Beyond Vassar

Foster Care: Opening Doors for LGBTQ Youth

By Eric Marcus '80

Years before a series of headline-grabbing suicides catapulted antigay bullying and other struggles of gay teens into the national consciousness, attorney Mimi Laver ’87 was working to make things better for some of the country’s most vulnerable young people. It was the stories of individual LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) foster teens that drove Laver. “There was one teen in Tennessee,” she recalls, “who came out as lesbian to the foster family that was going to adopt her and instead they put her out of the house.”

To help improve the prospects for LGBTQ foster children, Laver, who is director for legal education for the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law, co-created the Opening Doors Project six years ago. The program’s goal is to improve how the legal system deals with LGBTQ youth in foster care.

The Opening Doors Project grew out of a colleague’s failed effort to secure funding for a social science study of LGBTQ foster kids. Laver, a mother of two who majored in psychology while at Vassar, made the proposed study more “practice-focused” and landed an anonymous donor. The donor, Laver says, had already established that it was much harder for gay teens in foster care than for other young people. And while a handful of agencies were working with gay foster kids, no one was working with the judges and lawyers who were making decisions about what services to provide and where to place them. To assess how best to help her colleagues in the legal profession, Laver surveyed a select group.

Through their research, Laver’s team also discovered what these young people were up against. All foster teens, Laver notes, face a greater risk of homelessness, substance abuse, depression, and suicide attempts. For LGBTQ foster teens, the risks are even greater because all too often their special needs and concerns are overlooked. She cites the examples of a six-year-old whose file said he was gay, “long before he even knew what gay was,” and a transgender teen placed in a coed group home that had no policies regarding bathroom and sleeping arrangements. Laver explains, “The home had one floor for girls and another for boys. Because they had no idea what to do with the transgender teen, they gave the teen a place to sleep on the staircase landing between the two floors.”

Laver never doubted her colleagues would be receptive to the range of services and tools she and her team developed, including an extensive guide for lawyers and judges. The problem, Laver says, was how to get the word out. This past April, Laver launched a companion campaign, “The Kids Are Listening,” with the help of Amy York Rubin ’05, a digital media producer and co-founder of Strategic Productions, a company that produces “creative content and digital strategy.”

Their joint efforts generated “The Kids Are Listening” campaign and video ( The emotionally powerful minute-long video (shown above) features four young people wearing headphones and listening to a string of antigay comments they’re likely to overhear or be told directly. Midway through, each is approached by an adult—a judge, a lawyer, a coach, and a parent—who removes the headphones. The video’s key message, Laver says, is that adults can make a positive difference in the lives of all LGBTQ kids right now.

Since the campaign’s introduction, two new Opening Doors local task forces have been formed. There also have been 5,000 supporter sign-ups on the companion website and more than 25,000 video views. Laver explains, “The video provides the emotional hook to bring people in, and using social media—including Facebook and Twitter—has connected people to an issue they care about but didn’t know much about before.”

Despite the project’s success, Laver sees no reason to rest on her laurels because the stakes remain so high. “By helping our legal community better understand the young people who need our help,” she says, “we can save lives.”

Eric Marcus ’80, is the author of several books, including What If Someone I Know Is Gay? and Why Suicide? He blogs at