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A Local Program Interview on LGBT Youth Initiatives

Deborah Sutton-Weiss, CEO, CASA for Riverside County in Indio, CA

Read about their initiatives to better train and prepare their advocates and their collaboration to help better screen placements for LGBT youth.

How did your work with LGBT youth start?

We began at the 2009 National CASA conference, where I attended at a workshop on LGBT youth. I thought, I’m in one of the largest counties in the US and this has to be going on in my community. I came back, met with my board and met with the Department of Social Services. Working with the county and the judges was the best thing to do because you never want to sideswipe your partners.

Why is this important in your community?

In Riverside County (CA), we have a diverse population. We have the good-old-boy networks that don’t believe these problems exist, and we have the high gay areas that recognize these issues. We were also seeing more kids coming out at an earlier age. They were coming out to our advocates, and the advocates were unsure of what to do. Many times we would find out when they were being moved out of a placement. If the home that isn’t gay friendly, the kids are moved out of the placement.

What initiatives are you currently working on around LGBT youth?

It took a year to develop a curriculum with California CASA and California Equality. Once we developed the curriculum we started training our new advocates and training our more veteran advocates at in-service and bootcamp trainings.

Within the county, we are working with our partners to better screen placements and to work towards asking the right questions. The social workers need the full information that a youth identifies as LGBT (without outing the youth) so they can make an informed decision on a better placement that can lead to a more stable environment. We need to create an atmosphere where the kids feel safe and open.

We are also working on assisting with recruiting new foster parents – eight same-sex couples so far! A wealthy couple is working on opening a group home that is gay-friendly.

We also wanted to create a more gay-friendly organization. We were getting calls from people saying “I would really love to help but I’m gay…” We wanted to let the LGBT community know that we do need their help. With Gordon’s help as our champion in the community, we’re been able to change that. We added small rainbow flag that clicks through Gordon’s story and some resources to show that we are a gay-friendly organization.

Our main areas that we work towards:

1.      Training the advocates not to “out” a youth

2.      Being more sensitive and knowledgeable on the issues

3.      Talking with the youth on these issues

4.      Getting out into the community to let them know that we need to do more

5.      Working with placements to create stable and welcoming environments

How have these initiatives impacted the advocates and youth they serve?

We get feedback from our advocates that they feel better equipped to respond appropriately to their youth. The training isn’t so foreign to them anymore. For the new advocates, it just another issue that kids in foster care can face. We educate the advocates on the rights of the kids, and they educate the kids on their rights.

What is your greatest achievement since starting these initiatives?

We now have LGBT youth that are starting programs within their schools for support. I thought that was so cool because many of these kids won’t even look at you when you first meeting them but after a couple of years with an advocate, they take it upon themselves to start something at school for support. That’s the best compliment.

Our partnership with DSS and the courts has also been a great accomplishment. They’re been great partners!

We also can’t forget about Angel. Please read his story!

How did your community initially respond to your initiatives? Were you nervous rolling it out? Were you surprised with any reactions?

We had some concerns about a gay youth paired with a gay advocate – thinking and fearing the worst. I got a nasty letter from an angry advocate when we started. We had some concerns that the LGBT youth were being singled out for special treatment. “Why are they special?” Why do we need to do extra for these kids?” We do the same thing with ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) kids. It’s about doing our due diligence. This is the same thing. This is one more component that we can tackle on the front end. It’s better than seeing this kid run away, because that’s what they’ll do. After the initial year, we don’t get this anymore. All of the advocates see this as a safety issue, not a sexual issue. 

When we started working on these initiatives, someone had raised the question: “Are you sure? You may lose some funding.” We haven’t lost any funders. In fact, we have picked up a lot more in private funds. Going outside of our box was a good move for us.

We got involved with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They are a nationwide group, a little edgy, but they go out and raise money for charities. They’ve been supporting us financially for about three years now; they come out and assist with fundraisers. They’re such a great group and they understand the need. 

What advice would you have for other CASA/GAL programs interested in starting a LGBT initiative in their community?

  • Call in your partners – DSS and the courts. Involve your partners early on in the conversation so they feel a part of it and will help it along.
  • Research the statistics in your community. We have about 18% of kids report being gay so you can show the need.
  • Slowly go into the training. I found it a lot easier to train new advocates and then train the more veteran at in-service. And be prepared for a wide array of questions and comments.
  • Involve youth as much as you can.
  • Work with your state organizations and directors. California CASA has been very supportive with state statistics and as a sounding board for me. And offer to have collaborative meetings with surrounding CASA programs. There is a growing interest within the CASA network in serving this population.

We are now three years along in this effort and we’re seeing improvements, changes and success. So keep at it. There should be more programs that are doing this work!

Next steps – I want to work more within the transgender community and learn more about this community as the transgender kids face different issues! We’re talking with the judges about transgender youth. They may see Mike in the courtroom one day and then the next time she is transitioning into Mary. An online radio station called Transition Radio is a great resource.


The links are provided as a source of information sharing. National CASA does not directly endorse any of these organizations.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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