Team Spotlight: Abraham Santana, MSW, on Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Youth

Child Center of NY Social Worker Abraham Santana works with LGBTQ+ youth at the Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside, Queens

Abraham, a social worker at The Child Center of NY

The Child Center began in 1953 as a single children’s counseling center, based on ideas that were ahead of their time: that children could need mental health services; that serving whole families is a critical component of serving children; and that serving the larger community is at the crux of it all. Seventy years later, we remain as committed as ever to serving the communities—geographic and social—that need us.

Right now, the LGBTQ+ community needs us. There has been a rise in discriminatory legislation, with many anti-LGTBTQ+ bills passing at the state level. There’s no doubt that our society has made great strides toward true inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks, and people are more accepting than they were when The Child Center began 70 years ago; but as we observe Pride Month this year, we also must acknowledge that we are nowhere near where we need to be—and our LGBTQ+ youth are feeling it.

The CDC recently released The Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011–2021, which offers data and patterns in health behaviors and experiences among 17,508 high school students in 152 schools in the United States. The report reveals that LGBTQ+ teens are among the subsets that are in crisis. In 2021, more than 1 in 10 LGBTQ+ students did not go to school because of safety concerns; nearly 1 in 4 experienced sexual violence, and nearly 1 in 4 were bullied at school. In that same year, almost half of LGBTQ+ students seriously considered attempting suicide, nearly 1 in 4 attempted suicide, and nearly 3 in 4 reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The numbers are staggering, and our children are suffering. Clearly, we need to do more.

At The Child Center, we are doing everything we can to support our LGBTQ+ youth throughout our six lines of business. One clinician who is on the front lines of this endeavor is Abraham Santana, MSW. Abraham is a social worker at our Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside, Queens, where he works with young people from diverse backgrounds such as Jonathan. Abraham also organizes an LGBTQ+ support group for teens. Here’s what Abraham has to say about why the group is important—and what we all can do to support our LGBTQ+ youth.

The Child Center of NY: Why does the Cohen Family Wellness Center offer an LGBTQ+ group?

Abraham Santana, MSW: This curriculum was first created by Diane Valente, LCSW, and the first group ran in May 2019. It ran sporadically during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there recently have been individuals requesting an LGBTQ+ group at the center. The difficulties we encountered in re-launching the group reflect just how hard things can be for LGBTQ+ youth—and why the group is needed. For example, it was difficult to even name the group. That’s because some members of the group have not come out yet to their families. We couldn’t put “LGBTQ+” in the name of the group for fears of youth getting in trouble, difficulties with expression of identity, and other issues that LGBTQ+ youth deal with every day.

What are some of the issues that the group helps LGBTQ+ youth address? 

This session began last month, and we are still in the building trust stage. The group has been able to reflect on and share experiences related to do’s and don’ts, pronouns, and questions regarding reflection of the coming out process.

During the first session, some group members were very shy and had questions regarding how the group would be run. I made sure to convey that this group was a safe space for all of them, regardless of what their individual situation was and where they were in the process of figuring things out. Many have expressed feeling limited, unheard, or voiceless. I want this group to be an opportunity for growth for all of them.

Why did you decide to facilitate this group?

I decided to lead the group because I am a part of the LGBTQ+ community and share a lot of lived experiences with participants. I know what it is to struggle for many years, not having a support system, and having to figure things out on my own. In running the group, I want to connect with young teens who have difficulty with understanding the terms and trying to be the best at what they can. I believe the group is needed, especially in this day in age, to be a safe space, allowing teens to determine on their own if they want labels or when is the right time to come out.

What can everyday people do to support LGBTQ+ youth?

I believe that we are all human beings and should be able to be culturally competent. To support LGBTQ+ youth, it’s important to meet them where they are, not be judgmental, and understand that they face many battles every day of having to retell their stories to individuals who don’t understand, question, and challenge their identity. Support consists of positive communication, advocacy, and creating welcoming and safe spaces. Use your voice to support the community—and truly listen when our LGBTQ+ youth use theirs.


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