Central Florida agency looks to get the word out on same-sex couples becoming foster parents

By : Jeremy Williams
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ABOVE: (L-R) Steven Wagner-Young, DJ and Gerald Wagner-Young at Lake Eola in Orlando. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

ORLANDO | David, or DJ as his family and friends call him, is a quiet and well-behaved teenager. DJ, who is openly gay, loves his pet Chihuahuas, enjoys seeing the drag shows at Hamburger Mary’s and spends his time learning about life from his two dads, Steven and Gerald Wagner-Young. Just your typical modern family.

“DJ’s a good kid with a good spirit,” says Gerald Wagner-Young. “Whether he is having a good day or bad day he finds a way to put a smile on his face. Every time. That says something about a 15 year old who has been through some stuff.”

Steven and Gerald Wagner-Young adopted DJ, who had been in the foster care system since he was six, in 2018. The Wagner-Young’s began dating in 2013 and married in 2014. At the time they were married Steven Wagner-Young says he hadn’t given much thought to becoming a father.

“We never really talked about it while we were dating because I was still under the impression that we could not adopt,” Steven Wagner-Young says. “I read something after we were married about how same-sex couples can now adopt, so I looked into it.”

Same-sex couples not being able to foster or adopt children is a common misconception, says Danielle Levien. Levien is the communications manager for Embrace Families, an organization that manages the foster care and adoption system for Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about who can and cannot foster and adopt a child, especially in the LGBTQ community,” Levien says. “That they’re not able to foster or adopt is absolutely not true. We have put a lot of our efforts into getting the word out because if someone has a heart for a child, and that child is going to be safe in their care, then we want you.”

That misinformation not only keeps a loving same-sex couple from fostering or adopting, but it also takes away a home from an LGBTQ foster child who would benefit from an accepting environment and a family that understands what that child is going through.

“One of the things that is very evident is how difficult it’s been finding a substantial number of homes to place our LGBTQ youth into when it comes to foster families,” Levien says. “There’s still a lot of ‘Well, I don’t have any experience with this. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help a child who is experiencing this.’ And sometimes unfortunately there’s stigma and bias.

“At the end of the day we need families for our kids,” Levien continues. “Our kids deserve to have loving families who are there to take care of them. So being able to recruit enough households that will accept LGBTQ children is vital. That’s really the hardest part, that constant recruitment.”

Embrace Families began stepping up efforts to reach out to the LGBTQ community to get the word out that you can be a foster parent regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We have a video series that we started last year called ‘What To Expect When You’re Expecting (To Be A Foster Parent)’ which feature stories from multiple LGBTQ families,” says Levien. Embrace Families also showcases LGBTQ families in its video series “Fostering With Pride” and featured a gay single father in a Valentine’s Day video.

“We want to let people know that just because you’re single doesn’t mean that you’re unable to foster,” says Levien. “We’ve been trying to make sure that we’re able to meet people where they are. It can be kind of scary coming out to one of our Q&A sessions. But [the video series] gives you the ability to watch from the comfort of your own home, listening to someone who’s from that same community being able to talk about their own experiences and being able to identify with them.”

They have been partnering with the Zebra Collation and The LGBT+ Center of Orlando, holding Q&A sessions for same-sex couples and LGBTQ individuals who want to foster.

“We’re looking for champions in the LGBTQ community,” Levien says. “How can we break down the barriers? How can we meet you where you are? So that you know that there is an opportunity.”

The decision to adopt DJ was an easy one for the Wagner-Young’s.

“I always knew that whether I was with someone or single, I wanted to adopt,” Gerald Wagner-Young, who was himself adopted as a child, says. “It has nothing to do with being gay or straight. The goal is to help a young person have a happy home.”

For more information, visit EmbraceFamilies.org.

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