New Jersey state officials say they have begun to find homosexual foster parents for homosexual teen-agers whose natural parents are unwilling or unable to care for them.
Moreover, the officials say, the unorthodox approach to a persistent dilemma seems to be working well.
"Some heterosexual foster parents just can't deal with the kinds of problems these [homosexual] kids have, and some of these kids don't function well with other kids in foster families," explained Anne Burns, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Services.
She said the state set up its first gay foster home in 1975, and that it has two such homes now. New Jersey is believed to be the only state to have tried the arrangement, which experts have had little opportunity to study.
The Department of Human Services had no record of how many teen-agers have lived in a gay foster home. Burns said her office could learn only that the number, although small, has been growing. She had no estimate of the number of gays among 9,100 New Jersey children in foster care. The youngesters placed in gay foster homes range in age from 13 to 17.
"It's still fairly new to us," she said "But this situation has been coming up more and more lately, with an increase in the number of gay kids we're dealing with, and an increased recognition of the situation by professionals."
She said the state puts the teen-agers with gay foster parents only after obtaining their natural parents' consent, and only if the youngester themselves understand that the foster parents are homosexual. All of the teen-agers in such cases "have a well-established homosexual orientation and are experienced sexually," she added.
Given those guidelines, a gay foster home "might not be an undesirable situation," commented Dr. Aaron H. Esman, a prominent child psychiatrist in New York City.
"You'd want to be cautions about which youngsters you'd put in such homes," said Esman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Cornell Medical College. "For young adolescents, the pattern of sexual orientation might not be fixed, and that kind of placement might tend to fix it as homosexual.
"My only plea," he continued, "would be to have these cases screened and evaluated very carefully, probably by someone trained in child and adolescent psychiatry."
Burns said psychiatric evaluations are being considered as an addition to the present guidlines for placement in a gay foster home.
Foster care in New Jersey is administered by the Department of Human Services' Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) through offices in each of the state's 21 counties.
Burns, declining to give many details about the gay foster homes, said both are administered by a DYFS office "somewhere in southern New Jersey." bOne is run by a lesbian couple while the other is run by a single lesbian.
The lesbian couple have been foster parents for four years, Burns said. Their first foster child, apparently an acquaintance, was a runaway boy who already was living with them when the state came into the case. After approving that arrangement, DYFS placed several other homosexual adolescents, with the same couple, Burns said.
Burns said, "There is no indication that a gay foster parent is more likely to sexually abuse a child than a heterosexual foster parent." Still DYFS is not actively recruting homosexuals as foster parents, she said.
Foster parents receive monthly fees, usually about $200 per month per child.
The reasons New Jersey places some homosexual teen-agers in foster care mirror the reasons for placing any adolescent: abuse abandonment or neglect by their parents; illness of natural parents; and the waiting time for placement with adoptive parents.
It is not uncommon for child-welfare agencies to match children with foster parents on the basis of race, religion, or language. As for matching homosexual teen-agers with homosexual foster parents, officials of two national child-advocacy organizations said they knew of no precedent for it.
"In some cases, it might make a lot of sense," said Emily Gardener, of the Child Welfare League in New York City. However, neither she nor Mary Lee Allen, a foster care expert with the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, had heard of the New Jersey approach being used anywhere else in the nation.