An extra helping hand for foster care children with extra-special needs

Growing up as a foster care kid in Cuyahoga County is hard. Growing up gay in the system is even harder. Just ask 24-year-old Sonia Emerson, who has been in Cuyahoga County’s Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) foster care program since the age of two years old and as many as 18 different foster homes. 

Throughout her childhood, Emerson experienced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. She was adopted at age nine, but removed from her home at age 12 after reporting abuse to her teacher—subsequently re-entering the foster care program.
Through all this, Emerson coped with being a lesbian in a world of adults and mental health professionals who did not understand her. She tried to come out twice, only to be shunned.
“They were not open to a youth adolescent with a lot of problems, not through any fault of my own,” Emerson recalls. “I struggled with my identity, with being a lesbian. It really wasn’t a choice.”
Sonia EmersonWhile three to eight percent of youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, experts estimate that approximately 19 percent of youth in child welfare identify as LGBTQ. These kids are likely to have more foster care placements and less likely to be reunified with their families of origin than their peers. 
The special needs community also faces unique challenges within the foster care system. Remi [last name redacted], 18, lived in three different foster homes from the age of 12. Diagnosed with an Intellectual Development Disability (IDD) and a victim of violent crime, Remi found herself aging out of the foster care system when she turned 18, but not quite ready to face the world on her own.
Remi is one of an estimated 12 to 20 young adults in DCFS custody who graduate from the welfare system annually and qualify for County IDD services. But their residential and community living needs differ greatly from what the current system offers.
“Some of them will need bridge housing or one to two years of skills [training] to learn more independent living skills,” says Tony Thomas, executive director of Welcome House, an organization that provides staffed group homes to more than 200 people with developmental disabilities in Cuyahoga County. “Foster care is not education. We’re trying to provide that education.” 
For young adults such as Emerson and Remi, a group of Northeast Ohio organizations are working together to make sure people with specific requirements and circumstances receive what they need for a shot at a successful adult life.
New resources, new hope
Both DCFS and Welcome House have received funding and grant money to implement programs to assist both young adults with IDD who are victims of violent crime and LGBTQ youth in the foster care program, as well as their caregivers.
In June, DCFS was selected for a four-year grant from the National Quality Improvement Center at the University of Maryland School of Social Work to develop programs and best practices that improve the lives of LGBTQ youth in foster care. Local partners such as the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center of Greater ClevelandWaiting Child Fund, and Case Western Reserve University’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences will also collaborate on implementing the grant.
The grant allots $220,000 annually over the next four years to identify LBGTQ children in the foster care system and ensure that they are placed in safe and nurturing foster care environments.
“Every child who comes into our care has been traumatized in one way or other,” says Kathleen Sullivan, senior manager of DCFS’ caregiver resource department and chair of the LGBT committee. “Kids who come into our care who have diverse or minority sexual identities are subject to even greater trauma. We have to focus on them to address the well-being of these kids.”
In late 2016, Welcome House earned $386,000 in Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding from the Ohio Attorney General’s office. The funding will give young adults with IDD who have been victims of crime a place to learn additional life and work skills before they transition into the world on their own. The grant money is raised through fines and penalties assessed to criminals through the court systems—no tax dollars are spent.
With the grant, Welcome House officials started a program in January at its Clifton House location in Lakewood for four residents. In March, Remi was the second resident to move in.
"Transitioning out of the foster care system into adult life is rough,” says Kristi Miller, Welcome House director of transitional services. “Add on top of that a disability and past experiences with violence, and it's even tougher. Clifton House provides young adults in this situation with the people and resources to help ease this transition. And once they complete their time in this program, Welcome House will continue to support them and be a place they can always call home."
Ensuring Pride in foster care
Of the approximately 2,000 kids currently in foster care in Cuyahoga County, Sullivan estimates the number of LGBTQ to be on par with the national average. "About 380 kids are somewhere on that spectrum," she estimates.
Remi at Welcome HouseChildren and youth with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions have been found to be at greater risk for physical and emotional abuse, drug use, suicide, mental health issues, academic problems, and bullying, says Sullivan. She says the grant program aims to alleviate at least some of the hardships.
"The goal for this population of kids is to improve placement stability," Sullivan says. "The more times they get moved, the more they are traumatized. We asked all of the direct service staff how many kids had disclosed to them [their sexual identity], and it was only two percent. If we don’t know who these kids are, we can’t help them."
Of course, the most important focus is on creating a good environment. "We want to make sure they have safe, stable, and nurturing placements," Sullivan says.
In Emerson’s case, while she did come out to her different care providers, she says she never felt secure, nor did she get the support she needed while struggling with her sexual identity. Furthermore, she said she was often outed by the social workers trying to place her in a new home.
Emerson recalls one particular conversation about religion with one of her foster parents. The two shared that they were Christian, but Emerson then added, "I believe God sees us for who we are and what’s in our hearts. God sees [that] I’m gay and he loves me."
At that admission, "her whole attitude changed, and we prayed together," Emerson shares, noting that sexual identity is "not something you can pray away. I went up to my bedroom and there was no bed and no chair. Then she locked the door. I didn’t know why she had locked me in.”
Emerson decided to run away—she felt unsafe. “I called a friend two days later and said I wanted to kill myself," she says. "It was one of my top worst experiences from just being true to my identity.”
Experiences like Emerson’s are why part of the pilot program will be dedicated to creating a Pride Network of accepting caregivers who will also educate other foster parents on how to help and support a child who is LGBTQ. Emerson believes this network will be an asset to the foster care system.
“I’m excited because it’s going to give awareness, a safe environment, and allow [LGBTQ kids] to be who we are," she says. If we create safer places for them to live, they’ll come out in their own time. You’ll be safe to be who you are—safe you tell whoever you want, whenever you want."
Additionally, Emerson says she hopes the new program will help prevent situations like the traumatic one she experienced. “We are humans and we deserve the same freedoms,” she says. "This grant provides the opportunity to feel more support then condemnation. It really gives the opportunity for people to say, 'Hey, I’m LGBT.'"
DCFS is currently convening a youth advisory board comprised of past foster care young adults to implement the Pride Network, while the LGBT Center is working on a program for sensitivity training. “They are a critical partner,” Sullivan says. "I see them as a north star."
Today, Emerson is active with the LGBT Center and currently coaches for YWCA of Greater Cleveland’s A Place 4 Me. She plans on attending Cuyahoga Community College in the fall to earn her associate’s degree in social work. “I want to go into social work and work with foster children who are a lot like me,” she says. “I’m set on fire about doing this for the LGBT community.”
A welcome experience
Welcome House applied for the VOCA grant a little over a year ago, after recognizing that young people with IDD often need a little more help with the transition into adult life. 
“A lot of times, they just cut them loose,” says Miller of the aging out process. “They say, 'Here’s a CMHA application,' and they cut them off.”
There is only one other program in the state like Welcome House at Clifton House, and the Lakewood program has already seen success. “A lot of them are learning how to cook, clean and use the bus,” says Miller. “Our intention is to keep in contact with these kids, even to put whatever services are needed in place.”
Remi at Welcome HouseThe Clifton house gives the four residents their basic needs for one year. A total of 10 staff members provide support to the residents, with two staff on shifts around the clock.

