MIAMI — When leaders of a religious school became suspicious that one of their charges was gay, he was confronted and told to fess up: Is it true or is it false? When the boy said he was indeed gay, the head of his foster care shelter purportedly drove him to an isolated location, wept uncontrollably and screamed at him: “How could you do this to me?”
The next two years, the teen said, were pure hell. He was expelled from the Christian school, in which he had been enrolled by the shelter. He was forbidden to speak with his best friend, a young man shelter administrators erroneously believed also was gay. Staff tried repeatedly to “convert” him to heterosexuality. Other staffers “humiliated and harassed” the boy — and so did other foster kids who were housed with him.
“They always told us that God is love, but I guess there’s no God there,” the teen wrote to his court-ordered guardian of his experience at His House Children’s Home. “Please help them,” he added, referring to other gay children he believed were experiencing similar treatment.
Administrators of Our Kids, the privately run foster care agency that oversees His House, interviewed the teenager and found his story credible. The agency asked the Department of Children & Families — twice — to investigate the treatment of the youth. But DCF refused to look into the case.
In a letter dated Oct. 12, DCF Inspector General Christopher T. Hirst said the youth’s treatment did not violate “state or federal laws, rules or policies.”
“As a result,” Hirst wrote, “the (inspector general) stands by its previous determination that an investigation is not merited.”
The teen — The Miami Herald is not naming him to protect his privacy — entered foster care in 2003 at age 10 after his mother was charged with beating him. He spent the rest of his childhood in foster care where, records show, he was molested by another foster child who later was arrested. He is now 19, employed part-time, attending college and living on his own.
Jean Caceres-Gonzalez, who founded and heads His House, said in an email to The Herald that “all children at His House are treated with great love, respect and dignity regardless of their sexual orientation. Harassment by other kids or staff members is not tolerated, and dealt with immediately. This child was no different. He fully enjoyed a safe and loving home.”
His House provides services for children in foster care under contract with Our Kids, which oversees all foster care efforts in Miami-Dade under contract with the state.
DCF administrators declined to discuss the case in detail. The agency spokesman, Joe Follick, reiterated Hirst’s conclusion that the youth’s reported treatment violated no laws or policies and added: “Nobody at this department will tolerate the bullying or harassment of any child in our care in any facility or home.”
According to the boy’s letter, which was relayed to Our Kids by his guardian, the youth’s ordeal began when he turned 16 and became friendly with another boy at the shelter. His House staff, he wrote, assumed the two teens were “dating,” though the other youth is not gay.
In an email to the court-appointed guardian, the boy said he was confronted by leaders of Dade Christian School, who insisted he state whether he was gay. “They specifically said it was a yes or no question,” the teen wrote. “I told them yes.”
He was expelled from the school, which he described as one of the most traumatic events in his life. Caceres-Gonzalez then picked the youth up from a basketball court, claiming he had a dentist appointment — “which was a lie. I had one two days prior to that,” the teen wrote.
In a letter to the DCF inspector general, Our Kids’ chief of program operations, Barbara Toledo, said Caceres-Gonzalez then drove the teen to “an isolated area” where her emotions boiled over as she confronted him. “He said she was crying so hysterically he felt afraid,” the letter said.
“He said that she made him feel guilty and bad about himself to the point that he apologized for the agony he was putting her through,” Toledo wrote.
“After the incident,” Toledo wrote, the teen claimed he was “isolated from others” at the shelter and was sent to speak to a counselor or minister, among others, who tried to “convert” him to heterosexuality. One counselor “mocked” him, asking him if “he’d been converted yet.” Toledo said he endured “hostile and intolerant behavior” from staff and other foster kids.
In Our Kids’ request to the state, Toledo said the guardian program suggested that His House administrators failed to “aggressively” seek the youth’s adoption, and kicked him out of a program that helped pay for his college tuition and living expenses, all “due to his sexual orientation.”
Hirst, the inspector general, rejected the complaint, and asked Our Kids to look into it again.
On Oct. 3, Toledo followed up that initial query with a lengthy letter to DCF, saying high-ranking administrators of both Our Kids and DCF in Miami had met with the teen on Sept. 27. “As part of our work,” she wrote, “we hear from a lot of clients with serious and sometimes outrageous claims. As a result, we have become very good at determining whether a story is related in a consistent and truthful manner. In our evaluation of (the youth’s) account, we found his recitation to be consistent and compelling.”
He is, Toledo wrote, “a credible witness and we believe his statements about how poorly he was treated.”
The teen told authorities he was not alone, and that any adolescent who is gay or questioning his sexual orientation “will likely endure the same treatment while at His House,” Toledo wrote.
Less than two weeks later, Hirst rejected the complaint for the second time.
After consulting with DCF’s civil rights division, Hirst wrote, the agency determined that “no violation of state or federal laws, rules or policies occurred with respect to the alleged harassment/discrimination of the former foster child. As a result, the (Office of Inspector General) stands by its previous determination that an investigation is not merited.”
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, who oversees the county’s foster care program as chairwoman of the Community Based Care Alliance, said she was “disappointed” that DCF investigators declined to look into the matter. “Whether this is a violation of state law or policy,” she said, “it should be.”
“Our job is to help these children in every way possible to reach their full potential, whether they are heterosexual or gay,” she said. “If these allegations are true, then teenaged children should not be placed with this agency.”