Sitting outside in the freezing cold, Delilah Ramos, a bubbly teenager, jokes around with friends and giggles often.
"Don't make me laugh," she scolds her peers playfully as she sits in the garden, behind the LGBT Center in Chelsea.
At age 18, Delilah has experienced more hardships and obstacles than many will experience in a lifetime.
Raised with her identical twin and their siblings by a single mother who, Delilah says, struggled to care for them all, the teen's family spent extended periods bouncing between homeless shelters while Delilah dealt with substance abuse.
She had her first drink in the seventh grade, abused drugs and alcohol as a young teen and eventually went through rehab. But life changed most drastically for Delilah in December 2012, when her mother placed her and her twin sister in foster care.
"It was because of a problem with my mom and we don't have family and she didn't want us anymore," says Delilah. "So we didn't have anywhere to go."
Worried she would not get along with foster parents, she chose to live in a group home.
Delilah is one of nearly 12,000 children* in the New York City foster care system. She is also one of an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent** of this population that identifies as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning).
As recently as a decade ago, LGBTQ youth in New York's foster-care system almost always found themselves isolated, scorned and discriminated against.
While circumstances for some LGBTQ children remain bleak, advocates for LGBTQ foster children say there's anecdotal evidence of improvement. Advocates also point to changing times – and a new city policy that requires foster parents and child welfare employees to undergo "LGBTQ-affirming" training that make them more sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ youth.
"I think it needs to be acknowledged that things are way better than they used to be," says Gary Mallon, executive director of the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, which works with LGBTQ youth in New York City. "Yeah, it's not as good as it should be but, I'll tell you, as someone who has been doing this since 1987, it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be."
Lawsuit Triggered Change
Mallon says the change for the better slowly began in the late 1990s after the Urban Justice Center filed a class-action suit on behalf of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth who had experienced psychological and physical abuse in the city's child welfare system. Though the suit, according to Lambda Legal, was eventually absorbed into a larger lawsuit addressing a broader range of issues within New York City foster care, Mallon and advocates say it laid the groundwork for the city's Administration for Children's Services to eventually change agency policy.
But drastic reform would still not come for nearly a decade. Children in group homes and living with foster families continued to suffer.
A 2001 report by the Urban Justice Center found that 100 percent of LGBTQ youth surveyed in New York City group homes reported being verbally harassed by their peers and facility staff due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some 70 percent reported suffering physical violence.
Unrelated to the suit, a turning point for LGBTQ youth in care came in April 2002 when the City Human Rights Law was amended. "Gender" was redefined to include actual or perceived sex or gender, whether or not it conformed to the typical norms placed on a person's assigned sex at birth.
The law prohibited city agencies and city contractors from discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. This extended to LGBTQ youth in city foster care.
Four years later, then-Deputy Commissioner for The Division of Family Court Legal Services Ron Richter suggested that ACS review its policies to ensure that LGBTQ youth and families were being protected. (Richter, an openly gay man, eventually served as ACS commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg.) ACS then teamed with community advocates and contract providers to develop a strategic plan to improve services to LGBTQ youth. Further progress came in the form of additional policy tweaks in 2009 and again in 2011.
But concrete systemic change came in September 2012 when the LGBTQ Policy and Practice Office was established within ACS. The office's mission is to make sure LGBTQ youth receive the services and protection they need without the agency leaning on outside advocates for assistance.
Two months later, ASC issued a policy overhaul that focused on collecting data about LGBTQ youth in foster care. The policy also mandated training to teach foster parents and employees how to interact with youth in a more "LGBTQ-affirming" manner. The sessions, required every two years, include training on use of proper LGBTQ terminology and preferred gender pronouns, among other issues specific to the LGBTQ youth population. The goal is for everyone to have received basic training by November 2014.
Religious Views Can Clash
But challenges exist in training more than 3,000 employees. Finding enough qualified instructors is difficult. As foster care agencies determine how they will train their staff, a consortium of 12 trainers from across New York City is helping to pick up the slack.
One of these trainers, Sarah Mikhail, spends much of her time at foster care agencies providing them with ACS-approved curriculum. Mikhail is the program coordinator for the LGBT Foster Care Project, a partnership between ACS and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center that works to increase the number of LGBTQ-affirming foster care homes in the city.
