According to the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families, hundreds of children are without families because of a shortage of foster homes. Seventy-five percent of teens in state care are never placed with families, and a 2019 ChildrensRights.org study estimates that 30.4% of fostered youth identify as LGBTQ+. Unfortunately, statistics like this are not new news, and the need for foster families is more urgent than ever.
The Groden Center Treatment Foster Care Program (GCTFC) is part of The Groden Network, which was founded in 1976 with a mission to ensure those with developmental and intellectual abilities lead productive, dignified, and satisfying lives. GCTFC provides treatment-level foster care for a diverse population of children and youth with special needs, and matches children from birth to 22 years old with licensed treatment foster homes across Rhode Island. Parents seeking to foster through this program are guided through every step of the way, from the first application all the way through becoming licensed. From there, the trained clinicians and case managers continue to provide support to both the foster parents and children to ensure that they are a good match.
The GCTFC Program has helped children and foster parents for 27 years, providing safe and stable homes for children placed in state care. I was given the opportunity to speak with Theo Messa, now 19, who was placed in the foster care system as a child. Miss Linda, the woman who fostered and has since adopted Theo and their sibling, gave Theo a safe space to express themselves, resulting in the discovery that they identify as nonbinary.
Theo and their younger sister were removed from their parents and put into state care when Theo was 13 years old. They had both been staying with a friend of the family due to marital issues between their parents. “My parents never got along the way parents should,” Theo stated. “They had always been strict and authoritarian. We weren’t allowed to make friends. We were basically frightened, brainwashed mice.” Theo added that as a result of this treatment, all the children in the family were very timid and afraid to be themselves. Their father, in particular, was very set in his ways and would often set gender roles and judge his children if they did not behave the way he wanted them to.
When Theo was first taken into the foster care system, they admit that they missed their parents and felt that it was “unhealthy” to be separated from them. Things began to change when they met Miss Linda for the first time. Theo remembered, “When I first met Miss Linda, she offered my sister and me a can of soda and we were like, ‘We’re allowed to have soda? And our own can each?’” Thinking back, Theo admits the fact that they were amazed by this was a red flag of the trauma they had endured.
Miss Linda was chosen for the siblings’ placement because she was willing to take in both of them, she got along really well with them, and she did not have any men in her home. This was critical, as Theo and their sister had been abused by their father.
Miss Linda continued to include both children and showed them love they had never experienced before. Theo recalls stories of birthday parties, dyeing their hair together, and long life talks that further reassured them. Theo said that Miss Linda was “the first person to show them that love did not have to be conditional.” Unlike their parents, Theo was welcome to make friends and live their life freely. It was through these feelings of safety and unconditional love that Theo began to explore their gender identity.
Theo stated that they always had a very dominant, masculine side to them. They said that being referred to as she/her felt wrong. They described it as “wearing a jacket that was too tight.” Being called feminine pronouns did not disgust them, but they also felt that it didn’t fit right. After doing some research and asking some friends in the LGBTQ+ community, they realized that they identified as nonbinary. “Sometimes I appear feminine, sometimes I appear masculine, but I’m not one way or the other. I just exist as I am, and that’s what nonbinary means to me.”
Miss Linda is very supportive of Theo’s gender identity, and although their pronouns have been an adjustment for her, she still encourages Theo to be who they want to be. When Theo first came out to Miss Linda, she said, “You’re still my kid and I support you.” Theo feels that without the openness that Miss Linda has provided them, they would not have been able to discover their gender identity. They stated that Miss Linda is the best thing that has ever happened to them and they would not change anything about their past. They feel that anything that happened to them is what made them who they are today.
When asked what advice Theo would give to a child currently in the foster care system, they stated, “If they are thinking they miss their family, but don’t miss the situations their parents have put them in, they should look at how the two situations compare and see which one is healthier for them.” Theo struggled with coming to terms with not living with their parents when they were first put into the system. After being placed in a better home, they were able to consider it from a different perspective. They encourage children in the system who are dealing with these complicated feelings to think with that same perspective.
Theo also had some advice for parents who are interested in fostering: “My best advice would be to support the children. Listen to them and make sure they know your love is unconditional. No matter where they go or what they do, let them know you’re going to love them.” They added, “We can always use more foster families out there, and I would recommend it if you are interested. Good foster parents are always welcome.”
LGBTQ+ individuals often make great candidates for foster parenting, as they have experienced the difficulty of coming to terms with their identity, and can mentor those who have experienced trauma. Once children are back in school and resume a more “typical” post-Covid life, GCFTC expects an influx of individuals in need of foster placement. Foster parents are provided with ongoing support and services around the clock, specialized training, and supervision to help meet the child’s treatment goals, and ensure a successful foster care experience.
You can make such an amazing difference in the life of a child. If you have ever considered becoming a foster parent or are interested in learning more about the opportunity, please reach out to Brendan Carty at Groden Center Treatment Foster Care at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401.274.6310 x1229.