Let’s just start this article out with some of the most memorable names that I have been called: fag, faggot, queer, gay, homosexual, sinner, and even told multiple times I should just kill myself and die. Take a single moment and understand that this began when I was in the Fifth grade approximately 10 years old; now, take another moment and realize this wasn’t only from my peer group at the educational facility that I attended this happened repeatedly at home!
From my understanding, I was in foster care to escape neglect and abuse from all aspects of physical, sexual, and the hardest abuse to overcome, psychological. Being that was not the case, what was I to do as a young man to grow into his now mid-30’s? Build walls, push people away, find ways to be isolated, and yes, there were a few times that I failed at suicide. I went from a situation of being abused and neglected to an even more impossible situation of fighting for my own survival with no one to listen to me, but simply send me for me for more evaluations, add more diagnoses, increase my housing classification (from what initially started as a foster home to ending up in a group home) by the time I aged-out of the system, we so affectionately call foster care.
What caused me to go into foster care initially, I may never know. The tribal foster care system which is allowed under the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, was the first experience of foster care I had. This experience started at being just day’s old but would become a recurring involvement during my multi-year battle with foster care to include self-discovery, identity, sexual identity, education, and now advocacy and reform.
The secondary effect of being an ICWA child is that most tribes allow the various state child welfare agencies to be involved in the child’s welfare with what is, on paper, termed as “oversight” from the tribe. Well I can honestly state, from my experience, oversight is just as effective as when those in Washington D.C., state that one agency will have oversight of another. It just doesn’t work. Not only does it create more confusion as to what rights a child may or may not have; it also contributes to an everlasting political and inter-agency play of who actually retains custody of the child and what is actually in the best welfare of the child so that they will become one of the best productive citizens that they are capable of once they vacate from the system either through reunification, long-termed foster care, adoption, or eventual emancipation from the Child Welfare system after reaching the age of majority. I fully understand why as the end of being in custody approaches, we have one foot out the door into immediate adulthood with little to no support system or vanish from the records of the Child Welfare system all together.
From what you may have picked up on already, yes, I do have many frustrations with the child welfare system be it either tribal (ICWA) or state (DCFS, DFPS, CPS, DHS, or other well-known acronyms). Anyone who says that we have a system that works needs to spend a life in the shoes of a person who experienced the system and then gain a firsthand understanding that all of the youth, young adults, adults, and advocates of reform need to be hard-lined and listened to because to my fellow readers, we have a serious situation on our hands and it’s going to take a greater movement than we currently have
to ensure reform is actually taking place and not be so dependent on providing entitlements that we seem to keep just throwing at the situation that are quickly re-diverted for other use.
Now, with that said, let me say this; I am a gay man, divorced, childless, a foster child, an advocate, a disabled veteran, but more so, I am still alive and fighting for the voices of those who share similar titles such as myself and even those that have different titles because everyone needs a voice.
My experience in care is not very pretty when you look at the totality of what was experienced. I tend to focus as much as possible on the positive because it’s those few moments that actually got me through so much of what life has thrown my way. I have experienced being beaten to the extent that I stayed home from schooling to recover enough for marks to fade. I have been told of a foster sister that used to unlock the door in the middle of the night and carry me, as an infant and toddler, in her sleep, in an effort to escape the abuse. One incident involved witnessing, from a second story apartment window, the father figure literally chase down the mother figure who was running to a pay phone to call the police and screaming because he was hitting her in the face, body, and even kicking her. Needless to say, she never made the call to the police. He then came into the apartment dragging her by her hair and as I went to hit him, at nine years old, being thrown against the wall and being told, “You are going to sit there and watch me beat her.” No matter how much I tried to inflict pain on him to make him stop, he continually beat her and myself for trying to save her. He then later would, ‘show me what they do to guys like me in jail’, as he put it. To this day, that woman blames me for what has happened in much of her life and sadly to say, I have her last name, as this was an attempt at reunification.
