In God We Trust: Gay Kids, Religion, and Group Homes

The statistics surrounding American foster care are harrowing. Insult is added to injury when children – most of whom enter foster care because of parental abuse – spend an average of three displaced years in the system, rotating between three different placement homes. 25% of those kids will never find adoptive homes or be reunited with their families. Instead, they will “age out” of foster care. There is a sharp correlation between foster childhood and institutionalization. 25% of incarcerated Americans are foster care alumni.

For queer kids, these problems are only amplified.

Of the nearly 500,000 individuals in the system, a disproportionate amount – 18% – are LGBT. Finding placement, be it adoptive or foster, becomes even more of an uphill battle. Every route out of the system seems to be boarded off by homophobia.

Lighthouse of Northwest Florida via The Tampa Bay Times

When Boys’ Home Association in Jacksonville, Florida conducted a survey of 246 foster families, they found that only 21 of them were willing to accept a gay teenager into their home. For many, group homes become a viable alternative. Yet this system is also plagued by layers of injustice. The system and the faith used to justify abuse are broken.

Last week, the Miami Herald detailed the account of a gay 19 year-old foster care alumni who spent his teen years at His House, a Christian group home which touts itself as a “faith-based organization dedicated to restoring the joy in the lives of children from newborn to 18 years of age“:

In court documents, the man (whose name is being kept private), recounts how, at age 16, he confessed he was gay to the head of His House Children’s Home in Miami. The director then dragged him to a remote location, cried uncontrollably and screamed, “How could you do this to me?” After that, things went from bad to worse: The teen was expelled from his Christian school, forbidden to speak with his best friend, harassed by staffers and other kids, denied access to beneficial programs and made subject to repeated attempts at “conversion.” “They always told us that God is love, but I guess there’s no God there,” the victim, now 19, wrote of his stint in the group home.

The man reportedly entered foster care at the age of ten, after being removed from his abusive mother’s custody. Prior to arriving at His House, the abuse continued when another foster youth molested him.

His House

The His House employee accused of accosting the man is its founder, Jean Caceres-Gonzalez, an alumna of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. (If the name rings a bell, that’s because Roberts was a Christian Evangelical who claimed to have healed millions with his own two hands. When Roberts died in 2009, Joe.My.God cheekily referred to him as “the world’s most successful scam artist.” Homophobia is no stranger to the Roberts clan. The pastor’s gay son committed suicide in 1982, and his gay grandson was forbidden from sitting with family at his funeral.)

What is most unnerving about this claim isn’t that a foster child has yet again been on the receiving end of virulent homophobia, or that the hatred seems to be purely motivated by Christian beliefs. It’s that the sort of alleged abuse that went down at His House is 100% legal in many Florida group homes.

In 1984, the Sunshine State passed a law which exempted religious homes from certification. Instead of being licensed with the state, faith-based group homes are allowed to become accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA). While His House is state-licensed and thus monitored by the (relatively competent) Florida Department of Family and Children Services, many of Christian group homes in Florida are not.

New Beginnings via Tampa Bay Times

FACCCA has its own problematic set of standards: Unlike state-licensed institutions, FACCCA allows corporal punishment. Depending on the institution, children may or may not have access to a phone in order to report abuse (it’s been reported that residents have been denied access to phones for up to two months at a time). Shackling and confinement do not require a doctor’s approval. Lastly– and perhaps most obviously – prayer can be made mandatory. As long as it’s backed by a religious text, virtually any sort of abuse can be allowed to masquerade as an exercise in religious freedom. What’s even more horrifying is that many faith-based group homes in Florida do not have accreditation with either DFCS or FACCCA. They merely exist as pseudo-boarding schools which play to their own, often lethal, rules.

Reporter Alexandra Zayas and photojournalist Kathleen Flynn of The Tampa Bay Times spent a year researching these certified, kind-of certified, and not-certified-at-all group homes. 34 group homes later, the series of offenses that Zayas and Flynn have documented is worse than anyone could have ever imagined:

State authorities have responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in the past decade, but homes have remained open even after the state found evidence of sex abuse and physical injury.

The religious exemption has for decades allowed homes to avoid state restrictions on corporal punishment. Homes have pinned children to the ground for hours, confined them in seclusion for days, made them stand until they wet themselves and exercised them until they vomited.

Children have been bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline. A few barely escaped with their lives. In addition, in two settled lawsuits, a mother said her son was forced to hike on broken feet; a father said his son was handcuffed, bound at the feet, locked away for three days and struck by other boys at the instruction of the home.

