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LA developing national model to help LGBT foster kids

Transgender teen Juana Zacharias, 18, lives in a group home in Oxnard, California.
Transgender teen Juana Zacharias, 18, lives in a group home in Oxnard, California.
Leo Duran/KPCC

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Juana Zacharias is 18, and she's like other teenage girls her age.

She loves make-up, has a closet overflowing with cute clothes and talks about how to date a Latina like her ("Just give us the password to your phone and a bag of hot Cheetos, we’ll be totally good.")

But Juana isn't like most girls – she’s trans. She is also a foster child who lives at a group home in Oxnard with five other kids.

She's one of over 400,000 foster children in America. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of those kids identify as LGBT according to UCLA – which is double the rate of LGBT kids outside the foster care system.

Juana spent the last seven years in the system, herself, after her father passed away and her mother rejected her, moving from group home to group home.

"My first group home I didn’t identify as a transgender because I was scared," she says. "All my girl clothes? I kind of made them into guy clothes."

Experts say it would be better if foster children like Juana lived with foster parents.

"You need to go home to Thanksgiving. You need somebody to take you to the dentist or the airport," says foster care expert Khush Cooper.

But kids like Juana had problems finding parents – sometimes even group homes – who are accepting.

"The probation officers even said to me it’s hard to find a placement for you because you’re transgender. A lot of people don’t want transgenders," says Juana.

Los Angeles has been testing out ways to change that, but the future of those programs is uncertain.

What social workers don't know about LGBT kids

California lawmakers passed a law in 2012 that requires providers and caregivers to complete training in LGBT cultural competency.

Locally, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl spearheaded a year-long effort to examine what workers could do better, too.

"We are never going to be perfect about it. Somebody is always going to say something stupid," she says, noting that county workers can let their personal views about LGBT people interfere with their work. "It’s a very large workforce and we do everything we can to tell them professional, equality, fairness."

One of the things that workers should be doing is noting whether a foster child identifies as LGBT. 

There’s even a line for it on one piece of paper work during the intake and placement for a child: form 709 for the L.A. Department of Children and Family Services. In an ideal world, LGBT kids are placed with parents who say they’re accepting.

DCFS form 709 is a needs assessment for every foster child, and it includes a line to indicate whether a child identifies as LGBT.
DCFS form 709 is a needs assessment for every foster child, and it includes a line to indicate whether a child identifies as LGBT.

But it's not frequently filled out.

"Lots of times, social workers don’t know so they leave it blank or think they already know so they’ll just fill it in," says Sari Grant with DCFS.

Grant believes it's not out of malicious carelessness, however, but because workers may feel uncomfortable asking a young child if they are gay or transgender. It would also be inappropriate to guess a child's identity based on mannerisms.

There is no guarantee that a child would feel comfortable sharing this information with a social worker, either.

Developing models and tactics for employees could be important and helpful.

"You’ve got to learn things like not say, 'So, do you have a girlfriend?'" says Grant. "Instead say, 'So are you seeing anyone you might be interested in?'"

"This is something we never even thought about very often."

Even if a social worker knows a kid is LGBT, the child might not be matched with accepting foster parents; there is a critical shortage of foster parents in L.A. County.

"If we have a kid, we’re lucky we have a placement," says Grant, "so it might not be the ideal placement."

That's where teaching existing foster parents and workers out there come in.

"The lack of knowledge is why these kids are not getting homed. People are afraid of what they don’t know," says foster and adoptive mother Lana Freeman.

Her view on LGBT kids changed over 20 years ago.

"I adopted a child myself – a baby – and he grew up gay," she says. "I’m a preacher's kid. I struggled. I really struggled."

Freeman spent time researching how to best raise and support her son – it's not very different than raising other children, she says – and now works with National Foster Parent Association to help educate others.

But Los Angeles is the first county in the nation to develop an official model on teaching the basics of LGBT children.

It was possible through a $13.3 million grant to the Los Angeles LGBT Center from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Center created the RISE program, in which trainers address groups of workers and prospective parents.

One exercise, for example, teaches how a child can feel alone and vulnerable when coming out. Instructors will also explain that there's a disproportionate rate of suicide and depression among LGBT children.

"The goal is to find the common value that will help them look at their child in a different way," says Sarah Vitorino who conducts RISE trainings.

The minimum state-required training per year is just 60 minutes, however, and passing isn't a requirement to be certified either – just attendance.

"The backseat is the most popular seat for the most resistant people," says Vitorino. "They’ll kind of have their arms folded and kind of refuse to participate."

The federal funds for these training sessions has also run despite an increasing demand among private and local agencies to train staff and parents.

But foster care experts agree that the Los Angeles effort could be a model for the nation if the programs continue.

"If you can make your system hospitable for a 14-year-old male-to-female African-American transgender who’s got mental health issues, you can make your system hospitable to anyone," says consultant Khush Cooper.

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