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Counseling changes lives at Ruth Ellis
By Crystal A. Proxmire
Originally printed 5/10/2012 (Issue 2019 - Between The Lines News)
A 14 year old kid from Detroit got busted for stealing. The judge put him on probation and he got caught stealing again. So what? Another bad kid, doing bad things, going through the system, right?
To a lot of people it can seem that way. With courtrooms and detention centers full of young people, probation officers overwhelmed with cases, schools that lack funding and sometimes safety, and parents who lack education, the problems of one petty thief may seem minuscule.
But when such a youth comes to Ruth Ellis Center for counseling, the pyramid of those factors reverses and the teen's needs are placed back on top. This is how lives can be changed.
Jessie Fullenkamp is one of four counselors at the center, which focuses on serving homeless and runaway LGBT youth. When the teen's file came across her desk, she immediately spotted the questions that others hadn't seemed to consider. She wanted to learn what the teen was stealing and why.
"A 14 year old can't always articulate what they are going through, and especially with LGBT youth, the language of what they're experiencing is all new to them," Fullencamp said. "It takes a while for them to open up. No one had ever asked what they were stealing, which was nailpolish and feminine clothing items.
"It wasn't that they were compulsive, and the family is not in need. The reason they were stealing is because their family would not let them buy clothing that they considered too feminine."
Fullenkamp said the teen hid their feelings about questioning their gender identiy. "All they've been told is they are deviant," she said. "How could they understand their desire, let alone explain it to a parent or probation officer?"
As counseling sessions progressed, Fullenkamp was able to help the family understand the youth's behavior. While acceptance is an on-going process, the parents were able to see how openness, communication and unconditional parental love can help the teen avoid further trouble with the law. According to the counselor, the family is taking small steps, and the youth is able to take feminine items from the clothes closet at the drop-in center.
"This young person could have avoided the criminal justice system," Fullenkamp said. "When you think of how much time, money and resources were spent on this young person, it's incredibly frustrating."
Counseling can play an integral role in helping people on all sides of a situation, such as a family striving to understand their gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning child. Cultural competency training for case workers, probation officers, judges, police, and even other counselors working on LGBT issues can go a long way in giving those in the criminal justice system tools to understand and prevent crime.
Fullenkamp wants to see more LGBT affirming counselors and allies, and said that something as small has having a rainbow sticker on an office door can let teens and others know that it is a safe space to open up. Asking clients about their sexual orientation and gender expression as part of early meetings can also give people the opportunity to open up.
"There was one young person who had been seeing another counselor for about two years, and I was asking them about the counselor and their experience. They seemed like a good counselor, and they helped the young person get their GED and a job. But there were times they missed their appointments. And they said 'Well, sometimes I forget to bring my boy clothes so I would skip.' This person wouldn't go to the appointment because the counselor didn't know she was presenting as a women, living as a woman, and she made the assumption that the counselor would not accept her, so she'd change into boy clothes just for her appointment.
"That counselor never did anything to indicate they would not be supportive, in fact, they could very well have been. But because the youth did not ever see any sign that they would be affirming, they were not wrong in assuming that they may not be safe."
At Ruth Ellis Center, most of the counseling is individual, and about a third is family counseling. "When you're working with youth it's important for parents to come in and be part of the process. Most parents aren't completely affirming, but we provide a space where they can come ask questions and recognize what is really helpful."
Mark B. Erwin, director of programs for Ruth Ellis, has noticed the effects of conseling. "There is a young person, 14 years old, who has been coming in for several months now. He has expressed concern about coming out to his father because he has heard mixed messages from him. The young person shared that he would hear his father say that he loved him no matter what one day, and the next day he would hear his father say that he has to stop acting like a girl.
"So, we mapped out what feeling loved and supported looks like to him so that he can articulate that to his father. We also did a cost-benefit analysis of what coming out vs. not coming out to his father looked like.
"Finally, we role played coming out. I asked the young person, 'How would you share that you identify as gay with your father?' The young person smiled and explained that he had practiced many times out loud when he is alone. So, he practiced coming out during counseling sessions and how he would respond to a variety of responses. One must be ready for the best possible response and the worst possible response while understanding that most likely the response will be somewhere in the middle."
"The young person expressed feeling more confident and ready to talk with their father. This is significant for many reasons; they are increasing their communication skills in ways that permeate all areas of their lives while also creating a space for self-determination around their identity and relationships," Erwin said.
The mental health program at Ruth Ellis Center is made possible by a contract with Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency. The contract allows the organization to provide individual and family counseling for youth between the ages of 7-17 who are Medicaid eligible and Wayne County residents.For more information on the Ruth Ellis Center, visit http://www.ruthelliscenter.org.