"Don't make me laugh," she scolds her peers playfully as she sits in the garden, behind the LGBT Center in Chelsea.
At age 18, Delilah has experienced more hardships and obstacles than many will experience in a lifetime.
Raised with her identical twin and their siblings by a single mother who, Delilah says, struggled to care for them all, the teen's family spent extended periods bouncing between homeless shelters while Delilah dealt with substance abuse.
She had her first drink in the seventh grade, abused drugs and alcohol as a young teen and eventually went through rehab. But life changed most drastically for Delilah in December 2012, when her mother placed her and her twin sister in foster care.
"It was because of a problem with my mom and we don't have family and she didn't want us anymore," says Delilah. "So we didn't have anywhere to go."
Worried she would not get along with foster parents, she chose to live in a group home.
Delilah is one of nearly 12,000 children* in the New York City foster care system. She is also one of an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent** of this population that identifies as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning).
As recently as a decade ago, LGBTQ youth in New York's foster-care system almost always found themselves isolated, scorned and discriminated against.
While circumstances for some LGBTQ children remain bleak, advocates for LGBTQ foster children say there's anecdotal evidence of improvement. Advocates also point to changing times – and a new city policy that requires foster parents and child welfare employees to undergo "LGBTQ-affirming" training that make them more sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ youth.
"I think it needs to be acknowledged that things are way better than they used to be," says Gary Mallon, executive director of the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, which works with LGBTQ youth in New York City. "Yeah, it's not as good as it should be but, I'll tell you, as someone who has been doing this since 1987, it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be."
Lawsuit triggered change
Mallon says the change for the better slowly began in the late 1990s after the Urban Justice Center filed a class-action suit on behalf of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth who had experienced psychological and physical abuse in the city's child welfare system. Though the suit, according to Lambda Legal, was eventually absorbed into a larger lawsuit addressing a broader range of issues within New York City foster care, Mallon and advocates say it laid the groundwork for the city's Administration for Children's Services to eventually change agency policy.
But drastic reform would still not come for nearly a decade. Children in group homes and living with foster families continued to suffer.
A 2001 report by the Urban Justice Center found that 100 percent of LGBTQ youth surveyed in New York City group homes reported being verbally harassed by their peers and facility staff due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some 70 percent reported suffering physical violence.
Unrelated to the suit, a turning point for LGBTQ youth in care came in April 2002 when the City Human Rights Law was amended. "Gender" was redefined to include actual or perceived sex or gender, whether or not it conformed to the typical norms placed on a person's assigned sex at birth.
The law prohibited city agencies and city contractors from discriminating on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. This extended to LGBTQ youth in city foster care.
Four years later, then-Deputy Commissioner for The Division of Family Court Legal Services Ron Richter suggested that ACS review its policies to ensure that LGBTQ youth and families were being protected. (Richter, an openly gay man, eventually served as ACS commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg.) ACS then teamed with community advocates and contract providers to develop a strategic plan to improve services to LGBTQ youth. Further progress came in the form of additional policy tweaks in 2009 and again in 2011.
But concrete systemic change came in September 2012 when the LGBTQ Policy and Practice Office was established within ACS. The office's mission is to make sure LGBTQ youth receive the services and protection they need without the agency leaning on outside advocates for assistance.
Two months later, ASC issued a policy overhaul that focused on collecting data about LGBTQ youth in foster care. The policy also mandated training to teach foster parents and employees how to interact with youth in a more "LGBTQ-affirming" manner. The sessions, required every two years, include training on use of proper LGBTQ terminology and preferred gender pronouns, among other issues specific to the LGBTQ youth population. The goal is for everyone to have received basic training by November 2014.
Religious views can clash
But challenges exist in training more than 3,000 employees. Finding enough qualified instructors is difficult. As foster care agencies determine how they will train their staff, a consortium of 12 trainers from across New York City is helping to pick up the slack.
One of these trainers, Sarah Mikhail, spends much of her time at foster care agencies providing them with ACS-approved curriculum. Mikhail is the program coordinator for the LGBT Foster Care Project, a partnership between ACS and The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center that works to increase the number of LGBTQ-affirming foster care homes in the city.
Despite a policy that strictly prohibits child welfare employees from imposing personal or religious beliefs on youth or their families, it is still often hard for some to separate their feelings from their professional work, says Mikhail. Personal biases and religious beliefs exhibited by caseworkers can have a negative effect on a child's well being – leaving a youth who might already be emotionally struggling feeling isolated and alone, she added.
"People need to change their attitudes and set those beliefs aside, really understand the importance of this work," says Mikhail.
Nazira Jean-Baptiste, 18, expressed frustration in his dealing with caseworkers who kept speaking about his situation in religious context. His experience came after he came out at age 16 as transgender to his mother and found a relationship that he once describes as "near perfect," shattered.