Los Angeles Pioneers Program To Help Educate Foster Parents For LGBT Kids

Jun 29, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 7:44 pm

The backyard of Juana Zacharias's home hugs the railroad tracks snaking through the town of Oxnard, Calif.

Her room in the cozy three-bedroom house is decorated with strips of pink polka-dotted and leopard print fabrics. It's filled with lot of make-up.

Tons of it, according to Zacharias.

The 18-year-old also has boys on her mind.

"Everybody says dating a Latina is really hard," Zacharias says. "Give us the password to your phone, we'll be totally good."

Zacharias is a trans girl — the only one in the group home she shares with five boys.

The six residents are foster kids. They're waiting for parents to adopt them, or to age out of the system.

Moving From Home To Home

It wasn't always like this for Zacharias, though.

She grew up with a loving dad, one who accepted her when she came out at age 10.

"I was at dinner, and he was making tacos," she remembers. "It was really heart-touching because he's like, 'You're my daughter now.' "

But a year later, her dad died in a drive-by shooting.

"I was there. All I hear is the 'ttsssstt,' like a car skirt, 'pah pah,' and it's like your life flashes before your eyes and someone's gone," Zacharias says.

After that, she clashed with her mother over her dad's death, her own identity. Then she got in trouble with the law.

So for the past seven years, Zacharias has moved from juvenile hall to group home to group home — never finding a home with a permanent family.

"The probation officers, they even say it's hard to find a placement for you because you're transgender," she says. "A lot of people don't want transgenders."

Teaching The ABCs Of LGBT Kids

Zacharias isn't alone. More than 400,000 children in America are in foster care, and among them, there's a disproportionate number of LGBT kids. In Los Angeles County, 20 percent of foster kids identify as LGBT, according to a UCLA study — or double the rate outside the foster care system.

But since 2010, LA has had a federal grant to develop something that doesn't exists anywhere else in the country: a program to teach foster families the basics about LGBT children.

There is a lot to learn, according to parents like Lana Freeman.

"It was something that we had never even thought about," Freeman says. "We adopted my son when he was four weeks old. And I guess he came out (as gay) when he was about 16."

That was more than 20 years ago, and Freeman had to research on her own the correct terms, and how to support him.

"Coming from a minister's background, we were always told that it was not right," she says.

Now she works with the National Foster Parent Association from her home in Oklahoma to help others.

Freeman says that lack of knowledge about LGBT issues scares some foster parents away from accepting these kids. That's why she calls the effort in LA to teach parents these issues "groundbreaking."

Exercises In Empathy

In one of those sessions, held by the Los Angeles LGBT Center, trainer Sarah Vitorino has foster parents and care givers do an exercise on empathy.

Participants are directed to write down the names of people they love on cards. Then she tells them to take those cards and throw some away at random.

"I want you to think about how it made you feel to have these people that you adore and have them taken away like that," Vitorino tells the group.

Vitorino says the lesson is this: You should now understand what it's like for an LGBT child when they come out and are abandoned by loved ones.

As of 2012, it's California law for foster parents and providers to get training on "cultural competency and sensitivity relating to, and best practices for, providing adequate care to LGBT youth."

But all that's required is one 60-minute session, once a year, with no standardized curriculum. And Vitorino says there's no passing or failing — you just have to attend a training session.

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

On top of all that: The federal grant to fund the Los Angeles LGBT Center's training program has run out.

But Vitorino hopes to get more funding to continue these sessions so more LGBT children get out of group homes and into the arms of open-minded foster parents.

A Model For What All Kids Need

Foster care expert Khush Cooper is in charge of assessing what all LA County departments can do better to place kids with parents.

Cooper says that what the county develops will be used to create standards for the whole country on how to help kids, and not just LGBT ones.

"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," she says.

So another child like Juana Zacharias won't have to bounce around the system, alone, for seven years.

Now, though, having turned 18 and graduated from high school, Zacharias can live on her own.

She is hoping to move to downtown Los Angeles soon, to study fashion and cosmetology.

"I'm over here having hope for something good in my life, something that I can live for, and make my dad proud from heaven," Zacharias says.

Copyright 2017 Southern California Public Radio. To see more, visit Southern California Public Radio.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More than 400,000 children in the U.S. are foster kids. In Los Angeles County, 20 percent of those kids are LGBT with no guarantee that they'll be placed with foster parents who accept them. From member station KPCC, Leo Duran tells us about an effort to change that.

