Lawyers do more than litigate, and the Children & Youth Law Clinic is giving its students an opportunity to advocate both inside and outside of the courtroom. Through public policy advocacy projects supported by grants from the Florida Bar Foundation and the Batchelor Foundation, students build skills in community organizing, policy advocacy, and collaborative lawyering that go beyond individual cases.
The majority of the clinic’s clients are teens and young adults who the State removed from parents due to abuse, abandonment or neglect, but who were never placed in permanent family settings and thus have “aged out” of foster care. These youth seem set up to fail by the very system that was supposed to protect them. Only 50% of Florida’s youth in foster care graduate from high school, and many experience homelessness, incarceration, psychiatric hospitalization, joblessness and other poor outcomes as adults.
But litigating one case at a time seemed like a never-ending battle, so Professor Kele Stewart, clinic co-director and supervisor of the Independent Living Project, determined it was time to do more than just sue.
On September 19, 2014, the Independent Living Project launched a series of roundtable discussions aimed at improving outcomes for young adults exiting foster care. The roundtable discussions seek to change policy and practice in Miami-Dade. Recent legislative changes in Florida allow the option to remain in foster care to age 21. Extending age-out from 18 to 21 is a helpful start, but advocates like Professor Stewart worry that “unless we better equip teens with the life skills and type of nurturing support needed for successful adulthood, we will continue to see the same poor outcomes.”
The roundtables are an effort to identify effective approaches, as well as engage a broader community to support young adults. The first roundtable, hosted in collaboration with other organizations that serve foster youth, focused on employment. It was attended by over 30 participants representing diverse organizations, including several that were not previously sensitized to the needs of youth involved in the foster care system. Future roundtables will address mental health, housing and other topics.
Clinic students participated in the roundtables and gained a broader perspective on the issues they encounter in their individual clinic cases. Students in the Independent Living Project also do community education for former foster youth at a monthly resource fair.
Another at-risk population served by the clinic was far less visible. In many cases, kids in this group were quite literally hiding. Anthony Nadeau is now a speech and debate coach for high school students in Florida and an active member of Florida Youth Shine. But not so long ago he was a foster youth.
“In foster care I was in a group home for a couple of months,” said Nadeau in an interview back in October, “and that was definitely one of the most difficult experiences of my entire life.” Being removed from his family was traumatic, but made even more so by being surrounded by “a group of kids and a group of adults who are completely ignorant of the LGBT movement and gay people.”
Nearly one in five foster youth identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, according to a recent study by UCLA’s Williams Institute of Los Angeles County’s foster care system. These youth experience more foster care placements, are more likely to wind up in a group home, and are three times more likely than straight youth to be psychiatrically hospitalized at some point in their lives.
Among homeless youth, the numbers are even more staggering - in another study, 20-40% of all homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. Sixty-five percent of homeless LGBTQ youth reported having been in a child welfare placement at some point in their lives. Many reported feeling safer on the streets than in foster care.
Nadeau describes one of the most difficult experiences in the group home: coming home to the group home campus and having to walk up a long hill, through a group of kids screaming homophobic slurs.
“Being young I didn’t really even know how to deal with that,” he said. “At the moment I hadn’t come out to myself and I really didn’t even know what gay was. I was being called all these things that I didn’t know what they were, but I knew that they hurt.”
Despite the stark disproportionality of LGBTQ youth in so-called out of home care systems such as foster care, homeless assistance centers, and juvenile justice facilities, Florida has paid little attention to the needs of this particularly vulnerable population.
Through its LGBTQ Child Welfare Project, the Clinic is working to change this. In cooperation with Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ civil rights law firm, and other children’s legal services organizations receiving grants from the Florida Bar Foundation, the clinic is organizing trainings and strategic planning groups across the state.
Stories from people like Anthony Nadeau attest that this is a serious problem, but also that education and awareness can improve conditions immeasurably for LGBTQ youth.
After leaving the group home, Nadeau was placed in an accepting foster home. He remembers a specific time that made a world of difference. “I remember one time we were driving in the car, and she’s really old school African American, really religious, and we were driving somewhere and one of her friends said very, very scathing things about the gay community and we dropped her off and she turned around and she said, ‘I just want you to know that I love you.’ And so when I heard that, we didn’t need to have a conversation, I didn’t think we needed to have a conversation. I didn’t need to sit her down and tell her I’m gay. The understanding was there and the protection was there. That experience definitely meant a lot and just little things that she did, made that foster home feel like a home.”
Response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive. A presentation at the statewide Child Protection Summit this year had over 150 participants. Another panel at a statewide disabilities conference was standing room only. Local workgroups have been established in cities across Florida to address community resources and needs. A presentation by Nadeau and Florida Youth Shine about the conditions at group homes has spurred serious conversations about the safety of congregate care.
The project also seeks to improve the experiences of LGBTQ adults in the system.
“We can’t forget that it was illegal for gay men and lesbians to adopt in Florida for forty years,” said Robert Latham, supervising attorney for the project and Clinical Instructor at the Children & Youth Law Clinic. “That prejudice didn’t go away just because of a court ruling.”
Florida’s ban on gay adoption was ruled unconstitutional by Florida courts in 2010. “Four years later, DCF still has nothing on its website that says that everyone is welcome,” said Latham. “You would be justified in thinking the ban was still in place.” Florida currently has approximately 3,000 children available for adoption.
The landscape in Florida for LGBTQ persons is changing rapidly. Same-sex marriage is now legal in Florida, raising the visibility and stature of gay and lesbian families, and two bills have been filed that could lead to significant improvements for LGBTQ youth: one banning the use of sexual orientation conversion therapy on youth, and another banning discrimination against LGBTQ persons in employment practices.
“Having a system where LGBTQ persons are safe to be out, and their positive contributions can be recognized would change everything, both for the system and for the youth who are in it,” said Latham.
“If I could give any advice or thoughts about professionals in DCF or any other foster care agency dealing with LGBT youth - listen, observe, open up your ears,” said Nadeau. “Because while it’s important not to go around labeling children, you definitely need to have an understanding, educate yourself and have the understanding that regardless of your personal beliefs or how you feel, that is not your job, that is not why you got hired, your job is to protect youth of all races, of all sexual orientations, of all colors, and I think the moment that you disregard a group of children, that’s the moment you’ve failed.”