When Owen* first arrived at One Hope United’s Centralia Residential home, he hadn’t yet come out as transgender. In the past, when he disclosed to therapists that he was trans, they didn’t believe him, and told Owen he must be feeling this way due to his history of trauma and physical abuse.
After Owen had been living at OHU’s Centralia home and working with his therapist, Stephanie, for about 45 days, he decided to share his identity with her. Stephanie responded with openness and compassion. Her first concern was making sure Owen had his needs met, and that he received gender-affirming care. She immediately went to work, obtaining things like gender-affirming clothes and a chest binder, and arranging for Owen to have the haircut he desired. Owen chose to come out more publicly, and staff and other youth at the Centralia program transitioned to using his chosen name.
Owen has since been reunified with his birth mother, and graduated high school in the spring of 2020. After a family therapy session with Stephanie and his mom, Owen complimented Stephanie, saying, “Other people have treated my mom so badly. You make her feel like a person. And you were the first therapist who accepted me for who I am.”
Jessica Perry, Director of Residential Clinical Services, said stories like Owen’s make her incredibly proud. “If Stephanie hadn’t reacted with acceptance, Owen may have shut down,” she said. “When a transgender youth first arrives at our program, they’re still asking the question, ‘Is this a safe place to be who I am?’ We strive to make sure they always feel comfortable, safe, and loved.”
Owen is one of many young people in the child and family welfare system seeking a home where he can live as his authentic self. According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, on any given day, there are more than 100,000 youth living in group homes in the United States. Each of these young people arrives at a group home with a unique set of life experiences and care needs. One Hope United youth care workers help these young people address any challenges they are facing, understand and accept who they are, and work toward a happy and healthy future.
One Hope United’s exceptional standards of care haven’t just been noticed by our own staff. About five years ago, Jessica Perry and Melissa Webster, Executive Director of Residential Programs, took part in an all-provider meeting at the Illinois State Senate. During a Senate subcommittee meeting on human trafficking, they learned more about the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) efforts to improve services for transgender youth. Soon after, DCFS asked Melissa if One Hope United could serve as the point organization in standard-setting for transgender care in Residential group homes.
Since then, Melissa has never wavered in her conviction that her team could lead the way and help define what it means to provide excellent care for transgender youth. Jessica Perry has spearheaded these initiatives and works closely with DCFS leadership toward one goal: making sure both agencies are always doing what is best for their kids.
“Ensuring this philosophy is top of mind for all of our team members is important to Jessica and me,” Melissa shared. “We don’t use dead names or misgender youth. From daily interactions to responding to a crisis in the middle of the night, we provide training and coaching to make sure our staff are implementing these standards of care, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Leading the way in caring for transgender youth is a multi-faceted undertaking. In practice, it means ongoing trainings for staff, gender-affirming healthcare, LGBTQIA+ youth support groups, and in some cases, hormone therapy. And in many instances, it means allowing youth the space they need to discover who they are.
“If a youth is exploring their gender identity, they may experiment with different pronouns, clothing, and ways of expressing themselves,” Jessica shared. “We let our kids take the lead. We never want young people to feel like we don’t believe them, or think that we don’t believe they know themselves and the identity they are developing and discovering.”
In certain cases, transgender youth in care are ready to begin hormone therapy. To meet youth’s medical needs, Jessica’s team works with a healthcare provider in the region. A transgender youth at the Centralia home received hormone therapy for a little over two years at this clinic. He is the first minor in Illinois DCFS residential care history to receive hormone therapy. “This young person’s nurse and gender clinic team taught him how to administer hormones himself, which was a great step forward,” Jessica said.
Jessica shared that she will never forget the day it was decided that this young person could start hormone therapy. Her team struggled at the time and wanted to make sure they were making the right decision, since hormone therapy has lasting effects, and the youth was still a minor. They worked closely with the youth’s DCFS guardian and psychologist, who determined they were ready to move forward with treatment. This DCFS guardian works with other transgender youth in the program to help determine whether a young person is ready to start hormone therapy now, or whether they could benefit from hormone therapy in the future but aren’t ready yet to begin this treatment.
Melissa and Jessica are proud of their “phenomenal nursing staff,” who they consider to be among the best Residential nurses in the state. They’re also proud of the growth and understanding exhibited by their staff.
“Even if staff have personal or religious beliefs that differ, our youth would never know, because their main focus is on making sure youth feel loved,” Melissa said. “When you know someone and you see their heart, you can say, ‘I don’t understand your experience, but I care about you, and that’s what matters.’”
Janet Ahern, the DCFS Guardian Administrator who works closely with Melissa and Jessica to ensure the highest standards of care for transgender youth, and each youth in care, shared, “One Hope United has been a leader in Residential care over the last several years in meeting the needs of our transgender youth. Staff has worked to understand these young people and create a welcoming community. With the help of allies in the community they meet youth where they are at and accompany them on their journeys.”
“Residential kids are just kids,” Melissa concluded. “When we began this undertaking, our leadership team never set a limit on the progress we could make. We have finite resources, but we’ve never hit a ceiling.”
Sometimes, youth in Residential care struggle when they step down to a traditional foster placement or reunify with their biological family. Owen, the young man who benefitted from a supportive therapist, Stephanie, is thriving as his authentic self. One Hope United will continue to provide compassionate care to young people of any race, gender, gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation, so they can discover who they are, and live authentically.
*Names of youth in care have been changed to protect privacy.
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