Where’s the Support For Ostracized Teens?

From a reader:

Reading about Damon Fowler reminded me of an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot over the years. Damon is lucky to have his brother to take him in and defend him, but many teenagers coming out as an atheist or LGBT don’t have a safe place to get away from abusive parents outside of a court order.

I remember a friend of mine in my home town who came out as gay when he was 16. He was put under house arrest by his parents, forced to go to therapy, and cut off from all communication with friends. When he tried to go to the police in my small, religious town, the police just sent him back. Obviously, there are many situations in which there many not be a safe environment for teenagers to turn to, both before and after they are 18.

I don’t have much to offer, but I would gladly offer someone like Damon my couch if he had no where else to turn. I wonder if there is an organization that could offer support, finding temporary homes for teenagers whose parents or guardians have forsaken them. If there is, how can we get them more publicity?

If you know of a good group like this, or advice for teens in that situation, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

  • http://www.AtheistsHelpingtheHomeless.org Joe Zamecki

    I don’t know which group that would be, but there SHOULD be such a group! Our whole movement needs to be self-supporting like that. I’ve often thought that we should also have a small fleet of planes to fly our people to conventions at a lower cost. We have some very experienced professional pilots in our movement, and some of our people own their own planes. If we tapped into our own people for talent, experience, expertise and funding, we’d be able to accomplish a lot in the logistics department. All of our activists deserve this much support.

  • holeydood3

    For atheists, there’s this

  • Simon

    Outside of the foster care system I don’t know of anything else specifically for these groups. If someone does decide to do this in an organized way, it should be done right and with plenty of due diligence when screening prospective supporter individuals or families and work with law enforcement/social services etc.

    Whoever has experience with foster care or troubled teen family situations will tell you that good intentions are important but there has to be an infrastructure in place.

  • PJB863

    From the LGBT perspective, while this is a nationwide problem, there does not exist a nationwide program. Instead it is a patchwork of local organizations, mostly centered in larger cities that attempts to address the problem. Unfortunately, there are some pretty gaping holes in that patchwork. Also, many organizations are not set up specifically to deal with issues of LGBTQ youth, but are in place to ensure that parents support their children under the age of 18 – that is a legal obligation in most states, but enforcement is practically nonexistent many times.

    Below are some links to agencies that offer services:

    Los Angeles: http://laglc.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=YW_Youth_Services

    Chicago:
    http://www.howardbrown.org/hb_services.asp?id=50

    NYC Area:
    http://www.aliforneycenter.org/

    The Trevor Project – a nationwide organization that can provide referrals to local organizations – but homelessness is not their primary focus: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

    I’m sure there are others out there, but I could spend days trying to locate all of them.

  • http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/ Steve Caldwell

    Hemant – if the teen is under the age of 18, many states have laws that classify the withdrawal of support (food, clothing, shelter, etc) as child abandonment which is a form of child abuse.

    Legally, any person under the age of 18 is a child for the laws covering child abuse and neglect. A summary resource for all 50 US states and other US territories can be found here:

    http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/define.pdf

    Here is the Louisiana law covering child neglect:

    Neglect
    Citation: Ch. Code art. 603
    Neglect means the refusal or unreasonable failure of a parent or caregiver to supply the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, care, treatment, or counseling for any injury, illness, or condition of the child, as a result of which the child’s physical, mental, or emotional health and safety is substantially threatened or impaired. Neglect includes prenatal neglect.

    And here is the Louisiana law covering abandonment:

    Abandonment
    Citation: Ch. Code art. 603
    A crime against the child includes criminal abandonment of a child.

    Of course if Damon Fowler is 18 or older, these laws don’t apply to him.

    If the police are not doing their job of taking child abuse seriously, there are other government options. Most communities have social service hotlines where a non-cop social worker is taking the call and can alert the appropriate authorities.

    If one is being abused by a parent and one then tells a teacher, social worker, etc and that professional does not report this abuse to a social service agency, then the professional is criminally liable.

    So … I would ask the question why are some forms of child abuse tolerated by law enforcement and local governments and some are not. There is no “gay kid” or “atheist kid” exemption in the current abuse laws.

