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How to Help Queer Kids in Foster Care Author Cris Beam shares insights based on extensive research and personal experience in her Luskin Lecture

By Mary Braswell

LGBTQ youth in the foster care system often grapple with rejection, harassment, violence — and their own mistrust of the individuals and institutions charged with protecting them.

Restoring that trust requires taking a hard look at what these youth really need, not just to navigate the child welfare system but to lead rewarding lives.

This was the message shared by Cris Beam — author, educator and herself the foster mom to a transgender young woman — at a UCLA Luskin Lecture on March 5, 2019.

Beam’s talk included many moments of insight and encouragement, even as she described a foster care system that is woefully broken.

“How can we be spending upwards of $22 billion nationally and nobody — not the kids, not the foster parents, not the bio parents, not the administrators, not the policymakers, not the lawyers — nobody thinks this is working?” she asked.

That question sent Beam in pursuit of answers. Her extensive research into the U.S. child welfare system, LGBTQ issues and the power of empathy, as well as her personal experience becoming a foster parent at age 28, led her to a solution that is both simple and daunting.

What kids in foster care need, she said, is what all kids need: lasting human relationships, whether biological, adoptive or built from scratch with “teachers, babysitters, bus drivers” — people who are willing to step up, learn parenting skills and stick around, Beam said.

“The only way a child can succeed is to connect to a family, or even an individual person, for a lifetime. Whether they are gay or straight or bi or trans or otherwise,” she said.

Beam has published several acclaimed fiction and nonfiction books, including “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care” and “I am J,” the first book with a transgender character to make the state of California’s high school reading list. She is also an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

Prior to her lecture on “Queer Care: LGBTQ Youth in Child Welfare,” UCLA Luskin Dean Gary Segura noted that Beam’s work is in line with the School’s mission to “provide a voice for the unheard and change society in ways that help those most in need, including and especially families and children.”

Beam’s appearance at the UCLA Faculty Center fittingly coincided with Social Work Month and the National Day of Empathy, said Laura Abrams, chair of Social Welfare, which organized the Luskin Lecture.

More than 50 people came to hear Beam’s insights, including students, faculty, lawyers, child psychologists, and current and aspiring social workers. Their questions for Beam revealed frustration at wanting to serve foster youth within a system that often fails them.

“I feel for you because you’ve got so many people,” Beam said of the heavy caseloads many social workers carry. “But if you can stick by somebody and be constant, sometimes you can be that person that is around for someone for years and years. That’s what they need. It’s that human connection.”

LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. To illustrate the cycle that many of them enter, Beam shared the experiences of her daughter, Christina, who was 16 when they met at a group home where Beam taught. Christina had been in and out of foster care since age 7, was jumped into a gang as a 12-year-old boy, survived on the streets by doing sex work, then entered the criminal justice system — all as she transitioned into a girl.

The probation officer who approached Beam about fostering Christina said, “‘Don’t worry. She’s already 16. She only has another year until she ages out.’” But Beam quickly learned that Christina needed much more, including “time to heal, to be stable and to trust.” No adoption papers were needed to form a lifelong mother-daughter relationship, she said.

Building this kind of support network should be a priority of child welfare agencies, Beam said. Instead, the system often labels children who suffer complex traumas as difficult, equates foster children with juvenile delinquents, and squanders resources training teens to get a job, write a rent check, survive on their own.

“Really what queer kids need are not more resources, more things, but human beings to rock with them all the way,” Beam said.

View more photos from the lecture on Flickr.

Policy Practice in Field Education Grant Received

Laura Abrams, professor and chair of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare, and Sergio Serna of the field education faculty received a one-year policy practice in field education grant from the Council on Social Work Education totaling $18,500. This grant will enable Social Welfare students and faculty to make closer ties with local child welfare agencies to advocate for youth aging out of foster care, to learn more about the policymaking process and to forge lasting community relationships.

 

New UCLA Center Aims to Build Paths to Success for Foster Youths, Families Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families leverages campus expertise to create paths to educational success

By John McDonald, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

Tony and Jeanne Pritzker

A new center at UCLA will address the needs of children who are disconnected from traditional paths to success, with a particular focus on youth in foster care. The UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families is a collaborative hub for research, prevention and intervention efforts that will work to strengthen families, and help children avoid entering the child welfare system.

The center’s staff and faculty will also aim to give foster parents, related caregivers, and adoptive families the skills and resources to promote stable and nurturing families, equitable opportunities and paths to educational success for the children in their care. It will address the complex needs of youth in foster care by bringing together resources and expertise from numerous UCLA units, including the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies’ education department, the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

The center was made possible by a gift of $10 million from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. Tony and Jeanne Pritzker are Los Angeles philanthropists and leading supporters of UCLA who have made significant investments toward bettering the lives of foster youth and their families.

“This generous gift from Jeanne and Tony Pritzker allows UCLA to help provide critical resources for our community’s most vulnerable children and youth,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “As a leading public research university, we have a responsibility to use the breadth and depth of our resources to help address the most critical issues facing society. The UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families will be a tremendous resource for young people in the foster care system and their families.”

The center will serve as a catalyst for more effective collaboration between UCLA researchers and nonprofit agencies, other colleges and universities, K-12 systems, children and family advocates, and government support services across Los Angeles County. It will also develop innovative classroom support systems, family support services, and programs that help children affected by trauma and promote resilience; and it will produce new research on issues related to foster care, with an initial focus on the dynamics of race in foster care in Los Angeles County.

“This new center is a natural outgrowth of our family’s commitment to increasing UCLA’s capacity to improve outcomes for children,” said Tony Pritzker. “Our intent is that the Pritzker Center will lend synergy to so much good work already being undertaken throughout the institution, and galvanize new research and opportunities for academic advancement across departments.”

Todd Franke

The center is directed by Tyrone Howard, a UCLA professor of education and GSEIS’s associate dean of equity and inclusion. Howard also is the director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA. The center’s co-director is Audra Langley, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Semel Institute, and the director of UCLA TIES for Families, which serves children in foster care or adopted families.  Patricia Lester, the Jane and Marc Nathanson Family Professor of Psychiatry, and Todd Franke, a professor of social welfare at UCLA Luskin, also serve on the center’s leadership team.

“There are nearly 35,000 young people engaged in the child welfare services system in Los Angeles County, including more than 21,000 in foster care, many of whom are struggling,” Howard said. “Issues of race, poverty and gender all play a role in how children and families seek to navigate complex systems for help and hope. The Pritzker Center will help us to better understand their needs and enhance and intensify our efforts to ensure their educational and social success and economic security.

“We are going to work with others in our community to ensure they get the support and services they need, and maybe more importantly, to strengthen children and families in ways that prevent children from entering the foster care system in the first place.”

Langley said: “We have long been doing important work at UCLA to help optimize the development of children in foster care, but there is more to be done to synergize our efforts. This new center will leverage our campuswide experience and strengthen partnerships with others across Los Angeles County who are working to better serve our children and young people in foster care and prioritize brighter futures for all children and families.”

The gift also establishes the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education for Strengthening Children and Families at the Graduate School of Education; the position will provide faculty leadership for the center.

“With the generous endowment created by the Pritzker family, the Pritzker Center promises to be a lasting resource,” said Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, the UCLA Wasserman Dean of the Graduate School of Education. “The center’s leaders will work collaboratively with those in the nonprofit world and government sectors to develop and identify new rigorous, research-based approaches to better support the needs of foster youth and families.

“Many young people in foster care spend much of their day in public school settings, and we need to explore how educators, social workers, clinicians and public health leaders can work together to empower these young people to live full, successful lives.”