Looking Out: Judge says LGBT foster summit a success

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September 11, 2014|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

A Harford County judge who helped lead this week's Maryland Judiciary summit on care for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the state's foster care system said the event was a success and could lead to substantive improvements in the future.

"It went very well. We had excellent speakers," said Judge William O. Carr, a Harford County Circuit Court administrative judge and chair of the outreach and programming subcommittee of the state Foster Care Court Improvement Project. "They were very enlightening and gave us a lot of ideas on how to proceed."

Antonio Morrell, a 19-year-old foster youth in Prince George's County who identifies as bisexual and spoke at the summit about his experiences, agreed.

"The summit was very informative," said Morrell, a Prince George's County Community College student who has struggled with negative attitudes about his sexuality in the foster system in the past. "The fact that there were judges, masters, directors, social workers and etc. to hear my story was important. They had the chance to hear from youth in and out of care and the many challenges we faced and our opinions on what policies they can improve on."

The summit, held Wednesday, was convened under a federally funded program to improve foster services in the state, and followed a report by the nonprofit Youth Equality Alliance last month that found LGBT kids in the state's foster, juvenile justice and education systems are more vulnerable than their peers.

At the summit, delegations of judges, lawyers, social workers and other court personnel from jurisdictions across the state convened to hear from experts on care for LGBT youth and brainstorm ways to improve local services in their home jurisdictions.

The groups prepared action plans and identified weaknesses in their services, taking advice from experts in the field but also from youth like Morrell.

Carr said a key issue identified during the summit was the need for social workers and others to be more proactive in letting kids know that they will not be treated differently if they identify as LGBT -- so that the kids who need additional help can receive it.

"One of the challenges is to create an environment where the kids feel comfortable," Carr said.

Another need is to convey the same to foster parents and other stakeholders in the system, some of whom have discriminated against LGBT kids in the past.

"One family was on the verge of adoption, and the kid says, 'Oh, by the way, I'm gay,' and not only did they not adopt the child, they threw the child out," Carr said.

Nationally, it is estimated more than 20 percent of foster youth are LGBT, he said -- and those who face discrimination have much higher rates of suicide.

The summit was a great step toward improving Maryland's care for its LGBT foster youth, starting with the action plans outlined by the groups from the individual jurisdictions, Carr said.

"We're in a position to follow up on this, and we will," he said. "These kids need as much support as we can give them, and that's one of the things we talked about."

Morrell said he is now living with a family he loves, hopes to transfer to Bowie State University or Salisbury University, and is active on boards looking to improve care for youth in the state.

He said he hopes foster families don't drop out of the state program because of the message that they have to accept LGBT kids, and that they will keep "the same will power and love for taking care of youth" despite their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"I also hope each county will strategically follow through with their action plans," he said, "and I hope my story has inspired them to do so."

Elsewhere in LGBT news:

- A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld New Jersey's law banning medical professionals from practicing gay conversion therapy. This has been an issue in Maryland as well, with legislators and LGBT advocates promising to take up the issue moving foward.

- The U.S. Supreme Court is considering taking up new same-sex marriage cases, reports the Wall Street Journal.

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