  • goldfinch

    It is not illegal for parents to be controlling and disapproving of a child’s sexual orientation. The kid Mehta mentioned who was under house arrest by his parents and cut off from his friends probably had no legal recourse. Odds are he could not even get emancipated.

    So, kids runaway.

  • mihoda

    Four, mandatory, six-month international exchange program rotations. Chosen at random.

    Could it cure narrow cultural dogma? Maybe.

  • KeithLM

    It is not illegal for parents to be controlling and disapproving of a child’s sexual orientation. The kid Mehta mentioned who was under house arrest by his parents and cut off from his friends probably had no legal recourse. Odds are he could not even get emancipated.

    Exactly, you have to be careful in these cases. Taking in a minor who has run away could lead you to a lot of legal trouble.

    Four, mandatory, six-month international exchange program rotations. Chosen at random.

    Are you suggesting for everyone? I can’t think of a more horrible idea than being shuttled around as a teenager for two full years. You’d never feel settled, have trouble making friends, end up in horrible places. As an introvert I can tell you if I was forced to do something like that as a teenager I would have run away or killed myself.

  • http://notanygods.blogspot.com/ Miss Coconut

    I don’t know of anything specific for these cases, but there’s always couch surfing (http://www.couchsurfing.org/). Maybe some kids could couch surf and get help outside of religious cities.

  • http://thelowlyundergrad.wordpress.com Marshall

    I know in southern California there’s an organization that takes in children that can’t live at home for whatever reason, called Casa Pacifica. I used to volunteer there and it is a fabulous organization.

  • The Other Tom

    I was hoping someone would bring up what KeithLM did, but in more detail…

    Hypothetical situation: Let’s say that 17 year old Johnny comes out of the closet to his parents as being atheist or gay or both, and the parents decide to send him off to radical right wing fundamentalist brainwashing camp to be tortured about it night and day. He tries to run away but cops just return him to his parents. Somehow just before he leaves the matter comes to my attention.

    Now, I have a spare room and a decent income, so I could easily feed, clothe, and house a teenager for a while. But what would happen if I let Johnny move into my home to get away from his parents?

    Well, firstly, the parents could have me jailed for kidnapping. And since I’m gay, and an atheist, they might just decide to falsely accuse me of raping Johnny while they’re at it, out of spite, and a lot of people would believe them by default because I’m male and single. Either way I’d probably pretty much immediately lose my job and (consequently) my home and (consequently) most of my stuff and possibly several of my friends, and that’s assuming I didn’t get actually convicted of something, in which case I could kiss my career good bye and after getting out of jail would probably spend the rest of my miserable life doing dead end menial work and would probably never see my niece or nephews again.

    Think I’m going to take that kind of risk for a kid I don’t know, no matter how much abuse he’s getting from his parents? I’d be willing to write letters and make phone calls and try to get officials interested in helping him, but get involved? No way, no how. Our culture’s attitude toward men interacting with children is so bad these days, I will not under any circumstances touch any child for any purpose except for my niece or nephews, and if at all possible I avoid even SPEAKING to any other children. On occasions when a child is badly misbehaving in public I won’t get involved, but rather call in a professional (cop, flight attendant, waitress) because the parents tend to get psychotic if a man even says something about their child… I had one mother accuse me of trying to kidnap her child after I told her it was probably unsafe to let him repeatedly body slam a glass display case, and bystanders who weren’t paying attention took her side.

    And people wonder why men don’t want to be involved with children in this country.

    Before we can help kids in that sort of situation the laws need to change to more directly reflect that such treatment by parents is abuse, and to hold cops responsible if they don’t do anything. And before you can get single men (as a category) to be more willing to directly offer help, society needs to stop viewing us all as perverts and potential rapists.

  • PJB863

    Tom, you are right, but it’s not just men who this affects – women can be put into that situation too.

    That is why there needs to be a structured organization in place to deal with situations like this. There needs to be oversight by professionals, checks and balances, and protection for these kids.

    This involves a lot more than giving some poor waif with bigoted parents a place to crash for a night or two. Social services need to be involved, these kids have been traumatized and are extremely vulnerable. They need counseling. There’s also the matter of their education, which must continue if they are to have any hope of living a productive life. Not to mention that they may have been neglected by their “wonderful” parents, so they may need medical attention – anything from a full physical exam to a visit to a dentist or optometrist.