Despite a policy that strictly prohibits child welfare employees from imposing personal or religious beliefs on youth or their families, it is still often hard for some to separate their feelings from their professional work, says Mikhail. Personal biases and religious beliefs exhibited by caseworkers can have a negative effect on a child's well being – leaving a youth who might already be emotionally struggling feeling isolated and alone, she added.
"People need to change their attitudes and set those beliefs aside, really understand the importance of this work," says Mikhail.
Nazira Jean-Baptiste, 18, expressed frustration in his dealing with caseworkers who kept speaking about his situation in religious context. His experience came after he came out at age 16 as transgender to his mother and found a relationship that he once describes as "near perfect," shattered.
Nazira identifies as a non-binary trans person. " I don't feel like I have to adhere to society's rules about my gender or sexuality," says Nazira.
He says his mother's first response was for him to ask God to change him.
"I don't remember throughout the last five years that there wasn't a day that went by that there wasn't an argument about me being gay or trans or something, or male identified," says Nazira about his home life with his mother.
After tension between him and his mother peaked a few months before his 18th birthday, Nazira left his Brooklyn home for two weeks. Upon his return, ACS began making regular visits.
Although he was grateful for the intervention, Nazira became frustrated with his caseworkers' emphasis on religion and their lack of knowledge about LGBTQ people.
"They had a very narrow view of what transgender is and what transgender looks like," recalls Nazira. "They had no idea that gender and sexuality are two different things."
Nazira, who does not identify as a Christian, says he was annoyed when his ACS caseworkers brought the aspect of religion into his experience. His ACS caseworkers assured his mother that, even though he was transgender, not all hope was lost for him if he was a Christian.
Some LGBTQ Youth Segregated
Religion has played a critical role in foster-care placement. Many foster care agencies are faith-based and recruit foster parents who are very religious. Some foster parents often will not respect a child's preferred gender pronoun and insist that the child conform to what they feel is sexually or gender appropriate, report experts working with foster care youth.
"Discrimination lies primarily with foster families," says Sarah Meckler, supervisor of Runaway and Homeless Youth Services at The Door, a youth drop-in center in Lower Manhattan.
But Meckler says there is a cultural shift happening, in which society is becoming more accepting of the gay community as a whole. "Children's services is a part of that society that is changing," she says.
However, foster families appear to be lagging behind this trend. Though ACS is working to improve conditions for LGBTQ youth in foster care, striking flaws still remain within the system.
"It's hard in general for adolescents to find homes," says Doug O'Dell, chief program officer at SCO Family of Services, the only city-contracted foster care agency of 31 that has group homes specifically for LGBTQ youth. "It's really been difficult to find foster parents that themselves are LGBTQ or allies."
Mary Keane, a lesbian who has fostered more than 20 children and legally adopted 13—four of whom are LGBTQ—says she doesn't see any difference between parenting a straight child and an LGBTQ child.
"I've never really experienced significant differences," says Keane, the LGBT liaison at You Gotta Believe, a New York-area foster care agency dedicated to finding adoptive parents for adolescents and teens.
Still, the lack of LGBTQ-affirming foster parents like Keane presents challenges. Cases of foster families segregating LGBTQ children from their straight-identified peers, while trying to influence their sexual orientation and gender identity through religion, are not uncommon, advocates say.
Ben (who didn't want his real name used) identifies as gay and has been in about half a dozen foster homes since his mother gave him up when he was 13. He says she threw him out because she couldn't accept that he's gay.
After leaving his first foster home, Ben says his second foster family separated him from the straight children in the home and wouldn't let his gay friends visit.
"When I got there, they tried to convert me," says Ben, now 21.
Ben was eventually removed from the home for what he says his caseworker called irreconcilable differences. He feels that the caseworker was more protective of his foster mother's religious liberty than his healthy development as an LGBTQ adolescent.
If children who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual within the child welfare system have a difficult time, youth who identify as transgender often have it much worse.
"A lot of families just don't know what it is or the proper nouns [to use]," says Mikhail.
Some families will go so far as to disregard a child's preferred gender pronouns, insist that he or she dress in what they consider gender-appropriate clothing and prevent a young person from gaining access to transitional hormones.
Self-Discovery, in Foster Care
Things can be even more difficult for LGBTQ youth who discover their gender identity or sexual orientation while in the foster system. "[They're] facing another potential rejection when coming out in foster care if their foster families are not accepting of their sexuality," says Meckler.
