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Troubled teens finding this house can be a home

WALTHAM -- The Federal-style brick house at 409 Lexington St. does not stand out from the rest of its suburban neighborhood, but there's no other home like it in Massachusetts.

Two years ago it became Waltham House, the first group home in New England designed specifically for troubled teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. With capacity for only a dozen teens, counselors expected they would have to turn kids away.

But they were wrong. Only a trickle of referrals came in from the state Department of Social Services. The reason: a failure to communicate.

"We expected that as soon as we opened the program, the floodgates would open," said Jennifer Thomas, the clinical director at Waltham House, one of only three such programs in the country. "Then we realized that a lot of adults within the DSS system have no language to, have no way to, identify kids who are queer or GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender]."

Over the past six months, DSS workers have been trained in handling gender issues. And now, for the first time since it opened, there's a waiting list at Waltham House.

"It was appalling how none of [the DSS employees] were educated on any GLBT issues," said Karen Voorhees, program director for Waltham House. "If one out of 10 kids is going to be GLBT, they should have more training than they do."

The DSS has 2,300 youths living in group homes, according to spokeswoman Denise Monteiro, but doesn't track gender preference.

Teens who are referred to Waltham House often tell of harrowing experiences at their previous foster homes, schools, or residential facilities, said Voorhees.

One Waltham House resident, a gay boy, was kicked out of school for kissing a male classmate on the school bus, and then placed in a sex offender program, Voorhees said.

At another residential facility, counselors told a lesbian teenager not to talk about her attraction to girls.

Voorhees also tells of a foster parent who refused to accept a gay boy's effeminate mannerisms.

"The male parent tried to teach them to be real men, play sports, and told him to act more like a man -- in other words, be straight," said Voorhees. "Another kid continued to run away because the other boys who lived [at the home] ganged up on him and called him a faggot."

Waltham House is run by The Home for Little Wanderers, a private, nonprofit child welfare agency that assists children in state custody. Last year, the agency received a $41,000 grant from the Tides Foundation to teach DSS employees about issues that affect children who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or unsure about their sexual or gender identity.

"[Massachusetts is] the first state in the country to provide such training on a statewide level," said training director Carol Grady. Since the training started in January, DSS has made internal changes to improve its assistance to such youths, according to Grady. Many DSS offices have designated staffers to be liaisons specifically for gender issues.

"A lot of kids aren't going to come out to their social worker, unless they're asked the right questions," said Voorhees. "Most people assume that kids are straight, and they say things like, 'so, do you have a girlfriend, or do you have a boyfriend,' instead of asking, 'do you have someone special in your life,' so the kids know you're at least open to their response."

Half of the 3,400 employees at DSS have undergone training, said Monteiro, who added that the goal is for all social workers to be trained.

Waltham House is one of 250 group homes for youths in DSS custody. The state wants to reduce these residential homes by half, said Monteiro, and place more children in foster homes. Each child, she said, is treated on an individual basis.

"If a child was openly gay, and said 'I am who I am,' then we wouldn't place them in a home that has issues with gay children," she said.

Children are referred to Waltham House by DSS or the state Department of Mental Health, usually because of abuse, neglect, or family problems at home. The state pays Waltham House a daily rate to care for each teen.

The average length of stay at Waltham House is one year, said Thomas, who has been clinical coordinator since it opened in October 2002. In all, she said, 20 teens have stayed there.

"There is a lot of silence around these issues," said Thomas. "There are still some health care providers out there that will do conversion therapy, electroshock therapy, to change their feelings. That still happens. Not necessarily in Massachusetts, but there are still people in Massachusetts who feel we shouldn't talk about these issues with youth."

Thomas would like to see the Waltham House program expand to include a support group for parents.

Last week, state Representatives Martin J. Walsh and Elizabeth A. Malia visited Waltham House. Vanessa, a 17-year-old Waltham House resident, helped give the legislators a tour of the home.

When they reached the basement, another teen named Justin sat down at a Steinway & Sons piano and played for the guests, who later spoke with Waltham House staff and clients about the gay marriage issue.

Because Justin and Vanessa are minors in state custody, their last names and hometowns cannot be published.

Justin, 17, talks frankly about being transgender: "I know I am a male trapped inside a girl's body."

Justin had a different name once: Janet.

Back then, he attended Catholic school, where he was sometimes teased for his boyish haircut and mannerisms. When he was in seventh grade, Justin said, he was expelled for shaving his head.

Justin said his father drank too much, did drugs, and hit his mother. On top of all that, Justin found himself confused about who he was. He would go to parties and tell people he was a guy, introducing himself as Adam or Scott.

"I had no support, no knowledge, no education. I didn't have anybody," said Justin.

Today, Justin has a short spiky haircut, and shares a bedroom with male roommate. On a bulletin board in the hallway, his recent report card displayed As and Bs.

He has landed a part-time job at a fast food joint, and spends his free time riding his skateboard at the skate park downtown.

"I'm so happy I got put here. It's awesome here. I've learned a lot about myself," said Justin. "I came out, and I can be who I am."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

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