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Colorado’s Child Welfare System Needs Queer Foster Parents

The state has a foster parent shortage. Members of the LGBTQ+ community may just be the answer—and then some.

Editor’s note: To protect their privacy, the names, ages, and other identifying details of minors in the foster system will not appear in this story.

When Jennifer Pezzulo’s son first moved into her home in Colorado, he’d already lived with roughly a dozen foster families. Pezzulo quickly understood why. Nightmares caused him to scream in his sleep, and he acted out at school—when he attended. “He probably held a record for skipping class,” Pezzulo says.

It wasn’t the first time a child or tween lived with Pezzulo. It also wasn’t the first time that a child carried baggage beyond their suitcase, some of it born from being separated from family and bouncing from one stranger’s home to another as part of the foster care system.

Pezzulo knows the trauma of losing such familial bonds. Her biological parents split up when she was two, and her father wasn’t in her life after that. She also understands the pain of repeated rejection: Pezzulo is trans, a truth her family and community didn’t accept. “It was tough. I was out on my own at 18,” she says. “Figuring out how to be strong and—there’s not a nice way to put it—how to get over the past and not let it define my future was something I was forced to learn.”

Those lessons have served Pezzulo well since becoming a licensed foster parent in 2019. “Navigating those circumstances definitely brings a perspective that I think is helpful when talking to some of these kids about what it’s like to feel as if no one is on your side,” she says.

Relating some of those experiences to her teen son plagued by nightmares helped him begin to heal. Today, he’s a straight-A student with more good dreams than bad. “Jen turned this kid’s life around,” says Susy Tucker, the foster care director at Griffith Centers for Children Chins Up, the agency Pezzulo is licensed under. Pezzulo is in the process of adopting him, and will continue taking in kids in the foster system.

In Colorado, a state that’s been publicly battling a foster parent shortage since 2017, a success story like Pezzulo’s is something of a beacon—one that many public and private child welfare agencies hope to replicate by recruiting more members of the LGBTQ+ community. “They’re an untapped resource,” says Jenna Opperman, director of marketing and development at Centennial State foster care agency Hope & Home. “We accept all qualified people ready to give these kids love, but queer foster parents have a really unique perspective.”

“We definitely have tried to tap into the LGBT community,” says Carrie Cajka, foster recruiter for Maple Star, a Colorado nonprofit that provides clinical and community support services along with foster services. Part of the reason, she says, is because many of the youth coming through the system identify somewhere within the LGBTQ+ spectrum themselves.

Cajka’s anecdotal evidence represents a wider trend, according to experts like Jean-Phillipe Regis, associate director for the  Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation’s All Children – All Families program. While states don’t consistently collect information about a foster child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, smaller surveys consistently show that LGBTQ+ kids are overrepresented in the foster system.

Regis explains that the group is more likely to be estranged from their family because of their identity. “LGBTQ+ foster parents are so much more likely to just get those kids,” they say.

HB21-1072 signing
Gov. Polis at the Equal Access Services for Out-of-home Placements Act (HB21-1072) signing ceremony. Image courtesy of One Colorado

Why Potential Queer Foster Parents Hesitate

It’s not like members of the LGBTQ+ community don’t want to be foster parents. A same sex couple is seven times more likely than a straight couple to be raising a foster or adopted child, according to research done by the Williams Institute, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) thinktank that investigates how gender identity and sexual orientation interact with law and public policy.

But that same population faces a lot of fears born from past discrimination. Chris and Cody Mitchell, a same-sex couple living in Aurora, recall the roadblocks they faced when they began trying to become foster parents two years ago. “The first question I asked with every agency was ‘do you accept same-sex couples.’ Some flat-out said ‘no,’ ” Cody says. “Others would allow us to submit paperwork, but then we heard from our character references that the agency was asking completely off-the-wall questions about whether we could deal with children, seeming to insinuate that our sexuality might be a problem.”

National narratives create fear, too, says Michael Crews, the former policy director of statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group One Colorado. This past March, for example, Bethany Christian Services, an Evangelical foster and adoption agency with offices in 32 states announced that it would begin accepting applications from LGBTQ foster parents. Prior to that decision, Bethany Christian Services referred openly queer people to other agencies. He points out how the agency has two locations in Colorado—one had been around for 75 years.

“What was the experience like for an LGBTQ couple or individual that went to this service provider before they decided to change this practice?” asks Crews. “How many good candidates were scared off?”

Pezzulo was herself turned away by Bethany Christian Services before being licensed by Griffith Centers.

Luckily, a new law signed by Governor Jared Polis on April 19 ended such blatant discrimination. The Equal Access Services for Out-of-home Placements Act (HB21-1072) prevents services that handle out-of-home placements for youth from discriminating against potential foster or adoptive parents on the basis of disability, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and more.

The act’s passage was a celebratory moment for Crews, who led One Colorado in advocating for the legislation. But just like in the case of Bethany Christian Services, he knows healing the system will be more involved than changing the law.

For example, Krista and Taylor Hedlund recall when a foster family using the same agency as them, Hope & Home, commented unfavorably on the Hedlund’s marriage in front of a child the two women were caring for at the time. “The kid was upset and told us what happened,” Krista says. “The other family denied it.”

