BY AJ TRAGER
DETROIT – Every year nonprofits around the state hold their annual fundraisers to thank their donors and to celebrate the work that had been accomplished over the previous year. Voices 2015, Ruth Ellis Center’s evening event held at the Waterview Loft at Port Detroit, included a silent auction, open bar, appetizers, performance by Bruce Vilanch and a youth film screening with keynote address given by REC Executive Director, Jerry Peterson.
Hundreds of community members attended the evening celebration to honor the services that REC provides to nearly 500 LGBT youth every year. For some, the center may be an opportunity to get a hot meal or a hot shower, but for others the center may provide a safe space. And for some in the foster care of the juvenile justice system, REC becomes their home.
Two out of every five homeless youth and one out of every five youth in the child welfare system across the nation identifies as LGBT. LGBT youth are over-represented in the juvenile justice system and in the identity-to-prison pipeline, where young people are judged and punished on the basis of who they are and the circumstances of their family or identity.
“If we are in fact ever going to lessen the number of LGBT youth that end up being rejected by their families and not having opportunities for the future, we have got to move beyond providing the basic needs services for youth who are out of homes. We have got to move forward and connect with systems and with families before they are separated from one another through whatever process,” Peterson pressed.
To implement this strategy, Peterson announced a new contract beginning Oct. 1, with the Wayne County Department of Health and Human Services, where two REC staff train 320 CPS workers with the goal of reducing the rejecting behaviors of the family, increase safety and permanency for the youth in the home and make sure youth are provided opportunities to stay with their family of origin.
Wayne County CPS workers will learn how to recognize abuse and neglect of the youth in response to the sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The identified families may be referred to REC for up to 13 months of intensive services with 24-hour availability to a family advocate. The director of the Wayne County DHHS has agreed to make six hours of the training mandatory for all CPS workers in the district.
Youth Programs Director Jessie Fullenkamp introduced a screening of a short educational film produced by the youth leadership and advocacy group of the participatory research project that shared what is important in the activist life of the center’s young people. The documentary showcased unique LGBT youth experiences when interacting with the child welfare system and how CPS policies towards the treatment of LGBT youth can be improved.
Through direct service and advocacy, Ruth Ellis Center will expand its relationship with the Department of Human Services through the family and group decision making project, which will look at youth and their families who are in the system so that they maintain heathy and supportive connections and ideally stay in the home. Josh and Christian, youth highlighted in the film, received certificates of recognition directly following the showing.
“I honor you – we honor you – and all of the other people who come and benefit from Ruth Ellis Center. So, I thank you on their behalf for being here, for showing up, for finding your voice, for finding a way to speak out and make sure that the resources are available so that deserving young people in our community can have order to help stabilize their lives and maximize their potential,” Peterson said to Josh and Christian.
The Ruth’s Angel Award is given out every year to an individual whose contributions to the center and its mission exceed all expectations. This year’s award went to Cynthia Smith, MSW, chief executive officer of Assured Family Services, a Michigan nonprofit provider of juvenile justice and child welfare neglect assessment and treatment services. Along with her professional success, Smith is the co-author of “Advocating Success – A Groundbreaking Approach to Juvenile Justice,” a handbook that provides the foundation for policy direction and vendor accountability in a performance-based juvenile services system.
Lead sponsors for this year’s Voices event include: LEAR Corporation, Quicken Loans, Bank of America, EY, Strategic Staffing Solutions, PNC Bank, Henry Grix & Howard Israel, Jeff Antaya & Peter Rosenfeld, Comerica Bank, General Electric GLBTA alliance, MGM Grand Detroit, Allen Brothers, WDET Detroit, St. John Providence and Pridesource Media Group. Centerpieces were donated by Wesley Berry Flowers and silent auction staging was provided by Lisa Gift Wrappers.