When children turn 18 and age out of the foster-care system, they face a difficult transition into adulthood: Not only do some of these young people lack a family; they also lack the skills to live on their own.
For LGBT youth in foster care, it’s even harder. That’s where Sanctuary Palm Springs comes in: Sanctuary is working toward providing a home with support services to LGBT youth between the ages of 18 and 21 who leave the foster-care system.
Sanctuary was founded by David Rothmiller and LD Thompson. Rothmiller explained how they started down the path of creating Sanctuary.
“Originally, it was the desire to be a parent,” Rothmiller said. “… My spouse, LD, and I had begun with the intentions of starting a family. We were licensed (for foster children) in Washington state, and that system made us wait for two years for a placement in our own home. People asked me why that was the case, and I have no answers. The system is so broken. While that happened, we looked where else we could participate. We were told by someone about group care.”
Rothmiller mentioned that many LGBT individuals lose their families when they come out.
“LD was kicked out of his home at 17 and found family again in the LGBT community,” Rothmiller said. “That’s our model: They might have lost their family, but there’s a family already there that waits for them.”
Rothmiller explained the challenges LGBT youth face in the foster-care system.
“Depending on how long they’ve been in foster care, there is enormous psychological damage that we have to sort out,” Rothmiller said. “The reason (many of them) are in foster care is because they were gay to begin with. … Some of these Christian families kick their kids out because they find out they’re gay. In foster care, kids are afraid to come out, because many of the foster families are well-meaning Christian families, and it doesn’t fit their culture. If the kids come out or are found out to be gay, the foster parent can make a seven-day call to get them out. We’ve seen that happen many times. There’s no legal protection for them, and the more often a kid is bounced, the harder their life becomes. With each bounce, they lose six months of educational placement. LGBT kids are bounced more often.”
Originally, Rothmiller and Thompson planned for Sanctuary to provide a home for LGBT foster kids in the system. However, Riverside County put numerous hurdles in front of them.
“Riverside County’s foster care is currently under investigation,” Rothmiller said. “They are so messed up and can’t even maintain the claims of abuse and investigate them properly.”
Eventually, they decided to open a home for LGBT foster kids who were entering adulthood—to help with a problem that’s recently received state and federal attention.
“Sixty percent of kids leaving foster care at 18 would fall into the category of incarcerated, homeless, on the street, doing drugs, doing prostitution or dead,” Rothmiller said. “The state realized they were failing these kids. That’s why they created the new program, and that’s how we’re funded. It’s through San Bernardino (County), because Riverside (missed) the calendar date to be able to license homes such as ours. San Bernardino licensed us to operate in Riverside County.”
As of this writing, Sanctuary is open, but there are no residents yet, as Rothmiller, Thompson and their staff jump through hoops with licensing and getting the Palm Springs home up to code.
“LB and I are the founders of the program, but we don’t have any letters after our names. We had to bring in skilled professionals to have on our team,” Rothmiller said. “Even with that power behind us, these bureaucrats are like, ‘You need to do this, that and the other thing.’ In each case, our program manager had to tell them how to license us.
“On the positive side, the community has been very supportive. Our fundraising has been impressive for a start-up … and our staff is all-volunteer. Everyone who has donated their time or money, or comes to work with us, feels emotionally connected. People are seeing this as something they can do locally to stop that negativity toward LGBT rights and equality.”
Sanctuary will help teach youth the skills they will need in adulthood, and hopefully even inspire careers.
“Our independent living program is designed to teach them cooking skills, car skills, job-interview skills and being part of a larger system,” Rothmiller said. “Most of these kids coming into the program probably won’t even have a driver’s license, because no one cared enough to get them through that process. All of these things you have to know as an adult have been withheld from them.
“If a kid wants to learn culinary skills, there are chefs from restaurants all over town who have offered to be mentors. Pick anything a kid wants to learn—there are people in this community who want to share that with them.”
Rothmiller said Sanctuary has already helped one particular young man who aged out of the system and contacted them for help.
“He said, ‘I really want to come live at Sanctuary. I’m in foster care. I turned 18; I was kicked out of Safehouse, and I’m living in a men’s shelter in Indio and getting up at 5 in the morning to take a bus from Indio to Palm Springs High School, where I’m a senior,’” Rothmiller recalled. “I said, ‘Are you gay?’ and he said he wasn’t. I told him we will not discriminate against anyone, but that we were designed for the LGBT community. We met; we had a fundraiser coming up. He’s a great kid, and we wanted to do something for him. He came and helped the staff from Lulu do the catering. He fit in perfectly, and when we got up to do the remarks, I told his story and why the program matters so much. It was very emotional, and we said, ‘We need to find a home for him.’
“Fast forward to today. He lives with this kind man, and he has become family. We graduated him; he works at a deli; he goes to College of the Desert. That’s the potential we have. So many in the gay population thought we missed the boat to be parents, but there is more that we have to offer, and we want people in the community to know that it isn’t too late to (be a) parent or grandparent. We see ourselves as having that ability to facilitate.”
For more information or to offer assistance, visit www.sanctuarypalmsprings.org.