A longtime Ottawa foster parent and tireless advocate for LGBT youth who has trained other foster parents on how to be more inclusive is one of the recipients of this year's Community Safety Awards.
The awards, given out by Crime Prevention Ottawa, recognize people, organizations and programs who have helped prevent crime or made their communities safer.
Christine, 37, created the Rainbow Youth in Care Group and also launched a course to help other foster parents become more inclusive to LGBT youth.
She's receiving the Leadership Award. CBC is not using Christine's last name to protect the identity of the youth in her care.
Passion for fostering started with her own family
Christine, who identifies herself as queer, said she discovered a passion for fostering children almost by accident 14 years ago.
She had a young daughter at the time and her two nieces — then aged three and six — were entering the foster system. She took care of them until they returned home, and since then she's opened her door to more than 50 children, including many LGBT youth.
"I've always wanted a big family, in a sense, and this was an awesome way to have a ginormous family of extended kids that come and go," she said.
As far as I'm concerned, even just one youth not feeling safe, it's not OK. It's not enough. - Christine, a foster parent who has been an advocate for LGBT youth
"Of course, it is difficult when they do leave. But you know, it's often for great reasons, like returning back home or moving onto adoption or even onto independence. .... So it's always a happy ending. And you're just that bridge and that stable place for a time being."
Her penchant for welcoming LGBT teens drew the attention of the League of Ontario Foster Families (LOFF). Three years ago, they asked her to provide a course to foster families on how to be more inclusive, and since then she's taught around 200 foster parents and 50 Children's Aid Society staff.
Basic course makes a huge difference
It's already difficult for children and teens going into foster care, but LGBT youth face additional struggles — including having to come out to more people, Christine said.
While the foster system is fairly inclusive, there are little things that foster parents mistakenly assume when dealing with LGBT youth.
"So you have a female youth come in and you ask her, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' Right? Well, that's a basic question right there that you've just assumed that she would have a boyfriend," she said.
Instead, people should ask whether youth in foster care have a "partner" or a "girlfriend or a boyfriend," Christine said.
Not only is learning LGBT terminology important, she added, but so is ensuring foster parents are more queer-friendly and make their homes more queer-friendly.
It's something, she suggested, that can be as simple as displaying a pride flag.
Cassandra, 35, is one of the foster parents who took Christine's course.
While she has friends in the LGBT community, Cassandra said the course opened her eyes to the higher-than-average rates of suicide among LGBT youth and the problems with commonplace pronouns.
"We live in a world where it's always he, she," Cassandra said.
"And in [Christine's] training, we got to learn that, you know, you have to not necessarily judge or just assume that a youth or whomever you meet associates with the pronoun that they look like."
CBC is also not providing her last name to protect the youth in her care.
Awards presented tonight
Christine said she feels honoured to be receiving the award, and while she believes the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa is inclusive, the rest of society has a long way to go.
"We still live in a world where people do discriminate [based on] gender and sexual orientation. In a perfect world I would say yes, things are amazing and they're wonderful. But we haven't arrived there yet," she said.
"Some youth feel safe and feel protected. But we still have a handful of youth that don't. And as far as I'm concerned, even just one youth not feeling safe, it's not OK. It's not enough."
The Community Safety Awards will be presented in a ceremony today at Ottawa City Hall between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The recipients are:
- Community Program Award, MERIT
- Volunteer Award, Nicole Courchesne
- Landlord Award, Timbercreek Communities (Herongate)
- Justice Program Award, Ottawa Mental Health Court
- Youth Award, Sarah Becker
- Business Award, Circle K Stores
- Volunteer Program Award, Canadian Somali Mothers Association
- Leadership Award, Christine (last name withheld)
- Longstanding Contribution Award, National Capital Area Crime Stoppers