The number of LGBTQ foster kids is on the rise

Does Colorado have enough accepting homes?

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Diamond Kobylinski spent almost his entire childhood in foster homes, from age 2 to 17. The worst, though, was when one set of foster parents changed their mind about adopting him after Kobylinski blurted out during an argument that he was gay.

It was the first time Kobylinski had ever said the words out loud. His foster parents, who took him to church every Sunday and had told him they were concerned about his choice in clothes, were silent at first. Then they told him he needed to choose a different path, recalled Kobylinski, now 21.

“It was an awful experience,” he said. “It was heart-wrenching.”

Kobylinski was 9 then. At 17, less than a year before he would have aged out of foster care, he was adopted by a lesbian couple who let him act, dress and date how he wanted, a life-changing development that helped him “blossom.” Now, he works at Kids Crossing in Colorado Springs, a child placement agency that recruits and licenses foster families. And Kobylinski is on a mission to help the agency become the state’s most ambitious recruiter of same-sex couples and help LGBTQ foster kids find welcoming, supportive families.

It’s against the law in Colorado for child placement agencies to reject couples or single foster parents because they are gay. But there’s quite a difference between actively recruiting same-sex couples and passively accepting them, say child welfare officials and adoption agencies trying to find homes for a growing number of gay and transgender children.

Catholic Charities of Denver ended its adoption program in 2015, not long after threatening at the state Capitol that legalization of civil unions would lead the church to quit providing adoption and foster care services. About half of the 40 or so child placement agencies in the state are religious based, and only a few agencies go out of their way in advertising materials or on social media to specifically target LGBTQ families.

Kids Crossing licensed a gay foster parent in the mid-1990s, one of the first agencies in the state to do so, said Lee Oesterle, executive director of the agency. But even though the foster family was a lesbian couple, the paperwork referred to a single woman and her “roommate,” Oesterle said. “We weren’t dishonest but we didn’t put it in the report.”

Thirty years later, Kids Crossing — at Kobylinski’s urging — recently added employees’ pronouns to its email signatures and is working on a website redesign that will make clear that they’re seeking same-sex couples and more homes for LGBTQ children and teens. Kids Crossing, a secular agency that competes with several faith-based adoption centers in El Paso County, also has plans for radio and newspaper advertisements targeting gay families, and it started incorporating LGBTQ training into its certification program.

“What we have found is that almost all families say that they’re open to that, but many describe being uncomfortable, afraid they are going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing,” Oesterle said.

Out of its 150 foster families, about 10 are same-sex couples, he said. “That’s really without trying, without openly recruiting,” said Oesterle, who hopes to boost that number and become the go-to agency for gay couples in the southern Colorado region.

Adams County takes only LGBTQ-affirming families

As for county child welfare divisions, which also license foster families, Adams County is leading the way in recruiting families ready for LGBTQ children.

“We are crystal clear from day one that we are not just accepting or tolerant — we are an affirming program,” said Angela Wilson, who supervises Adams County’s foster care program. “There is a big difference between, ‘Sure, I’ll tolerate it, but they can’t date in my house’ or ‘I’m not going to let them participate in activities.’”

Adams County, which was recognized for its LGBTQ work by the national Human Rights Campaign Foundation, wants only families that will let gay teenagers hold hands with their partners or younger children exploring gender roles wear nail polish or play dressup. The problem is the county often doesn’t know if a child is gay or transgender or nonbinary, so it doesn’t want to place any child in a home that would shame or traumatize the child if those feelings began to emerge, Wilson said.

About once a year, a family slips through the information meeting and the training without getting this message, Wilson said. Last year, Adams County was just about to certify a couple as foster parents when they revealed they would not take any children who were gay or trans.

“They did not want to leave,” Wilson said. “The family all of a sudden felt like it was their duty to change us. It got a little complicated really quickly.”