The Hedlunds told their home supervisor about the comments, but because of confidentiality rules, they don’t know what came of the complaint. “We lost some trust in our support system, including the foster families around us,” Taylor says.

Gina Milne, chief of staff at Hope & Home acknowledges that the agency still has work to do. Hope & Home originally started in a Presbyterian church in 1998, and hasn’t always accepted everyone. Pezzulo says she was turned away several years ago when she told Hope & Home she was transgender. (Milne says she is not aware of the situation, but promises “that today Hope & Home has a licensing department that is designed specifically to welcome any LGBTQ+ families who are generous enough to open their homes to kids in need.”)

When the Hope & Home accepted its first gay foster parent several years ago, a few of their more religious backers balked. “We lost some donors who have been with us since the beginning,” Milne says. It was a turning point for Hope & Home, she says, that helped them double down on welcoming a more diverse array of foster parents. Says Milne: “If you don’t want to be part of what we’re doing, and you don’t believe in inclusivity, we’ll find donors elsewhere.”

(Read more: COVID-19 Is Stressing Colorado’s Child Welfare System)

Maggie and Christie Duffy
Maggie and Christie Duffy have adopted eight of the children they fostered (pictured here), many of them siblings. They are currently waiting on two more adoptions to be finalized.  Photo courtesy of Lydia Donahue Photography

What It Takes to Welcome Queer Foster Parents

Regis says that agencies fear getting inclusivity wrong, alienating the very folks they hope to welcome. Luckily, they don’t have to go on that journey alone. Regis oversees the HRC Foundation’s All Children – All Families program, a project promoting inclusive policies and practices within child welfare systems across the U.S. Participating agencies gain a variety of resources, including training webinars and an online self-assessment tool to help them figure out where they can improve.

Regis has seen agencies at every step of the inclusion process. “Many of the agencies that we encounter are very early in that journey,” they say. “And that’s for a host of different reasons. It could be the training they received when they were undergoing professional development. They might have policies that have never been updated or formalized.”

Tracking how many LGBTQ+ parents are in the system is an important early step, which means intake forms need to ask about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Yet many agencies Regis has worked with were hesitant to add these questions to the paperwork. “When we dig a little bit deeper, they may have the misconception that asking these things will actually turn LGBT applicants away,” Regis says.

However, they maintain that it’s important to give potential foster parents the opportunity to explain aspects of their identity early in the process. “We remind folks that it’s really important to explain why you’re asking for that information and discuss how it’s tied to your mission for LGBTQ inclusion,” they say.

Take the Mitchells, who were also accepted by Hope & Home three months ago. “When I asked that first question [about working with same sex couples], there was no pause, no hesitation,” Cody says. “They immediately let us know they wanted us to be involved.” The two men have now taken in three children, and speak highly of the support they’ve received from Hope & Home.

Pezzulo had a similarly reassuring experience when she first contacted Griffith Centers. “From the first phone call, they were clear that they welcome people from various backgrounds,” she says.

The next step, Regis says, is actively recruiting from the LGBTQ+ community. Showing photos of same-sex couples on a website or social media can help communicate that an agency is inclusive. One such photo helped convince Christie and Maggie Duffy to choose A New World Child Placement Agency in Aurora five years ago. “The first thing I saw was a same sex couple on the homepage,” Christie says. “It was probably just a stock photo, but I immediately felt reassured, like we would fit in there.”

Appearing at Pride events can also go a long way in broadcasting a group’s desire to work with queer individuals.

Opperman estimates that five percent of the families Hope & Home places children with today are in the LGBTQ+ community. Because word-of-mouth is the agency’s best recruitment tool, the team works hard to make sure queer parents have the help they need. All foster parents with Hope & Home have a support group, and the team tries to ensure there’s never just one same sex couple in the set.

The executive director has also begun stepping in directly whenever situations like the one the Hedlund’s faced arise. “The meeting starts out by assuring confidentiality to the family and letting them know that we intend to follow their lead with how they’d like the situation handled,” Milne says. “Then, a plan will be created in collaboration with the family on how to address the situation. This plan can be up-to and including decertification of the family who mistreated the queer foster family.”

Other agencies in the state, such as the El Paso County Department of Human Services (DHS), started partnering with LGBTQ+ organizations to learn how to better welcome queer foster parents. Staff from Inside Out Youth Services, a nonprofit serving queer youth in Colorado Springs, will attend an upcoming meeting with El Paso County DHS to provide input. “We are setting the tone of an environment where it is not only okay to pause and ask questions, it’s expected,” says Catania Jones, deputy director of Children, Youth and Family Services with El Paso County DHS.

Griffith Centers and One Colorado also work together. “We did a town hall with One Colorado not too long ago, where Jen [Pezzulo] talked about her experience as a foster parent to try and encourage others to consider it,” Tuckers says. “We’re trying to bring barriers down and make sure people understand that LGBT people make incredible parents and do incredible work with these kids.”

Ultimately, that transformative work goes both ways. “I’ve had nights as a foster parent where I cry my eyes out. It’s never easy, no matter who you are,” says Pezzulo. “But walking this road with my son has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. He is definitely the joy of my life.”

All Children – All Families maintains a database recognizing agencies that have partnered with the Foundation to improve their policies. You can visit the database here. For more information about becoming a foster parent, check out co4kids.org.

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