Saint Peter's teams with Rutgers to counsel LGBT families

May 1, 2014


Michael LaSala admits he was more than a bit skeptical when he was approached two years ago about starting a diocesan-backed program to assist families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Ronald C. Rak, president and chief executive of Saint Peter's Healthcare System in New Brunswick, N.J., had overheard a conversation LaSala and colleagues were having about the work they do with gay youth and their families at Rutgers University, where LaSala, author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child, is an associate professor and director of its master of social work program.

Rak tracked down LaSala to see if he would be interested in collaborating on a program to assist LGBT families at Saint Peter's Healthcare System.

"These adolescents are some of the most vulnerable members of society," said Rak. "Because of rejection by their families or society they could be forced into very difficult, unhealthy situations where they are at risk not just psychologically but also physically, where their health and well-being are compromised.

"That led me to think about our Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which are propagated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops." A principle tenet of the directives "is to reach out to the most vulnerable amongst us."

LaSala admits he had trouble believing Rak was serious. "I kept saying, 'Are you sure you know what you're doing? The Catholic Church has been seen, and has made statements, which indicate it is intolerant of LGBT people. If you stray from church doctrine, won't there be consequences?'" LaSala recalled. "And (Rak) just said, 'You don't know how far we have come.'"

Family solutions
In September, Saint Peter's Healthcare, in conjunction with Rutgers University School of Social Work, began collaborating on a research study to explore ways to help families adjust when a son or daughter comes out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. As part of the study, the program provides six, hour-long sessions of professional counseling for these families at Saint Peter's Family Health Care Center in New Brunswick. Participation in the program is free and confidential.

Known as New Brunswick Family Solutions, the goals of this program are to establish family therapy counseling for LGBT youth in a faith-based setting, to identify promising family therapy interventions for LGBT youth that increase family acceptance and support, and to disseminate the findings of the study among social service agencies, community health centers and both Catholic and other-than-Catholic houses of worship, in part to identify community needs and plan for improved services.

"We want to educate families and correct any of the myths they may have about LGBT people," said LaSala, adding that the program is open to people of all faiths, not just Catholics. "Hopefully, families can have healing conversations with each other, where they talk about their views and conflicts, and eventually feel some sense of comfort."

Measuring outcomes
LaSala explained that because there is a strong research component to the program, the outcome of each counseling session — as well as the overall treatment — needs to be evaluated. Therapists must be able to assess where these families began and where they end up.

To help with this process, extensive surveys are done before and after the completion of six weeks of treatment that measure family closeness and parental attitudes about their LGBT child. A brief questionnaire at the end of each session asks about its helpfulness, and what might be done to improve it.

Fresh perspective
"A big part of the sessions is helping clients to 'reframe' their negative thinking," explained Maggie Ryan, the clinical social worker contracted by Saint Peter's to spearhead the program's counseling sessions. "If parents describe their gay child's lifestyle as reckless and voice concern that as a Catholic, they fear their child may burn in hell, I will try to positively reframe what they are saying along the lines of, 'It sounds as if you care about your child very much, and you are worried.' As a therapist, I am trying to create a new way for people to look at things and define them."

Added LaSala: "In the very initial coming out process parents can't always be supportive of their children. They may have a very hard time. The children may need to get support from outside the family. Then, hopefully, depending on where the family is, they can all come together and talk and build more of a supportive relationship."

LaSala, who is gay, says "there is plenty of evidence" that shows LGBT children who are out to their parents, and whose parents are accepting, "are less likely to have mental health or substance abuse problems and engage in unsafe sexual behavior."

Serving the vulnerable
So far, the biggest hurdle has been attracting families to New Brunswick Family Solutions, where the operating budget is $10,100 for 2014. The program is being advertised through word of mouth, in church groups and through Saint Peter's. Since the program began, only three families have participated. The goal is to have a total of 20, hopefully by the end of the year.

"It could be people are suspicious of the program," said LaSala. "This isn't conversion therapy; we are not trying to change people from their true self."

Rak said Saint Peter's wouldn't have started the program without a "true theological analysis of what we are trying to do and its adherence to Catholic teaching," adding that it received "the stamp of approval" from Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen, which is the sponsor of Saint Peter's Healthcare System.

"I understand there are individuals who question this program and why we, as a Catholic institution, have embarked on this road," said Rak. "I would hope that before they come to judgment they would become educated in terms of the Catholic directive to care for the most vulnerable." Rak said the program was conceived and developed before the papal inauguration of Pope Francis, and added he "was touched and grateful for the Holy Father's implicit instructions that we are not to judge others but accept them for who they are, work to bring them into our church community and give them the dignity they deserve as a creature of God."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.