The Division of Children and Family Services in Cuyahoga County is making some changes that will help mitigate risks facing LGBTQ youth.
DCFS is creating the Pride Caregiver Network, a program aimed at helping juveniles in the foster care system avoid certain dangers such as substance abuse, mental health issues, suicide and homelessness. But for those who identify as LGBTQ, the risk is even higher.
"So much had been taken away from me already, that the only thing I had was my identity," said Sonia Emerson, 25. Growing up, Emerson lacked stability.
Emerson left foster care at age 18 after having been placed in nearly 20 foster homes.
"It was very uncomfortable for a lot of people," said Emerson.
Emerson said it was because of who she is. Rejection after rejection left Emerson questioning whether she should continue being open about her homosexuality.
"It's those moments that would lead to me feeling very suicidal. I didn't want to be here in general if I couldn't live in my truth," Emerson said.
Statistics show there are hundreds of people like Emerson are navigating the system in Cuyahoga County, but Emerson said there is a fix for the problem.
"To match them up with a foster home that is going to be supportive and affirming," said Emerson.
That's exactly what Cuyahoga County DCFSis doing.
"We're really on the cutting edge of this, and we're really excited to be there," said Kathleen Sullivan from Cuyahoga County DCFS.
Cuyahoga County is one of just four locations in the country now training current and future foster parents on what they need to do to help LGBTQ youths thrive.
Emerson said she not only wants to help change the foster care environment but also give hope to those coming up through the system.
"Really come out and embrace who they are, that the family they have right now that is not accepting, that there's work to be done, but there are other people who will embrace them," Emerson said.
DCFS is looking for volunteers to take part in the Pride Caregiver Network. The goal is to have the programs rolled out here in Northeast Ohio available nationwide in the next few years.
More information about the Pride Caregiver Network can be found here.