CASA Volunteer Spotlight: Kathy Bolton & Rosa

Content Warning: This story touches on the topics of suicide and self-harm.

Rosa* and her younger sister came into foster care due to physical abuse by their father. Early on in the case, her sister was safely able to go back home. Rosa, however, remained in foster care.

Why? Because she was transgender.

Assigned male at birth and raised as a boy, deep down, Rosa knew she was a girl. When she came out to her parents, they were extremely rejecting, as it went against their cultural and religious values. Unable to reconcile their beliefs or come to terms with their son being their daughter, they refused to accept that what she was going through was real, even going so far as to claim that she was possessed.

This is not an uncommon scenario for transgender and gender-expansive youth in the foster care system. A high number of children in care identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), due in part to the fact that coming out to family members can lead to harassment, abuse and even, like in Rosa’s case, full-on rejection. And once these kids are in care, they face all the same challenges as their non-LGBTQ peers – but with the added fear of further rejection, abuse and harassment due to their identity.

In Kathy Bolton’s 6 years as a CASA volunteer, she has served about 30 children.

Rosa’s time in foster care wasn’t easy, but she did have an advocate on her side – CASA for Hunt County volunteer Kathy Bolton.

The first time they met, Bolton recalled, she took Rosa out to lunch, and then they spent the day walking along the beach in Corpus Christi getting to know each other. It was clear that Rosa felt alone, and thought she, like so many other people in her life, would be against her. Knowing this, Bolton made sure to let Rosa know from the very beginning that she was an ally for her, 100 percent. She was respectful of her identity, taking care to use the correct gender pronouns and refer to her by her chosen name.

“Being transgender… it’s not something people choose,” Bolton said. “I let [Rosa] know that, first and foremost, she’s a person.

During the year and a half that Kathy was on her case, Rosa was typically placed in group homes, which can be an especially dangerous situation for transgender youth. She acted out and ran away often. She also struggled with self-harm and suicidal thoughts. There were “just a lot of ups and downs that kept her from really being in a safe place,” Bolton said.

Through the good and the bad, Bolton remained a steadfast and affirming advocate for Rosa – giving her a place where she could fully be herself, and never losing sight of fighting for her best interest, safety and well-being.

Considering her family’s rejecting attitude towards her transition, it would have been easy for many to dismiss the idea of Rosa reunifying with them. But, knowing how critical even the smallest steps towards family acceptance can be for children, Bolton worked hard to meet Rosa’s parents where they were at and keep them engaged in conversation. Without excusing the physical and emotional abuse, she helped them better understand what their child was going through.

She also had serious discussions with Rosa, updating her on her conversations with her parents and asking her how she would feel about the idea of going back home, assuming her parents could move to a more tolerant place and ensure a safe environment.

After time and intensive counseling, her parents did come to a more accepting place – and Rosa came to a place where she felt that she could come back home. The family was reunified. The situation isn’t perfect, as Rosa’s parents are not 100% affirming of her identity. They do, however, allow her to present gender neutrally rather than as a boy, and they have agreed to refer to her by a neutral name that she has chosen. “A little give and a little take,” as Bolton put it.

Reflecting on the case, CASA for Hunt County Executive Director Lori Cope said that Bolton played an indispensable role in acting as a go-between for Rosa and her parents, always keeping her best interest at the forefront while facilitating difficult but necessary conversations on both sides.

“Kathy was a CASA that just hung in there and worked with this child, and really kept in sight best interest,” Cope said. “She would even talk to this child about, ‘What are you willing to do to be back with your family, and is that in your best interest?’”

When youth like Rosa are rejected by their families, it can be incredibly difficult for them to develop a healthy sense of self-worth and identity – running the risk of falling into the reasoning that “If your mom feels that way, your dad feels that way, then surely the rest of the world does, too,” as Bolton described. But even the smallest steps away from rejection and towards acceptance can be critical, and Rosa’s story is an example of that shift in action.

“The need for acceptance is so important that even if you might not agree or understand, it’s still a child that is going through trauma, difficulty and changes,” she said. “For one, it lets them know that they are not hated, not rejected, they do have some value, the parents are not regretting the fact that they were ever born.”

By accepting and celebrating kids like Rosa for who they are, and helping others to do the same, CASA volunteers and other advocates can make a world of difference.

“[Transgender] kids need extra attention and compassion and understanding, because there’s so many that are already against them… the world seems to be against them,” Bolton said. “They need a cheerleader by their side to encourage them and let them know they are valuable.”

*Name changed for privacy.

According to research by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), “family acceptance in adolescence is associated with young adult positive health outcomes (self esteem, social support, and general health) and is protective for negative health outcomes (depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and attempts).” FAP research shows that even just a little change towards being more accepting for parents, foster parents, guardians and caregivers can reduce a young person’s risk for negative outcomes. Learn more in FAP’s Practice Brief.