What It's Like For LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care
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What It’s Like For LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care

A new LGBTQ-inclusive foster care agency is aiming to improve experiences like my own.

The author and two friends at Withrow, an all-female group home. (2006)

The author and two friends in her bedroom at Withrow, an all-female group home. (2006)

I wanted to get high. It was early 2008, and I was living at Withrow, a foster care home in Toronto’s east end. I asked two girls in my home if they’d take cough syrup with me, and they obliged. Before we settled in for the night, we popped pills. I had nine, while one girl took 12, and the other took the remainder.

I remember very little, but I do recall lying in bed and brushing my teeth in the basement bathroom of the home. All of sudden, I was laughing hysterically as we rode in the back of an ambulance to Sick Kids Hospital. Once admitted, my pulse measured a rate of 192 beats per minute.

Ask any Crown ward what it’s like to live in a group home and they’ll tell you about the consequences of growing up in foster care. My time—from age 14 to 17—was marked by mental health issues and substance abuse.

It’s not uncommon. Though a handful of kids I’ve lived with have successfully transitioned into adulthood, others—like me—are only beginning post-secondary schooling. Minorities in care homes, especially LGBTQ youth, lack services and resources that address their specific needs.

Now, Canada’s first LGBTQ foster care agency has opened its doors in Toronto, aiming to address the very issues that landed me in hospitals time and time again.

I spent most of my seventeenth birthday at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where I underwent a court-ordered psychological assessment testing cognitive ability, personality, and intelligence. In the report, psychologists profiled a smart yet deeply troubled girl who lacked an identity and regard for others. I was deemed reckless, manipulative, and insecure—traits I knew were common in those with borderline personalities.

My mental health issues were seldom addressed in my homes. But that didn’t matter; the day following my hospitalization, I was escorted to East York General Hospital by two police officers. There, my psychiatrist told me that staff at the home reported I was the culprit behind a failed double-murder suicide.

When staff brought me home five days later, they speculated that I had brainwashed the other two girls into covering for me, that they were hiding a sinister sub-plot in which I was the ringleader of a suicide pact (this was not the case). After two days of isolation, staff moved me into a furnished bungalow in the city’s east end, with only one staff member to monitor me at all times. A few weeks later, I was back at my mom’s where I stayed until I found an apartment one month later.

For any youth, living in care can often be difficult. “My Real Life Story” is a report released by the Office of the Provincial Advocate of Ontario on May 14, 2012, documenting a failing childcare system plagued by abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues, and self-harm. Quoted anonymously in the report by one former youth in care, the 2012 report reads, “Children and youth are not given the chance to flourish in a nurturing environment when they end up in unfit homes and shelters. Those influences can leave our youth extremely vulnerable to picking up behaviours and habits they are then reprimanded for.”

“When will Children’s Aid Society stop and see that they may be inadvertently pushing youth in care into these behaviours and lifestyles?” it continues. “When will [it] be accountable for their parenting skills? When will they become better parents?”

The answer isn’t so simple. Many youth in care have behavioural issues stemming from neglect or emotional, physical, psychological, and/or sexual trauma that their caregivers—child and youth workers
(CYWs)—are often ill-equipped to handle. Many CYWs are young and lack the experience and ability to communicate effectively with troubled youth, and foster parents may seem absent trying to juggle multiple children, chores, and a career. The result is a young person who feels alienated from his caregivers, who instead turns to others—most likely his peers—for parental guidance. This—along with peer pressure, the need to fit in, self-esteem issues, and other problems commonly faced by today’s teens—make growing up in the foster system a bedrock for behavioural, emotional, and mental health issues in which youth are extremely vulnerable.

This realization has resulted in the Youth Leaving Care Working Group’s “Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System.” Reports from the City of Toronto and Egale Canada Human Rights Trust—as well as data collected from the Child Welfare League of America, Lambda Legal, and UCLA’s William’s Institute—has made it clear that there is an urgent need to improve the lives of queer-identified youth in care (YIC), who report the highest incidences of sexual, physical, and verbal assault, as well as suicide.

And that’s where Five/Fourteen comes in.

Five/Fourteen is the country’s first LGBTQ-inclusive foster care system. A nod to the nationwide decriminalization of homosexual acts on May 14, 1969, the agency is also named after the annual Child and Youth in Care Day on May 14, a new government initiative that aims to improve Ontario’s foster care system through transparency.

Lucas Medina, Five/Fourteen’s executive director, is responsible for the program’s launch. A former Crown ward, Medina joined the You Are Not Alone committee, where members listened to stories shared by queer-identified youth in care. From this, Medina realized that without a dedicated foster care system for queer youth, their unique needs would never be met in care—and started Five/Fourteen in response.

Medina says the group aims to place three to 10 LGBTQ youth in foster homes across Toronto and Ottawa in the coming months, with plans to have 60 youth in care by Christmastime. A queer-inclusive foster care system would not only allow LGBTQ-identified youth access to specialized support systems, such as health services for trans youth, but also enable YIC to live in an accepting, positive environment with other LGBTQ families and allies.

Today, I am 26 and still living in the same neighbourhood I moved to following my discharge from the group home. My foster care days are behind me, but I still feel a sense of comfort in knowing LGBTQ youth who could have been like me now have an agency advocating for their needs—and that makes all the difference.