The year was 2007 and there was a great divide.
There were scores of agencies trying to find foster and permanent families for children who desperately needed them. There also were many motivated adults, members of the LGBT community, who viewed adoption as their path to parenthood.
But, says Ellen Kahn, director of the Children, Youth & Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, “Many of them didn't feel welcome or included."
And so countless potential families were kept apart.
“We wanted to figure out what would fill that gap," she explains.
The result was “All Children – All Families," a seal of recognition that for eight years running has been helping child welfare professionals cultivate their ideal — large pools of families in which the children in their care might find an ideal match — by teaching them to cultivate a climate of acceptance and improve their practice with LGBT youth and families.
Of course, some were doing fine in that respect already; they were precisely whom Kahn and cohorts called to the table.
“Those agencies became part of our think tank," she explains. “We asked them to translate what they'd done, their best practices, and put together something that could be brought to scale nationally."
These became the 10 key “Benchmarks of LGBT Cultural Competency." Agencies that work toward meeting these milestones earn the seal and, with that, the visibility within the LGBT community that the respected HRC name affords. At press time 51 had completed the program; another 31 were amid the process.
“The organizations that implement our approach, working with us closely to meet our benchmarks — they've really made something of a culture change." And HRC works with agencies of every size and scope, from small organizations that work solely with infant placement to the entire New Jersey Department of Children and Families' Division of Child Protection and Permanency.
“We've probably trained three-quarters of [its] roughly 900 staffers across the state."
Much of the training, says Kahn, particularly early on, helps people become aware of their unconscious biases. In fact, the very first step is the completion of an online agency self-assessment.
“It's a custom-made tool," notes Kahn. “Some of the questions have to do with very concrete things like discrimination: language in the agency's materials, images on its website and so forth." Others touch on preconceptions that even LGBT-friendly individuals may not realize they have.
“There are case workers who genuinely have no resistance to placing with LGBT folks, but perhaps don't know the best practices or aren't comfortable asking difficult questions."
When did you come out? What was it like? How did you overcome challenges? Are you out at work? With your extended family? If not, how will you have those conversations? When your child has questions about having two dads, if he or she hears comments from other people, how will you address these?
Are such personal questions really necessary?
“Yes, they're pretty darn helpful!" says Kahn, who adds that they are standard for things such as home studies. They also help case workers prepare families for the adoption process. “It helps them think through a lot of important issues."
There is often a hierarchy at work as well. In the more traditional child welfare organizations, Kahn notes, the married, opposite-sex couple is the preferred family. “Next, depending on where you are, come single moms or same-sex couples." But gay men and lesbians aren't necessarily on the same tier."
“Some folks in the field have their suspicions about whether gay men can parent and be nurturing …. And then there's the added nuanced issue of gender expression. There could be more comfort with lesbians who have more traditional ways of expressing their femaleness …. Likewise with gay men. We've actually had very funny conversations about this in training."
Serious, however, is the situation prospective single fathers face, regardless of their orientation. “I think they're the most stigmatized. There's just a lot of suspicion about motives. I really feel for single men who have to step into a system that often doesn't value them."
Role playing in training helps those who do adoption orientations learn how to put attendees of all shades at ease. “For example, if a man asks a question and someone in the audience says, 'A child should have a mother and a father.' What should the trainer do? How do you make that man feel safe and welcome?"
At the very least, she notes, we'd want people to say, 'We have successful foster/adoptive families that span single parents and gay parents and straight parents. Everyone is welcome here.' And then perhaps follow up with that gentleman in a conversation after the meeting. Training teaches these professionals that saying nothing is actually saying a lot."
Marriage equality in 37 states, of course, has moved the ball forward. “But although those who choose to marry can now adopt jointly like any other married couple, it doesn't mean there won't be challenges …."
And she notes that even before the marriage equality train pulled out of the station, “We were engaging organizations in unlikely places too. Some of our lead organizations, our hugest champions, are in places like Tucson and Kansas City and the Orlando area. It's important not to perpetuate the idea that agencies in red states or more conservative parts of the country are not engaged …. Often these agencies, some of which are on the smaller side, become the catalyst for change in their own communities."
The good part is that HRC no longer has to make a hard sell to those whose job it is to find these kids good homes. “All Children – All Families" is an ideal program for agencies that need help navigating.
“[Marriage equality] has opened the door for many agencies to step out from behind a neutral or “Don't Ask, Don't Tell" position to a more engaged, intentional approach to not only abide by the law but do well by their families."
Visit HRC's webpage to learn more about the initiative and see a complete list of participating agencies.