From those young years and incidents, let’s fast-forward until I was fourteen. After falling through the cracks of the child welfare system both on the tribal and state agencies side, the very first question that was asked of me was, “Are you gay?” Keep in mind that I grew up in the various foster care systems in Oklahoma or as I term it, ‘Bible-belt America’. The lady asking me this question had only known me a matter of minutes was a black individual, and I knew she had power over me. So sitting there, I quickly lied to her because I knew what would have happened if I had been honest with myself and answered, yes. She stated she needed to know so that she knew where to place me. I knew enough about the system that what she was saying is, if I said yes, then I was going to a group home, where I would have experienced as an adolescent gay male of being harassment, rape, beatings, or worse, death, as I have learned the ramifications of some of those who have answered yes to that question. Do I feel that was her intention, no, I feel it was policy because much of what is perceived about being gay at that time was so archaic that even the most progressive states tended to practice the same policies. This practice may have been done out of fear; perhaps the practice and policy was even tolerated out of the mindset of ‘this is how it’s always been.’
After lying to myself in front of her and trying to keep some power to myself, I fought with my sexuality so much at my first placement that I ended up being harassed, threatened, raped, and eventually ran away from that placement because I knew no one would listen to me, especially accusing multiple “straight” guys of raping me. One person who I admired so much in that home was my foster brother, whom was the parents’ youngest child, because he was the high school quarterback and had so many friends and did things that I as a teenager wanted to do but was never allowed. Even with all of my admiration of him, he threatened and harassed me so much in front of my foster parent, who tolerated and encouraged such behaviors, that I lost all respect for him and learned that I would be walking a desolate road much of my life if I couldn’t find allies who would be willing to help and protect me.
When I ran away from that house because it was going to end up costing me my life, literally; I went across state lines to a high school friend’s house. She and her husband, both knew I had run away but also knew how bad things were for me because over that year in high school she had witnessed some of it. They were willing to become my foster parents, knowing full well I am gay, and fought for several weeks with my caseworker over turning me in. Of course my caseworker had made several threats of incarcerating them for harboring a run away, as well as threatened myself and saying that I caused the situation to allow myself to be raped. “I should have just dealt with the harassment and threats then none of this would be happening,” I recall being told. I was a gay young man, who had just experienced another traumatic experience and what happened, I, the victim was being blamed for the actions of others because of my sexual orientation. To answer the question of whether the tribe or state or even third-party foster care placement agency ever investigated the incident, no; it was never investigated just placed in my file as another failed placement or “blown placement” to where I had an even harder time of gaining a placement. I was gay, male, adolescent, and now with several blown placements; I had multiple strikes against me to where it had become even harder to ‘sell me to a placement’.
Following that placement, I was placed with a wonderful family on Fort Sill Army Base. They honestly did nothing wrong and I was the one that blew that placement because of my own fear. I had become too comfortable. I state this because as a traumatized youth, letting my guard down enough to feel that comfortable meant that I was ready for the next wave of assaults to occur. Even at the high school in which I attended, I was never harassed. I got along with their children and even became friends with one of their girl’s boyfriend. I was making friends at the high school, getting interested in JROTC, enjoying coming home each day, even was being asked if I wanted to go hang out with my foster sister’s boyfriend and his mates and never once was I asked if I was gay. My sexuality wasn’t an issue in their home even though it was a continual issue for me and I kept waiting for that other shoe to drop; because to be a foster child and experience all of the sorrow I had prior meant that to find some happiness again means it would be taken away. So I self-sabotaged, and blew the placement myself. This is one placement where I even wanted to ask them if they were willing to adopt me, that is how comfortable I felt. I was sixteen at the time and having actual wishes of being adopted and wanted to ask to be adopted but out of my fear I may have missed out on a great life with a wonderful family; to this day I wish I could get in contact with them but unfortunately I can’t remember their names and due to a law in the State of Oklahoma, I have no way of knowing their names or even means of contacting them.
