Connecticut's Unique Alliance With LGBTQ+ Support Organization, True Colors, Inc.

True Colors Logo

Since 1999, the year True Colors incorporated as a nonprofit, the advocacy, education and support organization for LGBTQ+ youth has been a vitally important partner for the Department of Children and Families. 

The Department's involvement with LGBTQ+ issues, however, goes back even before True Colors was established by its executive director, Robin McHaelen. In 1994, the Department was one of the first co-sponsors of an annual conference to support LGBTQ+ youth that continued each year right through 2019. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the streak of in-person conferences this year. But True Colors - despite the lack of any notice -- quickly pivoted and is now offering a six-week series of "mini-cons" every Friday from 2 to 4 pm ending June 26. YouTube videos and a Facebook Live event are made available that can be accessed -- along with many other educational and support resources – at  True Colors Premier Channel


Ms. McHaelen (see sidebar) said the conference grew out of her field work project when she was obtaining her master's degree in social work from the University of Connecticut. A needs analysis showed that only two local organizations in Connecticut existed to support LGBQ+ youth and that a statewide approach was sorely needed. While the conference was initially conceived as a one-time event, it grew into True Colors, an organization that continues to robustly serve LGBTQ+ youth still today. 

"True Colors exists to support a world where LGBTQ+ youth thrive," Ms. McHaelen said. "True Colors works Robinto ensure LGBTQ+ youth — of all backgrounds — are safe, valued, and able to be their authentic selves. We do this by providing education, advocacy, and support to LGBTQ+ youth, their families, communities, and those who work with them."

Indeed, the need to serve this population is great. According to a 2019 study in the Journal Pediatrics conducted by university researchers, about 30 percent of children in foster care identified as LGBTQ+ as did 25 percent of youth with unstable housing. The research, which was based on surveys of California middle and high school students, also found that LGBTQ+ youth report more fights in school, victimization and mental health problems compared to heterosexual youth in foster care.

Ms. McHaelen said True Colors works with schools, families, communities of faith, local, state and federal agencies and officials, and policy makers. Staffed with only four full-time and one part-time employees, it has a volunteer board of directors, numerous student interns, and scores of volunteers. It's budget of just under $700,000 includes funding from the Department as well as private and corporate donors. 

Rovin McHaelenMcHaelen said the partnership between True Colors and the Department is unique. She said Connecticut is "above the curve in having a child welfare agency acknowledging the unique needs of LGBTQ+ youth." She said that Connecticut and Massachusetts were early to the job of focusing on this population and stood out from the rest of the nation. "There is still work to do," she said. "But there is a real commitment from Connecticut's leadership."

Below is a description of each of True Color's six programs as provided by Ms. McHaelen:

One-on-One Mentoring Program
Across the nation, there are only two LGBTQ+ mentoring programs, and True Colors offers one of them. More than 60 Connecticut youth benefit from one-on-one mentoring with trained and screened adults through weekly group activities such as game nights, movie nights, dances, and more. These activities provide the opportunity for healthy peer interactions and social development, which are key components of adolescent development that are often missing for LGBTQ+ youth. During the COVID pandemic, this service has been provided remotely, Ms. McHaelen said.  This program is funded through the Department as well as private foundations such as the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Annual Conference

True Color's oldest and best-known program, the annual conference is now the largest and most comprehensive LGBTQ+ youth issues conference in the nation. More than 3,500 youth, educators, social workers, clinicians, family members and clergy participate in more than 250 workshops, films, activities and events over the course of the 2 or 3-day event.  School groups participate from more than half of the communities in CT, as well from across the Northeast and the entire nation. This program is funded through conference registrations, co-sponsorships, ads and donations.

Youth Leadership Development
When True Colors began work with schools and school environments in 1994, there were only four gay/straight alliances in Connecticut. Now there are more than 160. True Colors had a hand directly or indirectly in the development of most of them.  Over the last 22 years, True Colors has conducted dozens of summits, forums and trainings for youth, which has helped launch and maintain programs in their school.  In addition, the organization created various leadership development curricula for its organizers and volunteers. Most recently, True Colors has created a six-week, on-site training program to give young activists the tools they need to advocate for themselves and others.   This program is funded through private foundations and individual donors.

Safe Harbors Task Force/Foster Parent Recruitment
Supported through an agreement with the Department, Safe Harbors includes policy, programming and advocacy work. True Colors manages a statewide task force focused on the needs of LGBT youth in out-of- home care, including foster care, congregate care, and youth in the juvenile justice system. In addition, Safe Harbors recruits foster parents for teens of all orientations and genders and have helped find homes for more than 20 youth over the last few years.  This program is funded by the Department.

Cultural Competency Training
True Colors' values and cultural competency training curriculum has been nationally recognized and is the only curriculum the Child Welfare League of America has ever published.  True Colors trains approximately 6,500 youth-serving professionals a year.

Spiritual Institute
The Spiritual Institute began in 2009 and focuses on the spiritual needs of LGBTQ+ youth. Its primary mission is to help create safe and affirming spaces in which LGBTQ+ youth can do their spiritual work.  The Institute is a collaboration of clergy, lay leaders, and individuals. Together this group has organized a conference and hosted community conversations across the state.