By Julia Munemo
Fred Elia ’79 had been involved in the child welfare system his entire life—first as a child in foster care and later as a social worker—but he was still surprised to receive a phone call from a colleague one morning in late 2008. The social worker had a case she couldn’t handle. Nothing in her training had given her the resources to deal with a boy in a group home who wanted to dress in girls’ clothes.
“My first question was, ‘So, what’s the problem?’” Elia says. He knew the other children in the home were likely bullying the boy, but what surprised him was that no one on staff had talked with him to find out what was going on. “They didn’t even know if he might be gay, bisexual or transgender; they just knew the behavior of attempting to dress in girls’ clothing was more than they could handle.”
Elia, who came out as gay during his senior year at Williams, was the right person to call. After Williams, he earned an MS in social work at Columbia University. From there, he worked in various child welfare organizations in New York and New Jersey, becoming a strong advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, “or kids who were just questioning their sexuality,” he says, explaining a new acronym to help folks talk about children in this category: LGBT/Q, for questioning.
“I had learned that gay youth are greatly overrepresented in foster and adoption care,” Elia continues, asserting that they account for up to 30 per cent of children in the system—a far higher percentage than in the general population—and that officials didn’t know why. “The statistics were alarming: LGBT/Q youth in care have the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, homeless, and suicide.”
Elia knew one way to help these kids would be to infuse the system with foster and adoptive families who were gay or who could handle a gay or questioning child’s lifestyle and behavior. He had, by the time of the phone call about the boy who liked to dress in girls’ clothes, been working for several years to recruit foster and adoptive parents who understood the needs of LGBT/Q youth. He was more than willing to step in to help this child.
He started by making a “service plan.” This is what social workers create in order to help other social workers in similar situations replicate the care they provide. In drafting the plan, Elia imagined what he would do if this boy were coming to live with him. “I thought about it the way my mother would have,” he says.
When Elia was 2, he and his infant brother were brought to live with a foster family that included two adult children and several grandchildren. The woman Elia calls his mother didn’t feel she was done raising kids, and thought the foster care program was a good fit. She was right. Elia and his brother stayed with the family until college. “I know my story isn’t typical,” he says, referring both to how today many children in foster care don’t stay with the same family very long unless they’re adopted—and to the fact that many live in homes in which college is not an expectation.
Thinking about the boy who wanted to dress in girls’ clothes, he says: “When I thought about the horror this child had been through, I wanted him to have a mom like I had.” But he didn’t have all the skills he thought might be needed. What if, for instance, the child wanted to make his own clothing? Elia couldn’t sew. So he called friends and family who might help out, asking one to donate a sewing machine, another to teach the boy. “Once I knew it was possible to find people to help out, I called the case worker back and asked if she could do something similar.” The social worker was delighted for the help and eventually found a loving home for the child.
But for Elia, the story wasn’t over. The exercise of imagining what it would have been like to foster a boy with a devastating history of abuse made him realize that such children would need to be nurtured and supported by an entire community. One grownup wouldn’t be able to carry it all. “That was when I realized this boy needed a hundred moms, he needed a thousand moms.”
And Elia’s non-profit was born. There are plenty of men and women helping out at A Thousand Moms today. “The title doesn’t mean there are no dads,” Elia explains. “Rather, it means we offer a lot of nurturing, a lot of support, a lot of parenting.” A Thousand Moms works all over New York State helping recruit potential foster/adoptive families from within the LGBT community and training social workers and foster families in how to handle issues that come up with LGBT/Q children in their care.
“First, we’re trying to prevent kids from coming into foster care just because they’re LGBT,” Elia says. “Then for those kids who are already in foster care, we’re trying keep them from moving to another family because the first one can’t deal with these issues.”
Since its founding in 2009, A Thousand Moms has established regional LGBT/Q child welfare coalitions to build community awareness and support; produced regular podcasts for parents, staff, and youth; and conducted professional training and community education sessions on the needs of LGBT/Q youth in foster and adoptive care. All the while, the fledgling organization has worked tirelessly to raise the necessary funds to keep the whole operation open.
“When you first graduate from college, you want to start a revolution and see change,” Elia reflects. “Pretty soon you realize you have to learn patience. I never thought I would live to see this evolution in child welfare and LGBT issues—we are making such progress,” he smiles. “But there’s much more to do.”
To learn more about A Thousand Moms, visit athousandmoms.org/