Weston Charles-Gallo was 14 years old when he entered the foster care system. The teen, who is openly gay, said he was afraid of his biological parents, whom he said subjected him to years of homophobic abuse.
Charles-Gallo eventually ended up in a group home in rural Missouri, where he said some of the other boys didn’t like him because of his sexuality.
“There was a guy who was my same age, and he never talked to me, and he never wanted to be around me and did not feel comfortable wanting to share a room with me because I was gay,” Charles-Gallo recalled, saying the isolation he felt left him depressed and prone to suicidal ideation.
When he was 16, Charles-Gallo moved into an emergency shelter. He said he was on the brink of living on the streets when a gay couple, Eric and Louis Charles-Gallo, decided to foster him. The teen moved into the couple’s home in Kansas City, Missouri, and they soon adopted him.
“It was like a sense of relief,” said Charles-Gallo, now a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. “I can only imagine where I would be right now if I wouldn’t have found them.”
The “sense of relief” Charles-Gallo felt after finding accepting parents could soon become less attainable for LGBTQ foster youth, according to civil rights advocates. That’s because earlier this month, House Republicans advanced an amendment that would allow federally funded adoption and foster agencies to reject gay couples on religious or moral grounds.
Supporters say the amendment, if passed, would protect the religious liberties of faith-based agencies. But civil rights advocates say it will prevent many same-sex families from adopting and hurt an already vulnerable population: LGBTQ foster youth.
In 2016, there were 437,000 youth in foster care, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. LGBTQ teens, many of whom are thrown out of their homes, are overrepresented in the system, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
Research suggests that LGBTQ prospective parents, like the ones who adopted Weston Charles-Gallo, are more likely than their heterosexual peers to adopt older, special-needs and minority children.
“A LICENSE TO DISCRIMINATE”
LGBTQ advocates call the House amendment “a license to discriminate.”
“What’s really concerning is that this would create a way to discriminate nationwide, and it would undermine existing protections in many states that prohibit agencies from engaging in discrimination,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.
If the amendment is passed, state and local governments that do not allow agencies to refuse service to gay couples on religious or moral grounds would risk losing 15 percent of federal funding for their child welfare services.
According to a recent report, California would risk losing nearly $250 million and New Jersey would lose over $25 million. In total, the amendment could cut more than $1.04 billion to state child welfare budgets.
Warbelow also claimed the amendment would allow for a greater number of religiously affiliated agencies to subject LGBTQ foster youth to so-called gay conversion therapy. This medically discredited practice, which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is currently banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia, according to Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
“There are tons of young people who have already been kicked out of their homes,” said John Paul Horn, 32, a gay advocate and former foster youth. “They’ve been rejected by their families, and now you’re creating a way for these states to fund these other organizations that are either going to legally reject them, refuse to provide services to them or change who they are.”
“I WAS CONSTANTLY BEING HARASSED AND BULLIED”
In addition to being overrepresented in the foster care system, LGBTQ youth face higher rates of harassment, disruptive placement and trauma than their straight peers in foster care, HRC reported last year.
Horn, who now teaches child welfare policy at Boston University, said life as a gay teen in foster care was harsh.
“I kind of fit the bill as what people thought of as a stereotypically gay kid, and so I was constantly being harassed and bullied and made fun of because of my sexual orientation,” he recalled.
Horn said other youth with whom he lived in group homes would frequently call him homophobic slurs and instigate fights with him. He said group home staff told him not to talk about his sexuality. The foster families he stayed with made him go to church and pressured him to stay in the closet, he said.
“I lived with this particularly religious woman and her husband … she was just very matter of fact about it,” Horn recalled. “She was just like ‘This is something that’s not going to be acceptable here, and if this is who you are, then you just can’t be here.’”
“THEY WOULDN’T WORK WITH US”
An estimated 2 million LGBTQ prospective parents want to adopt, but laws that make it easy for agencies to turn them away — which already exist in several states — can prove insurmountable for some couples and end up putting LGBTQ and other vulnerable youth at risk, according to Denise Brogan-Kator, chief policy officer for the Family Equality Council, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ families.
“We know that LGBTQ-identified families adopt at four times the rate and foster at six times the rate as their non-LGBTQ counterparts,” Brogan-Kator added.
A spokesperson for Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who proposed the House’s adoption amendment, said same-sex couples could “go to a different agency and adopt there” if they are excluded from a religious agency. But in practice, it’s not always that simple.
Married couple Kristy and Dana Dumont said they were turned down by two separate state-funded agencies in Michigan, where agencies are legally allowed to turn away same-sex couples. The women said the agencies rejected them as soon as they said they were married.
“We were just immediately told that they wouldn’t work with us,” Dana Dumont recalled.
The couple have been together for 12 years. When they decided to adopt in 2015, they moved into a house in Lansing with two spare bedrooms and a big backyard. They also said the area has a good school district. When they realized a child wouldn’t be joining them, “it was heartbreaking,” Kristy Dumont said.
The Dumonts, who are represented by the ACLU, are suing the state-contracted Michigan agencies. Both agencies referred the couple to organizations outside the county that would work with them, as required by law. But the Dumonts argue they shouldn’t have to travel an hour or more away to undergo the extensive training required to become foster parents.
The women said they would like to foster an older child and would be “absolutely” willing to adopt a child who is LGBTQ.
“That would be something we would very much welcome if we could help in some way with that, for sure,” said Dana Dumont.
For now, the spare bedrooms in the Dumonts’ home remain empty.