In January, 13-year-old Joel’s jaw was broken because he is gay. Joel was attacked in a Queens schoolyard by two fellow students. When the boys asked if he was gay and Joel told them that it was none of their business, one of the boys punched him. As Joel turned to defend himself, the second boy slammed his fist into Joel’s chin. “You faggot,” they yelled. “That’s for being gay.”
The next day, Joel’s cheeks looked like they’d been stuffed with tennis balls. That evening, a surgeon wired his jaw shut. “Stuff like this happens all the time,” Joel told me later. “I’m used to it.”
Joel’s used to being beaten up because he’s in foster care. Since entering the system at age 9 after his grandmother fell fatally ill, he’s been thrown down a flight of stairs, had his shoulder blade and finger broken, his nose broken twice, and was almost drowned. All of this happened to him in a home run by a private agency that contracts with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. He’s been attacked in front of staff who did nothing or even blamed him for the abuse. Social workers have told Joel that being gay is the surest way to get sexually transmitted diseases and that being gay is wrong.
Unlike Joel, many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids in foster care were victims of ignorance and intolerance before they even left home. It is estimated that about one-third of them ended up in the city’s care after being rejected by their families. And foster care is no refuge from loneliness and fear. In 1993, a report on gay and lesbian adolescents in New York City’s child welfare system found that all of the 27 gay and lesbian young people interviewed for the study reported verbal harassment that was related directly to their sexual orientation; 70 percent indicated they had tried to hide their orientation from staff and peers because they feared being mistreated; 70 percent reported violent attacks resulting from their sexual orientation; 56 percent spent some time living on the streets because they felt “safer” there than in foster care.
The study, which also included interviews with 78 child welfare professionals who corroborated the findings, prompted New York City’s child welfare agency and the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies to convene a task force to address the bias against gay and lesbian youth in foster care.
While that task force generated numerous policy and training recommendations, most gay kids are still without a safe haven. So little has been done to protect gay youth in foster care that in January, the Urban Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit on their behalf, Joel A. v. Giuliani. (Joel is a pseudonym.) Naming six young plaintiffs, the suit alleges that ACS employees ignored anti-gay attacks, told gay teens to act less gay and even joined in the taunts against gay young people. It also contends that many group homes have a de facto policy against admitting gay youth.
But that suit has been put on hold by an unusual court-ordered moratorium on new class-action lawsuits against ACS–an arrangement agreed to by advocates seeking an overhaul of the city’s child welfare system. This fall, a judge will decide whether Joel’s lawyers can continue with their class-action suit or will have to file individual cases.
Meanwhile, Joel can’t put his life on hold. When he returned to his group home a few days after the schoolyard attack, the taunts and harassment continued. Eventually, he ran away.”I couldn’t take it anymore,” he told me, after a boy kicked him in his still-wired jaw. “I just didn’t feel safe.”
For more than a year after that, Joel spent an increasing amount of time on the street. He ran away from at least 10 group and foster homes, fleeing psychological and physical abuse. He missed an entire year of school. “Before entering ACS, I was going to school, I was well-fed, I was never beat up,” he told me. “I feel like I’m wasting my life.”
Now, he can stop running. In mid-July, Gerald Mallon of Green Chimneys Gramercy Residence bent age limits to accept Joel into the home, the only one in New York dedicated to gay youth. The residence, however, is open to just 25 boys, ages 16 to 21. Meanwhile, it is estimated that there are several hundred gay and lesbian young people among the 37,700 youth in New York City’s custody. Although ACS now provides special staff training and is currently searching for more agencies to house gay and lesbian teens, it has been slow to respond to these kids’ needs.
ACS is supposed to protect children. How many more kids need to suffer? How many more broken bones will it take?
Alexia Lewnes is working on a book about homeless youth in New York City.