culture is and to be kept, if they can, within their own communities and their families of origin. And to be affirmed.

Emily M.: So you’ve mentioned a few of the agencies and groups that are really getting involved. Who else is involved in the Every Child campaign?

Julie K.: Well, we’re excited because we have so many faith based groups. We have businesses, we have a child welfare organization. Of course we have LGBTQ organizations. We have civil rights groups generally. But really exciting – way more than half the people that have signed up for the campaign are individuals – former foster youth, LGBTQ parents who are just people that care about this issue. And that’s what we need. We need folks to go to a familyequality.org/everychild and sign up for our campaign. And we really need you to tell your stories. When you go to the website, you can go to our Tell Your Story page, whether it’s a story of foster care, whether it’s a story of being an LGBTQ parent or whether it’s just the story of being an ally and caring about these kids. And we will take your story and we will present it to your member of Congress along with the request for them to cosponsor and help pass the Every Child Deserves a Family Act. And that federal bill is crucially important. It does everything Schylar and I have been talking about. It prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ and single parents. It prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ youth and it helps service providers do a better job with these kids and families.

Emily M.: Well, thank you so much. Julie and Schylar, any final thoughts?

Schylar B.: I just wanted to say thank you for an opportunity to share this message because it’s really important that the farther we reach, the more support we’re gonna get. I think that something that should be pointed out is that there are a lot of people that aren’t really informed about this topic. There’s a lot going on within child welfare itself and if you work within child welfare, it’s a big deal, but there’s a lot of the general community including the LGBTQ community that still need to hear their stories. Wherever you are, we urge people to speak out, write letters to the editor, talk about this in your communities, join the campaign, talk about this in your churches and your work places and if you manage to meet with your elected officials, tell them that you care about this and that you want discrimination to end because nondiscrimination is the foundation of a good treatment for our kids in care.