In 2012, CSSP launched getREAL (Recognize, Engage, Affirm, and Love), an innovative initiative designed to help transform and influence child welfare policy and practice to promote the healthy development of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression (otherwise known as SOGIE) for all children and youth. When it comes to youth well-being and healthy sexual and identity development, getREAL recognizes that all youth in the child welfare system face challenges. However, research shows that these challenges are exacerbated for LGBTQ+ youth. Studies also show that LGBTQ+ youth are at greater risk for homelessness, abuse, bullying, trauma, and sexual exploitation than their heterosexual and/or cisgender peers. While improving conditions for LGBTQ+ youth is a population-specific aspect to the work, getREAL is for all kids. CSSP Senior Fellow and founder of getREAL Bill Bettencourt says that the initiative was created with a central question in mind: “What do we want for kids and how do we get them that?”
In addition to maintaining a focus on promoting evidence-based practices for working with children, youth, and young people, getREAL answers this question through direct engagement of this population. Central to the process getting getREAL off the ground was a series of focus groups that were conducted with LGBTQ+ youth across the country. These interviews sought to focus on young people’s experiences with systems, how they felt systems could do better, and how they would feel about those systems asking about their sexual orientation. Two predominant themes emerged: First, youth stated that their SOGIE felt invisible in these systems, and, even if their SOGIE was visible, youth did not trust these systems to know what to do with the information. This sense of invisibility is what led to Recognize as the first value of getREAL’s work, as it speaks to the need for systems to recognize all young people in every aspect of everything that they do. The second theme was that youth stated they were not interested in helping workers “check a box” about their SOGIE. Youth emphasized the importance of having workers who want to get to know them. The inspiration for the word Engage stems from youth identifying their mistrust in the system and their desire for workers who are interesting in getting to know their whole selves. Engagement without recognition is difficult, impossible even. Recognition is necessary to encourage youth to self-identify, but the engagement piece is what builds trust and which moves systems beyond helping workers to “check a box.” The Affirm and Love part of getREAL’s mission also come out of conversations with youth about what they want and need.
“The name is very important. We wanted to come up with some sort of name for what we were doing but with an action-oriented word or phrase. We also wanted to capture the key elements for what is needed for kids.” – CSSP Senior Fellow Bill Bettencourt
In just six years, getREAL has maintained a robust portfolio of work while building strong partnerships, working with jurisdictions to conduct intensive site work, producing several groundbreaking reports, organizing webinars, providing a diverse array of trainings tailored to the needs of different audiences, and hosting convenings that allow for information exchange and dialogue. In 2013, 21 jurisdictions joined a national network to support system improvements, share information and resources, and to provide peer trainings and support. The national network was just the first step toward getREAL’s efforts to create a “culture change” in both knowledge and action for child welfare and related child- and youth-serving systems nationwide. Some of these jurisdictions, such as Allegheny County, PA, Fresno County, CA and Santa Clara County, CA have served as partners and sites for more intensive work beyond network participation. Other partners of getREAL include or have included Family Builders by Adoption, National Center for Lesbian Rights, University of Illinois, Chicago, University of Houston, National Center on Crime and Delinquency, SAMHSA LGBTQIA2S Work Group, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the True Colors Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign.
In the field, getREAL has done extensive work in California, including close partner Family Builders by Adoption to lead and manage a team of several state stakeholder groups. The getREAL work in California is managed by Project Director Vida Khavar, who oversees all activities in the state and has a seat on the California State Training and Education Committee, which coordinates all training for child welfare staff and partners. GetREAL’s California team also held a series of regional convenings to support policy and practice development across counties. GetREAL is also entering its sixth year of work with Allegheny County, PA, where the team has been field testing the Guidelines for Managing SOGIE Information. This sixth year will be focused on the completion of an assessment and evaluation of the progress made, the challenges faced, and the work necessary to build upon moving forward. As part of the next big phase of getREAL’s work, team members have already begun conversations about how to bring the lessons learned from the site work with Allegheny County to the broader child welfare field.
E Feinman is a program and research assistant at CSSP.