New York Times, January 16, 1999
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Suit Alleges Frequent Abuse of Gay Children in Foster Care

A Federal class-action lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of gay, lesbian and bisexual youths in foster care, charging that because of their sexual orientation they are routinely subjected to physical violence and psychological abuse in New York City's child welfare system.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind in the country, highlights what experts say is a nationwide problem in foster care, affecting children as young as 9 or 10 as well as teen-agers, and contributing to high numbers of runaways and suicides.

The six plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Joel A. v. Giuliani, describe experiences of homophobic abuse -- from unrelenting harassment to broken bones to rape -- by peers, foster parents and staff members of child welfare agencies. Their appeals for protection were typically met with indifference, blame or isolation, according to the suit, which was filed in the United States District Court in Manhattan by the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the homeless, and lawyers at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, working for free.

Leonora Wiener, a spokeswoman for the city's Administration for Children's Services, said she could not comment on pending litigation, but added, "We are working on the issues concerning gay and lesbian foster children on several fronts."

Joel A., the lead plaintiff, is a 13-year-old boy who entered foster care at age 9, when he already considered himself gay. The lawsuit charges that staff members at a series of group homes and a large residential treatment center rarely intervened when other children made Joel a target of abuse because he was effeminate. Among other incidents, he was thrown down a flight of stairs, had his nose broken twice, was hit in the face with a broom and had his shoulder blade broken, the lawsuit charges.

Another plaintiff, Eric R., attempted suicide by hanging himself from a baseball backstop at age 15 after nine years in a series of Long Island foster placements where, according to the lawsuit, he was constantly humiliated because of his feminine demeanor and grew increasingly depressed and fearful about disclosing his sexual orientation. When he finally told his social worker that he was gay, the suit charges, he was sent to a foster home owned by two gay men, one of whom sexually abused him. When he complained, an agency supervisor threatened to place him at a facility in the Bronx where tough boys would beat him up for being gay, the suit charges.

Among other examples cited by the lawsuit were a therapist who told Eric that all gay people get AIDS and it was God's punishment, and a psychiatrist at an upstate residential treatment center who told another adolescent that "boys will be boys" after other youths had harassed him daily.

"The defendants' failure to protect members of the class from bias- related aggression results in extreme physical, psychological, emotional and developmental injury," the complaint says. As an immediate remedy, the suit seeks foster care facilities specially staffed and programmed as "safe houses," and in the long term, staff training to make all placements safe and supportive of gay, lesbian and bisexual children.

David Pumo, a lawyer at the Urban Justice Center and the director of its Lesbian and Gay Youth Project, said it was impossible to estimate the size of the lawsuit's class, which is defined to include young people in foster care "who are questioning or confused about their sexual orientation or gender." But he pointed to research indicating that gay and lesbian youths are overrepresented in foster care because they are more likely to be rejected by their families. National studies show that gay and lesbian youths are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other children.

As far back as 1992, in an internal memo included as evidence in the case, city child welfare officials acknowledged that many gay and lesbian children were "nearly impossible" to place appropriately because private, nonprofit foster care agencies either rejected them or reported that they were "scapegoated" by other children and staff members, "which disrupted services to other residents."

Only one specialized program exists, unofficially, among more than 60 foster care agencies caring for 40,000 children in the city's custody, according to the lawsuit: Green Chimneys Gramercy Residence, a group home that serves only 35 boys ages 16 to 21. Nationally, the only other residential foster program specifically for gay youths is in Los Angeles, Pumo said, and serves an equally modest number of older teen-agers.

Ms. Wiener said the city plans 11 more group home beds and began staff training on sexual identity last year.

Gary Mallon, who founded the Green Chimneys program and is on the faculty at Hunter College, said the greatest need is for services for younger children.

"Clearly the research is showing children are identifying earlier," he said.

Mallon, who recently led training sessions on the issue for judges in Georgia and child welfare groups in Mississippi, Florida and Missouri, said the violence described in the lawsuit echoes what he found researching child welfare systems in New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The day before the lawsuit was filed, its lead plaintiff, Joel A., had his jaw broken in two places by youths on a playground in Queens who demanded to know whether he was gay, Pumo said.

The law requires an adult, known as a "next friend," to approve a juvenile plaintiff's appearance in a class action.

Jonathan Cole, the provost of Columbia University, volunteered to be Joel's.

"Your heart goes out to him," Cole said of the boy, who had worn his blue platform shoes to the midtown law firm handling the litigation. "He's a wonderful kid, and he's basically a street urchin."

Cole added, "These are youngsters who are at great risk and who in effect are being put out on the street because the city simply doesn't have any mechanism for handling gay and lesbian kids."


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