    This issue cuts way deeper than one person can handle on his/her own. It’s horribly ugly, but it is what is it and must be dealt with appropriately. It’s way more than one person can handle.

  • http://donaldmorton.wordpress.com Donald Morton

    AtheistHavens on Reddit was set up for this.

  • Annie C

    If nothing else, how about something along the lines of the “It gets better” project for atheists? At least it’s some support.

    And has anyone else noticed that Google has been using that project in their prime time commercials of late, maximizing the exposure.

  • Annie C

    Here is another thought, go to your local Department of Children’s Services and sign up as a foster parent. You can say you will only take LGBT or Atheist kids. Then you’ll have the protection of the system, and the kids won’t have to deal with Christian foster parents once their parents lose custody for abandonment.

    We could make that a national movement, you know.

  • mr_j_mir

    I heard of a place in Miramichi, New Brunswick that takes in teems for various reasons, the Youth home or some thing similar. They might take in kids for thoughs reasons.

  • warped-ellipsis

    Here is another thought, go to your local Department of Children’s Services and sign up as a foster parent. You can say you will only take LGBT or Atheist kids. Then you’ll have the protection of the system, and the kids won’t have to deal with Christian foster parents once their parents lose custody for abandonment.

    We could make that a national movement, you know.

    ^^Excellent idea, the only negative thought on that is if the right-wingers will sign up like that and then try to convert or return those kids. They’ve done such things before. If the laws get changed so that bigotry isn’t “allowable”, then I think the problem of having an organizational oversight for…not exactly runaways, but discriminatory parents…would be feasible. Even then, I’m not sure what could be done at that point to help dependents in that situation, as the issue of “kidnapping” would still be in play.

    Outside of that, why not build a directory of LGBT/atheist people around the country? Those willing to meet in person or just online contacts (email/IM/whatnot), either one would be helpful for those questioning their theology/orientation. We could even have a special “vetted contacts” section. A quick search didn’t bring up any such online contact points for either LGBT or atheism…clearly, the latter can’t go to a religious support point, and the former can’t go to at least some religious places (and if they’re both LGBT and atheist, none of them).

    Most of what was brought up were forums…sometimes a person needs a response faster than email, forum posts can provide. When someone begins questioning, it’s not downright shattering to realize what you’re considering could get you cut off from everything you need and know. To get support at the beginning, and even better if there are local people willing to befriend the household in case “let me talk to them” happens–y’all know what I mean–it can eliminate some of that strife. This would also offer an option to those who can’t house people but are looking for another avenue to offer support.

    I have a vague idea of what all needs to go into such a directory and the backend for the chat clients (if a client is built into the site itself, such as with other crisis centers).

  • Ben Zalisko

    I was the “reader” that sent Hemant the email. Atheisthavens sounds about as trustworthy as craigslist. I like Annie C’s ideas. There were also a lot of important concerns posted. Here’s what I had in mind…

    Given the risks assumed with getting involved with a kid/parent feud and the risks associated with a kid staying with a complete stranger, this needs to be handled by a reputable, preferably national, organization. This organization could do background checks on hosts, and give legal advice to the kids.

    Usually, prejudice and punishment by parents is tough to legally justify child services stepping in, especially in conservative areas. It’s likely that my hypothetical organization would not be able to remove children from homes before they are 18, and I don’t think they should. However, these kids could really use emotional support, and there’s no shortage of that if they can be allowed communication. Could we make sure that every child cannot be denied access to a support network by phone or email?

    Minors could be put in contact with someone local who can offer advice and support and has passed a background check. Once they turn 18, if they want to leave home, they can move into the supportive home that they have already been in contact with. They can have someone to live with while they finish high school, and assistance with starting college or finding a job and a long-term home.

    Similar organizations like the YMCA or those for LGBT teens might offer a good model. I wish that they had money to run a bunch of TV adds. Often, kids like this don’t have access to the internet, and I would bet that even counselors and teachers aren’t aware of these kinds of options. If there are organizations that already exist and are run well, we need to get them more exposure.

  • CAV

    Here’s another program in Chicago that specifically is about providing host-homes for lgbt youth (although more young adult than teen I believe):

    http://www.ucanchicago.org/host-home/


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