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Monday 08 November 2010

Gay couple allege CYF discrimination

Posted in: Community
By Jacqui Stanford - 23rd September 2010

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A gay Upper Hutt couple have lodged a Human Rights Commission complaint, alleging they have been discriminated against by Child, Youth and Family because of their sexuality, something CYF denies.

For just under two years, Wayne Jackson and Jamie Blake have been whanau caregivers for a teenage cousin of Blake's. The teenager's mother was killed in a car accident and his father has indicated he wants nothing to do with him. The 16-year-old suffers from a number of behavioural problems.

Three days after he was put in their care the men were told someone had approached CYF with concerns about their suitability, particularly Blake's fitness as a caregiver, due to a history of drug use, criminal convictions and transience.

The men are determined that the investigation into their suitability was fuelled by a close friend of the family and that two social workers 'twisted words' of those who were interviewed.

They believe their sexuality unnecessarily came into the investigation, with Jackson writing a complaint letter to Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. "The main investigating social worker on a number of times made me and Jamie feel like we were the worst people on the planet because of our past convictions, and we were told by a couple of people she interviewed that comments were made in relation to our sexual orientation," he wrote.

He went on to say, "with my ex-employer, he has told us she (the social worker) fuelled questions, twisted his words and made it look like he had said I was a predator around younger children and the elderly."

The final draft report recommended the teenager be taken out of their care as the social worker felt the men were unsuitable to look after him. Jackson says they fought that recommendation with support from the boy's school and members of his family – and CYF management finally decided to leave him in their care, despite the recommendation of the investigation.

Jackson says they then concentrated on helping the boy with his ongoing behavioural problems, which included ADHD and Serious Conduct Disorder. They say it was a struggle and the teenager continued posing problems at his school. He was eventually removed from the school and the couple found a course for him at a local marae. But the men say the boy's social worker has visited the course and brought up their sexuality with the teenager's tutors.

Jackson and Blake are now seeking full custody of the boy in the Family Court.

In November 2009 the two men were offered a job at Youth Horizon Trust, a non-profit group which works with at-risk youth, to care for another boy. When the second boy was about to fully move in with the pair, they say he was uplifted from their care. Jackson says they fought to get him back in their care in meetings which were held between CYF and Youth Horizon management.

Jackson writes in his letter to Bennett that Youth Horizon had documented a few weeks prior to the second boy staying, that CYF had raised concerns with their sexuality. He says Youth Horizon told he and Blake that CYF was worried, as CYF had been told the boy had previously been sexually molested and so it was worried how the placement would go.

Jackson says they were given mixed messages from the boy's social worker about the cancelled placement, being told it was because they already had one teenager, and also that 'someone' had issues about gay people looking after children. He believes the boy was removed because of their sexuality, despite CYF upper management stating it was simply because they had not been approved as full caregivers.

"We strongly feel we have been discriminated against because we are gay. [CYF] upper management have tried to sweep it under the table. However management are not at ground level of the department and cannot say it simply does not happen. It has, more than once and we are sick of it," Jackson tells

He says it has been 18 months of hell. "Starting back in 2008 till now we have had to put up with snide remarks, jokes about our sexuality and it has made us feel like we have some sort of disease, for a while I started thinking that maybe because I am gay I should stop looking after these children and at times I feel like maybe we are being looked at from the ministry as predators towards children.

"All we want is to look after and help these children that everyone else would give up on."

Blake agrees, "We now feel like failures and feel like we are not worthy. It has taken a lot out of us and now we are constantly stressed.

"We are good at what we do. The kids all respond to us well, not just the ones living with us, but also the kids in the community."

Neither is happy with CYF's responses to their concerns they have been discriminated against.

Currently the Human Rights Commission is arranging mediation with CYF, but Jackson says they are not holding out hope, which is why they have also written to Bennett.

CYF's response:

Child, Youth and Family is adamant the men were not approved as caregivers to the second boy because of concerns about their suitability, due to their convictions and other issues. It says none of these concerns had anything to do with their sexuality.

"Child, Youth and Family does not discriminate against gay couples and a number of gay and lesbian couples are approved whanau and CYF caregivers," says Central Regional Director Helen Aiken.

Aiken says Jackson and Blake were approved as whanau caregivers to look after Blake's cousin in late 2008. She says soon afterwards, CYF was approached with concerns about their suitability and an investigation was undertaken.

"Some of the concerns were substantiated, but because the young person had settled well with the pair and wanted to stay, it was ultimately decided he would remain there," she says.

"At the same time CYF clarified that the caregiver status held by Mr Jackson and Mr Blake was for the cousin only."

Aiken says CYF did not support a subsequent application for the pair to become general CYF caregivers, which the couple was told in February

"They were advised that this was because of previous convictions for theft of property, shoplifting/theft, breach of community work and drink driving. There have been other issues which have also caused concern."

Aiken says in March Jackson and Blake met with the Regional Operations Manager Chris Harvey to discuss this. She says following the meeting they sent an email confirming they understood CYF's decision and would not be able to cope with caring for another child.

"Several recent events have resulted in us offering the 16-year-old cousin another placement until issues have been resolved but he has been reluctant to leave and at this stage remains in the couple's care," she says.

"We remain keen to support Mr Jackson and Mr Blake in their role as caregivers for Mr Blake's cousin and acknowledge the effort they have so far put into his care. At the same time we are confident that we have taken the appropriate actions in this, quite complex, case."

Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights Commission confirms it has received a complaint from a couple who claim they were discriminated against as caregivers by Child, Youth and Family because of their sexual orientation. The HRC says it has assessed the complaint as a potential issue of unlawful discrimination and has offered to mediate the dispute.

Where to from here?

The men's allegations of discrimination are chiefly based on their experiences with CYF social workers at ground level; with upper management making it clear the agency does not discriminate against gay couples.

CYF, of course, has to be incredibly cautious about the homes in which it places the children in its care. It is adamant the men were not approved as caregivers to the second boy purely because they were not deemed suitable due to their pasts.

Jackson and Blake admit they are no angels, conceding they have made huge mistakes.

"Our mistakes from the past continue to haunt us and this is one of the reasons we try to help kids in trouble. We know what it was like and know exactly where these kids are coming from," Jackson says.

Currently they are fostering Blake's cousin, plus two other children who are not part of CYF, working with counsellors and other agencies to help rebuild their family relationships.

There is no doubting the gay couple's passion for helping troubled and at-risk youth. Whether their sexuality was unnecessarily brought into the equation by CYF social workers, or whether they simply were not suitable, will be a complicated issue for the Human Rights Commission to mediate, in what CYF itself describes as a "quite complex case".

That process could take some time. In the meantime Jackson and Blake are not sitting on their hands. They want to start a support group for young people who are in family homes or have been kicked out of home. They are also hoping to open a youth centre in the Hutt Valley, if they can get enough community support to do so.

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Jacqui Stanford - 23rd September 2010