Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will:
- understand the fundamentals of family reconnection work
- understand how prevention work compliments emergency responses
- have insight into how to support LGBTQ2S youth in family reconnection programs.
Families and LGBTQ2S Children
<blockquote>When parents hold their newborn infant, few of them think their child might be gay or transgender. In fact, many parents dream of special times in their child’s future, especially of their wedding and when their children become parents themselves – with heterosexual partners (Ryan, 2009: 1).</blockquote>
Recent studies show that young people are realising that they are experiencing same sex attractions as young as 10 years old. Some of these young people attempt to talk with their parents about their attractions. Most do not because even at a young age they have internalised homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that is prevalent in mainstream society and their local community (Ryan, 2009; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014).
Our research shows that families, parents, foster parents, caregivers and guardians can have a very dramatic impact on their LGBT children. We found that family acceptance promotes well-being and helps protect LGBT young people against risk. And family rejection has a serious impact on a gay or transgender young person’s risk for health and mental health problems (Ryan, 2009: 4).
A vast majority of parents want what is best for their children. And for many of these parents that means having straight and/or cisgender children, because parents are aware of discrimination and hatred endured by members of the LGBTQ2S community. In Ryan’s research a high number of LGBTQ2S youth tried to conceal their LGBTQ2S identity from their families because they feared being disowned, kicked out or hurting their family. Youth who do this have a limited sense of future self.
Gay and transgender teens who were highly rejected by their parents and caregivers were at very high risk for health and mental health problems when they become young adults (ages 21-25). Highly rejected young people were:
More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide
Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and
More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases
Compared with gay and transgender young adults who were not at all or only rejected a little by their parents and caregivers – because of their gay or transgender identity (Ryan, 2009: 5).
Young people in the study who had supportive parents, had better overall well-being.
[W]hen gay and transgender youth were accepted by their families, they were much more likely to believe they would have a good life and would be a happy, productive adult. In families that were not at all accepting of their adolescent’s gay or transgender identity, only about 1 in 3 young people thought they would have a good life as a gay adult. But in families that were extremely accepting, almost all LGBT young people thought they would have a good life (Ryan, 2009: 12).
Challenging Our Thinking About Family
One of the main reasons LGBTQ2S youth experience homelessness is because of family rejection, or the fear of family rejection. Youth often talk of experiencing abuse, or of being kicked out of home, which leaves many frontline workers with the understanding that it is the family that’s the problem and the young person needs to be supported to separate from them.
However, when we say youth are homeless because of “family conflict/rejection/abuse” we are implicating a lot of people. A young person may experience conflict with one or more family members but there may be others where the relationship is more positive. Family conflict does not mean that there is conflict with ALL family members ALL the time.
There is always one family member who is more supportive and can be the opportunity to create more acceptance in the broader family. When we are talking about Family Reconnection work, we are defining family to include family outside of the parent-child relationship. Family Reconnection can include parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles.
Numerous studies tell us that youth who maintain a connection to their family, have higher level of resilience and transition out of homelessness and are less likely to return to homelessness. We also know that youth with a connection to a family member are more likely to remain in their home community. When youth migrate to different and often larger communities they are at higher risk of exploitation.
For a long time the focus has primarily been on emergency services – on housing, employment and income support, similar to the adult system. As staff, we work hard in the context of the services offered to best support youth. While we are able to address some of the needs of the young people we work with using our current approaches, we certainly can’t address them all.
One such approach is involving family in the responses to, and prevention of, youth homelessness. While treatment options for substance use and mental health have evolved considerably, family continues to remain an unexplored option in working with youth – and is noticeably absent in our national approach when compared to many countries (Eva’s Initiatives, n.d.).
Family Reconnection Programs
Family Reconnection (or as it is sometimes called Family Reunification) is a highly specialised program that requires intention, thoughtfulness and planning to develop. Eva’s Initiatives developed one of the first Family Reconnection programs in North America. Eva’s developed an online toolkit to help other organizations develop their own programs (http://reconnecttoolkit.evasinitiatives.com).
Here are the Core Values of Family Reconnection programs:
- Youth and family members define for themselves what family looks like
- Client-centred counselling, focused on rebuilding family relationships, resolving loss, building life skills, and engaging in the community helps young people move forward with their lives – whether or not they end up living with family
- Supporting a youth in returning home or reconnecting with family can involve the struggles facing family members
- Service delivery must continually work within anti-oppressive practice
- More than just counselling, youth and family members often require additional referrals and supports for community services. These services can include education, employment, health and financial
Niagara Resource Service for Youth RAFT recently disseminated a review of their Youth Reconnect program (RAFT, 2015). In this report they share how well their program is working (e.g. number of youth who have successfully transitioned out of homelessness and savings to the system). It is clear that family reconnection is a successful prevention model.
Local Family Reconnection Programs
It is possible that there may not be a local family reconnection program to refer youth and families to.
PFLAG Canada is there when it seems no-one else is. Every day, PFLAG Canada volunteers are contacted by frightened adolescents and by angry, fearful or ashamed parents. PFLAG Canada supports, educates and provides resources to anyone with questions or concerns (PFLAG, n.d.).
PFLAG Canada is a great resource for youth and families. Their website and volunteers are incredible resources. Your local chapter may be willing to partner with your organization and provide support to LGBTQ2S youth and their families.
Family As Allies
Families respond to their LGBT children based on what they know, what they hear from their family, clergy, close friends, and information sources, including providers who may also have misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity, especially in childhood and adolescence. As a result, parents and families who believe that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are wrong or are harmful for their LGBT children may respond in a variety of ways to try to prevent their children from becoming gay or transgender (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014: 8).
Please read A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children for recommended approaches for working with families of LGBTQ2S youth.
Eva’s Initiatives (n.d.). Challenging Our Thinking About Family. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from http://reconnecttoolkit.evasinitiatives.com/youth-homelessness-in-canada/challenging-our-thinking/
Family Acceptance Project. (n.d.). Family Acceptance Project. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://familyproject.sfsu.edu
PFLAG. (n.d.). PFLAG Canada is there when it seems no-one else is. Retrieved February 26, 2015, from http://www.pflagcanada.ca/en/index.html
RAFT (2015). Retrieved February 9, 2015, from http://homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/Youth-Reconnect-Works.pdf
Ryan, C. (2009). Supportive families, healthy children: Helping families with lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender children. San Francisco: Family Acceptance Project.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children. HHS Publication No. PEP14-LGBTKIDS. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.