Adults have ordered children to participate in the punishment, requiring them to act as jailers, to bully troublemakers or to chase, tackle and sit on their peers.

Teens have been denounced as sinners, called “faggots” and “whores,” and humiliated in front of their peers for menstrual stains and suspicions of masturbation.

Southeastern Military Academy via The Tampa Bay Times

In these homes, “sparing the rod and spoiling the child” is not just Biblical doctrine, but actual practice. At the unaccredited Southeastern Military Academy, boys between the ages of 11 and 17 are subjected to a boot camp-style regimen. While the “home” only houses 12 children at a time, it has been subjected to 33 investigations of abuse.

Self-proclaimed “Colonel” Alan Weierman is unapologetic in defending the program’s use of shackling and restraints. It’s hard to not become enraged when he says, “When I go out of business, they’re going to have a party at DCFS. They’ve destroyed my chances of having a job at any other facility.” For Weierman, this clearly isn’t about helping adolescents transition into upstanding adults. For him and many others who run group homes, it’s about profiting financially off of their misery; Christianity-based legal loopholes seem to be the most efficient way to do so.

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Southern rabble-rouser, working class writer, dirty little swamp witch, brown girl, and practicing tortillera. Sometimes tweets, but prefers the (rough and) tumble, and is always down to talk about a good movie. Work has been featured in Lambda Literary Foundation Review, URGE, and the underbelly of Thought Catalog.

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13 Comments

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    This is so horrifying. WTF is wrong with people. We need to give children the same rights as adults. It’s abhorrent that the religious “rights” of adults are given priority over the civil right of children. If children could vote than maybe politicians would have an incentive to fix this shit. I wish I could adopt ALL the gay babies.

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    As a survivor of one of these group homes, I have come to find that many stories are very similar in the effort to convert any and all “sinners”. When I came out as a lesbian I was subjected to complete isolation from my peers and instructed to a specific diet. I was only allowed to pray, read the bible and shovel rock piles for months. My family, completely unaware of the circumstances, agreed to the punishment. Fortunately my higher power became my rock and I was strong enough to overcome the hazing. The traumatic abuse that young adults and children experience in these homes is appalling. It needs to be brought to the attention of higher authorities and stopped. No person should ever denounce the rights anyone has as a human being in order to enforce their beliefs.

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    Holy shit. Thank you so much for writing about this. I’ve worked as staff in a group home for kids “aging out” of the foster care system, and these kids go through hell. After a national election that left us with a pretty status-quo government, I’d be really interested in reading more about issues like these which seem like things we could work to change in our own communities.

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    Humiliated for menstrual stains? Obviously there’s a lot of horrible stuff in there, but that could possibly be explained (but NEVER justified) by religious beliefs. Humiliating kids for having periods sounds like torture for the sake of torture. Personally I think it’s proof that religion isn’t so much a reason for the rest of the crap these kids are being put through as an excuse. I know I’m pointing out the obvious, but these people would be hurting children even if they weren’t religious.

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    The foster care system in this country is horrific. I have a friend who adopted a 15 yr old boy who had been in the system for 10 yrs, bouncing between foster homes and group homes. The abuse he sustained was unimaginable to me. Many of the foster homes are “deeply religious” people who seem to think they are doing something good. Even as they taught him that homosexuality is a sin. What a “woman’s place os in society.” The list goes on. I’ve built an interesting relationship with him over the last few years. I’m the first gay person he’s ever known. We’ve talked about everything. He knows I will never lie to him. I won’t go into the late night phone call about how masturbation is “normal” and ok and everybody does it! He’s 19 now. He’s not gay, but wears a marriage equality pin proudly. He has come so far, but has so far to go. I used to read news stories about kids abused by their parents and think “Why didn’t anyone do something?” Now I hear his stories and read these and think the same thing. The “some bodies” are the problem. So what the Hell do we do about that?

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    A little piece of perfect irony:

    I was in one of the homes mentioned in the Tampa Bay Times piece for fifteen months. A truly horrible experience for a number of reasons. I don’t really like thinking about it.
    BUT the ironic thing was the co-director of the home, the wife in a husband/wife team (he was significantly older than she was; he was in his fifties, she was maybe thirty-two) was caught having sexual relations with some of the older girls in the home (17 years old) and quietly resigned. She didn’t get in any trouble. The girls offered her sex in exchange for privileges like longer visits with their families and Starbucks.
    Anyway, for how much trouble you could get into for being gay or even being suspected of being gay, it was quite ironic that of all things, that’s what the director involved herself in.
    The next directors got into similar trouble, except that round, it was the husband that was messing around with the girls.

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