LEO DURAN, BYLINE: The backyard of Juana Zacharias’s home hugs the railroad tracks snaking through her town of Oxnard, Calif.

JUANA ZACHARIAS: The backyard has a little palm trees to make it a little homey.

DURAN: It's a cozy three-bedroom, and her room is decorated with strips of pink polka-dotted and leopard-print fabrics. But it's mostly filled with a lot of makeup.

ZACHARIAS: Tons - that's my impulse.

DURAN: She also has boys on her mind.

ZACHARIAS: Everybody says that dating a Latina is really hard. Give us the password to your phone. We'll be totally good.

DURAN: But Juana is the only trans girl in a home that she shares with five boys.

ZACHARIAS: I don't want to do my hair, so I might as well just sit down and do a wig.

DURAN: Juana lives in a group home, and all six residents are foster kids waiting for parents to adopt them or to age out of the system. It wasn't always like this for her, though. Juana grew up with a loving dad, one who accepted her when she came out at the age of 10.

ZACHARIAS: I was at dinner, and he was making tacos. It was really heart-touching because he was like, you're my daughter now.

DURAN: But a year later, her dad died in a drive-by shooting.

ZACHARIAS: I was there. All I hear is the, like a car skirt, (imitating gunfire). And it's, like, your life flashes before your eyes, and someone's gone.

DURAN: After that, she clashed with her mother over her dad's death, her own identity and then got into trouble with the law. So for the past seven years, Juana has moved from juvenile hall to group home to group home, never finding a home with a permanent family.

ZACHARIAS: The probation officers - they even say it's hard to find a placement for you because you're transgender. A lot of people don't want transgenders.

DURAN: Juana isn't alone. The percentage of LGBT kids in foster care is way out of proportion compared to those in the general population - 20 percent. That's according to a UCLA study.

But since 2010, Los Angeles has had a federal grant to develop something that's nowhere else in the country - a program to teach foster families the basics about LGBT children. There's a lot to learn according to parents like Lana Freeman.

LANA FREEMAN: It was something that we had never even thought about. We adopted my son when he was four weeks old, and I guess he came out when he was about 16.

DURAN: He was gay, and that was over 20 years ago. So Freeman had to research on her own the correct terms and how to support him.

FREEMAN: Coming from a minister's background, we were always told that it was not right.

DURAN: Now she works with the National Foster Parent Association from her home in Oklahoma to help others. That's because Freeman says a lack of knowledge about LGBT issues scares some foster parents away from accepting these kids, which is why she calls the effort in LA to teach parents these issues groundbreaking.

SARAH VITORINO: When you think about an LGBT youth, when they're coming out...

DURAN: This is one of those sessions. It's held by the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In a room filled with foster parents and caregivers, trainer Sarah Vitorino has them do an exercise on empathy. Participants are directed to write down the names of people they love on cards.

VITORINO: OK, once you've turned them over and you can't see the names...

DURAN: Then she'll tell them, take those cards and throw some away at random.

VITORINO: I want you to think about how it made you feel to have these people that you adore and have them taken away like that.

DURAN: Vitorino says the lesson is this. You should now understand what it's like for an LGBT child when they come out and are abandoned by loved ones. As of 2012, it's California law for foster parents and providers to get training like this, but all that's required is one 60-minute session each year. And Vitorino says there's no passing or failing. You just have to attend.

VITORINO: So the back seat is the popular seat for the most resistant people. They'll kind of have their arms folded and refuse to participate.

DURAN: And the federal grant to fund these sessions has run out. But Vitorino hopes to get more funding to continue these trainings so more LGBT children get out of group homes and into the arms of open-minded foster parents. In charge of assessing what all departments of LA County can do better to place kids with parents is foster care expert Khush Cooper.

KHUSH COOPER: You need to go home to Thanksgiving. You need somebody to take you to the dentist or the airport.

DURAN: And Cooper says what the county develops will be used to create standards for the whole country on how to help kids and not just the LGBT ones.

COOPER: 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.

DURAN: So that another child, like Juana Zacharias, won't have to bounce around the system alone for seven years. Having just turned 18, though, and graduating from high school, Juana can live on her own.

ZACHARIAS: I'm over here having hope for something good in my life - you know, make my dad proud from heaven.

DURAN: And soon she's hoping to make the move to Downtown Los Angeles to study fashion and cosmetology. For NPR News, I'm Leo Duran in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.