Which brings us to the second to last placement I ever had in the foster care system; here I was, upgraded to a ‘specialized group home’. This was my senior year in high school and I even had to make a deal with my caseworker to stay the school year and she would move me back to my home county for the remaining months that I was to be in care. This was a deal I stuck to despite all of the harassment, threats, demeaning conversations, caretakers that found it acceptable, and that is just talking about what happened at the ‘specialized group home’. The harassment that occurred at the high school was just as intolerable because for one I was the outsider from a group that had pretty much grown up with one another the majority of their lives. Needless to say, I was far from popular with anyone except maybe the second graders that I was the teaching assistant for on one of my free periods.
I honestly believe the reasons I stayed and didn’t blow that placement even though I was living through hell were my agreement with my caseworker, those second-graders (who even made me cry at graduation), my job at Mazzio’s Pizza, and the fact that I met someone who drove an hour and an half each time to see me. The guy that I met was actually a foster kid too and placed with the family in Fort Sill that I was previously at. He was a black guy, so I was already non-conforming in this small community, very affectionate, caring, called frequently to the ‘home’ just so we could talk about nothing most of the time. On a personal note, he was even a great kisser, but it was a relationship I had to keep hidden and could never fully be proud of because of a threat that was made to me, this threat started after I accidentally had ‘hickies’ on my neck. The threat involved tying me up to a truck and dragging me down the dirt roads that surrounded the small town until I died if I were ever to be seen with him. I also feared that the person(s) making that threat would do the same to him so my brief moment in happiness at the place was brought to an end and he never knew why I broke up with him. At one point, I even fantasized about going to Prom with him but after that threat, that quickly faded too. This is one of the first times of my mention of this to anyone because it is a reality that many gay youth in foster care deal with…endless threats.
At graduation from Olustee High School, I had some supporters in the audience that came as a complete surprise to me. My caseworker, a former caseworker (whose daughter I took to Junior Prom at Ardmore High School – my home county), workers from the children’s shelter that I spent many nights, weeks, and cumulatively months at, and one special person who will remain nameless but know that your attendance was far greater than what I could have ever expected. My second-graders providing me with their last hugs and coffee mug with a cap and tassel is also an experience that will remain with me as I do hope that they have all become successful since I last saw them.
After graduation, my caseworker stuck to her end of the agreement and I spent my final few months as a ‘ward of the court’ in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I even got the foster parent I requested; I still keep in contact with her and ‘my siblings’. I later went on to end that summer by moving to Norman, Oklahoma and becoming a freshman at the University of Oklahoma where I found some wonderful mates who didn’t question my sexuality but accepted it and even took me to some ‘safe’ venues to go dance and meet others like myself.
The biggest hit I ever received was not what I was forced to overcome from being in foster care but what happened on January 1, 2011. On that date, I found out that my partner of five years passed away and he was much younger than I. He was an Insulin-Dependent Diabetic (type 1) and also battling AIDS. Though he had AIDS, he was vigilant at making sure that I remain HIV negative. He and his family had rebuilt me from the broken person I was inside to where I was in part a member of a loving family and no longer broken from the haunts of my past. We were planning on getting married and beginning a life and family together but in that one day my world crumbled and it has honestly drained so much of whom I am or was to restart.
When I began this article, one could certainly feel the pulse of frustration that I continue to have with the foster care system. One thing this article forced me to do is cry, shed some of that in which I have held inside for several decades, reflect, and most certainly allow you, the reader, to see some of the struggles that being a Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Ally, or Pansexual (LGBTQQIAAP) youth in care can experience. Though this is only my experience that is filled with its highs and lows, mixed emotions, forgiveness, and grief, it is an experience that still continues to this day. Either it is a same-sex family that wishes to foster and/or adopt, to the experience of LGBT youth in care, to a person telling a piece of their story. A LGBT youth is no different than any other youth out there in the system. We still need to be loved and nurtured and cared for just as our heterosexual or “straight” counterparts. We are in a system that removed us from an abusive or neglectful situation, not to be placed in a similar or even many times worse situation, but to be placed in an environment where we know and foster love, acceptance, empathy, and pride. Our sexual orientation doesn’t define who we are but promotes that from diversity comes greatness.