The first resident moved into the four-bedroom house on February 23, followed by Remi and two others. “It’s brand spanking new, and we’ve been having a lot of fun,” says Miller. “Three have graduated from high school, including Remi, and all of them are getting jobs, learning to work, and learning how to budget.”
Additionally, residents learn to cook and eat healthy meals, in part thanks to help from Fresh Fork Market. “We will help them eventually put together shopping lists and recipes,” says Miller, adding that any money the residents earn through their jobs goes directly into their personal accounts. The grant money covers rent, food, and staffing.
To win the VOCA grant, Welcome House convened support from local courts and police departments, the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, and the ADAMHS Board, which oversees issues like addiction and mental health.
Remi, who attended her prom while living at Clifton House, is grateful the program is in place. “Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she recalls. “My foster mom found the program, and I don’t know where I’d be without it. It’s helped me be more independent and teaches me skills. It’s a good program for people who have difficulties in their lives.”
Remi works for Eliza Jennings as a member of the laundry staff team five days a week, riding her bike to work.
Thomas says more programs like this one are needed for people with IDD. “We don’t know the success rate of people who move directly into their own apartments, but this is not about setting up group homes,” he says. “We need to see more programs being developed like this across the state. This is a unique subset of people within the IDD population.”
Thomas adds that, within the first year, Welcome House will have a better sense of best practices. “You have to take a trauma-informed care approach to this,” he says. “This is trial and error.”
In fact, Welcome House has applied for a second VOCA grant to start another house next year—continuing to pave the way for foster children in Cuyahoga County.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.