Such was the case for Stephanie Carrion who was only 6 when she and her two siblings were taken from their biological parents because, Stephanie says, there were drugs in the home. She was placed in foster care.
Now a soft-spoken 18-year-old with an afro and facial piercings, Stephanie, along with her two siblings, was adopted by her foster mother four years ago.
Stephanie, who identifies as pansexual, has a 19-year-old sister who came out as transgender a year ago. Stephanie says that neither she nor her sister have received support or encouragement from their adoptive mother.
"My brother, which is my sister now, she was like the first one to be out there like ‘I'm gay' and she [their adoptive mother] didn't take it very well," says Stephanie. "But since my brother was first I didn't tell her because I was nervous at the time, but then I told her after a while. But she'll say things like, ‘Oh, you're not a lesbian.'"
Stephanie says that the biological children of her adoptive mom have made homophobic remarks to her older sister. (Stephanie's adoptive mother said she did not have time to be interviewed for this article.)
"My mom, she looks at me like, ‘Oh, you're a freak. You're gay, you have tattoos, you have piercings,'" says Stephanie. "And like when I wear clothes, she's like, ‘Why can't you wear a dress? Why can't you do this?' It's just like certain things like that."
No longer able to deal with her adoptive mother rejecting her as transgender, Stephanie's older sister eventually left home. "My sister just decided to leave the house, so it's just me and my little sister," says Stephanie. "It's been rough, but it's like a what-else-can-I-do kind of thing?"
Stephanie says that she's thought about leaving but isn't sure where she would go. Her last resort would be a shelter.
Some LGBTQ youths in foster care decide that running away and living on the streets is a better option than staying in a home where they are not accepted or understood.
A National Leader
Though opinions vary, it's commonly believed that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ. And though there is no one factor that accounts for the disproportionate rate of homeless LGBTQ youth, Meckler attributes this to rejection by foster families.
Until recently, collecting data on LGBTQ youth was not part of the ACS intake process. Under the new policy, however, intake forms for children 12 years and older will include demographic questions that broach the issue of gender and sexuality.
As a separate initiative, ACS has also secured public funding to conduct a population count of the number of LGBTQ youth currently in the city's foster care system, while a planned youth survey will give professionals insight into the experiences of LGBTQ youth within the system.
The progress that New York City has made places it decades ahead of other areas of the country. Mallon says that some states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, are still ignoring the issue. "There is still a lot of stuff that goes on out there where it's not as good as we think it is for kids and families that are gay, lesbian, bi or trans," he says. "We get really spoiled looking at New York and California."
While ACS's new policy is helpful, says O'Dell, reform really needs to come in the form of preventative services. Placing children in foster care could be preempted if more programs were in place that worked to intervene with families struggling to accept their LGBTQ children.
"I would really, really like to see a network of preventative services to keep kids home in the first place," says O'Dell. "Once they've been formally separated and placed in care it is much harder to reunify them with their families."
Though prevention is ideal, many LGBTQ children still wind up in care. Professionals working with this youth and the youth themselves know that no two stories of kids in foster care are alike.
A Life-Changing Move
Delilah, for one, describes entering foster care as a life-changing experience, but a positive one. She and her sister now live in Marian Hall, a group home for girls in Manhattan. Delilah takes art classes and interned at a magazine through her connections at an LGBT center. Though she identifies as a lesbian (her sister identifies as straight), Delilah says she has not experienced discrimination in her group home.
She says the other girls in her home aren't bothered by her lesbianism and that they are mostly just curious. "They ask me a lot of personal questions. They always swear that I have a new girlfriend all the time," Delilah says, giggling. "They're just really cool about it, like laid back."
When her mother (who couldn't be reached for this article) wanted to take her and her sister back, Delilah chose to stay in foster care. "I was getting a lot more out of being in foster care than I ever did than when I was with her. I was given more opportunities," says Delilah. "I knew if she would take me back I wouldn't have those anymore."
Foster care she says, "is the greatest thing that's happened to me. And I say it all the time: I wish my mom gave me up earlier."
* Correction: The city's most recent foster-care census, for April, is 11,590. ** Clarification: While precise numbers do not exist, some estimates of the LGBTQ population in foster care are as high as 30 percent.