All the while, Wilson and county officials had their eyes on a U.S. Supreme Court case last year in which the court sided with Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia in a battle over whether the religious group could reject same-sex married couples that applied to be foster parents. The court decided that the city of Philadelphia had violated the church’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion when it ended its contract to screen potential foster parents.

Adams County consulted with state child welfare officials at the Colorado Department of Human Services and attorneys, learning that not accepting the foster couple could be considered discrimination against their religious beliefs, Wilson said.

So Wilson tried another tactic.

“I just kept meeting with them and telling them how a child might feel in their home,” she said. “We met ad nauseum — until they withdrew.”

Not all county child welfare divisions work this way. Wilson knows this because potential foster and adoptive parents sometimes transfer to Adams County and tell her about the lack of LGBTQ training, and because caseworkers in other counties are approving foster homes that are opposed to gay and trans children.

“There are people who are writing and approving home studies for people who are saying, ‘I can’t have an LGBTQ kid in my home,’” Wilson said. “That 100 percent exists in Colorado.”

And some foster parents in other counties say they only want children who are younger than 10, hoping to avoid any kids who identify as gay, trans or nonbinary. “If you come to us saying ‘I only want kids age 0 to 10 so we don’t have to worry about the LGBTQ stuff?’ Wilson said. “Wrong.”

Adams County has about 115 foster homes, including about 85 that are traditional foster homes. The rest are kinship placements. The county does not know how many children in foster care identify as LGBTQ, and neither does the state child welfare division, because that is not a required field in the state child welfare computer system.

Number of LGBTQ kids in foster care is increasing

Nationally, some child advocacy groups say nearly one-third of children in foster care are LGBTQ, and in Colorado, child placement agencies and caseworkers say they see more LGBTQ kids every year. While some are in the system because they conflicted with their biological parents over being gay or trans, many come out while they are in foster care.

Children who are gay or trans are in foster care for the same reasons as other children: abuse and neglect. On top of that, they often experience additional trauma because they are rejected or mistreated based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, said Minna Castillo Cohen, director the Office of Children, Youth and Families at the state human services department.

They’re more likely to live in residential centers instead of foster homes, and more likely to have frequent disruptions and more placements, she said.

“We want to make sure that we have fully inclusive families, and that we are sure that all families who are willing to foster a child are committing to being fully inclusive,” Castillo Cohen said. “To reject that child a second time would be horrible, and we don’t know how children are going to identify as they grow up.”

Another child placement agency, WhimSpire, also has stepped up its efforts in recent years to find LGBTQ-affirming families, including by recruitment at farmers markets and gay pride events on the Western Slope.

“The biggest factor for us, whether it’s LGBTQ families or not, is getting out in the community and answering questions about who can and cannot foster,” said Katie Norton, WhimSpire’s northwest regional director, in Grand Junction.

The agency’s social media pages include photos of diverse foster families, including same-sex couples. The efforts have coincided with an increasing number of calls from counties across Colorado hoping to find supportive homes for kids who are gay or trans, she said. The agency has 111 certified foster homes in the state, including 11 that are same-sex households.

“We don’t necessarily see their preferences. We don’t see their religion,” she said. “We see their heart and their desire to foster.”

“One big rainbow family”

When Colorado Springs couple Riley and Matthew Skelton decided they wanted to adopt, they specifically looked for a non-religious agency that had good reviews in the gay community. Then the two men interviewed the agency, Kids Crossing, wanting to make sure they would get a welcoming reception before they signed up to get certified as a foster-to-adopt family.

In part, it was self-preservation.

“Any faith-based placement agencies, just from our own experiences, they’re not an option at all because we don’t feel like we would be treated in a way that would be supportive of our lifestyle and our family and what we’re trying to create,” Riley said. “I still don’t have a relationship with my mother because she uses Christianity as a means to not have a relationship with me because the Bible tells her so.”

Now, the couple have one adopted child, a 12-year-old who uses they/them pronouns, and one foster child on the LGBTQ “spectrum” whom they are trying to adopt.

“Just one big rainbow family,” Riley said.

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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