To welcome a youth into your heart and your home is a great act of selflessness and compassion that can be a transformative experience for all involved. Through UCAN’s Professional Foster Parenting program (PFP), foster parents play an essential role in providing the opportunity to live healthy, full lives to youth who have experienced loss, grief, abuse and neglect.
Unfortunately, despite 14 being the average age of youth in the Illinois DCFS system, there is a disproportionately small population of homes that welcome children age 10 or older. This age group deals with a unique set of struggles as they face social and biological pressures, including exploring and identifying their sexual and gender identity.
To fill the need for specialized training, UCAN therapists John Bruce and Michelle Grimes developed training for UCAN staff directly interacting with youth to learn about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning (LGBTQ) community called Safe Space. Most recently, the Safe Space workshop was held in February to educate participants in UCAN’s Professional Foster Parenting program. Typically, because of a lack of exposure and education, interacting with LGBTQ youth can be an uncomfortable and confusing experience for many foster parents. “We had been developing training for about a year,” Grimes explained, “and have been providing it this fall and winter.”
The Safe Space workshop follows a curriculum of empathy-building exercises that identify stereotypes, discuss vocabulary, and put the participants in theoretical emotional situations. The workshop is an open forum and stresses the respect and confidentiality of all participants. Grimes says, “The goal is not to change anyone’s opinions or personal values but more to make sure every individual is interacting supportively and respectfully with our youth.”
Familiarity with the LGBTQ community varies with each person who attends the workshop. Dwayne and Charlene Burris have been foster parents to four children over the past two years. They had not yet had an LGBTQ youth, but were open to the idea. Charlene explained, “We were aware that LGBTQ youth exist in the programs and wanted to expand our knowledge in case we were ever in that situation.” Though Charlene had friends and met UCAN teens who identified as LGBTQ, Dwayne had not had as much direct interaction. “My personal feelings were not one way or the other,” Dwayne said. “I wanted to find out what I did and didn’t know. I knew about the community on the surface, but I didn’t know a lot about the community in depth.”
For the Burrises and many others, the presence of diversity inside the LGBTQ community is a new concept. Learning the specifics of diversity, including the difference between sexual and gender identity, made the prospect of communication and empathizing far easier. “The workshop did a great job of giving us information that would be integral to communicating with LGBTQ youth” Charlene said. “It helped me to be a foster parent and helped to identify that UCAN’s mission is all-inclusive. We should have another one soon. We can’t stop at one.”