More than 40 years ago, when Jamie Lee Evans, project director of Y.O.U.T.H. Training Project, was 5 years old, her foster parents at a group home in Los Angeles taunted a young boy who they believed was gay.
The boy was effeminate. The foster parents didn't really like that about him, Evans said.
"Not only were we required to beat him up but they would say 'we have to beat the gay out of the little kid,'" said Evans, who now trains child welfare professionals about LGBT youths. "It was a pretty traumatizing business as you can imagine."
While the treatment of foster care youths who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender has improved, many continue to experience subtle discrimination, hostility and even rejection by the people entrusted to care for them, said Evans. In 2003, California passed theFoster Care Non-Discrimination Act that prohibits the harassment of youths on the basis of actual or perceived race, ethnic group, national origin, religion, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identification.
"A lot of things have changed but not enough," Evans said.
On June 26, the California State Assembly Committee on Human Services is scheduled to hold a hearing on AB 1856, a bill that would require culturally sensitive training for foster care providers on issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children and teens (LGBT).
Authored by Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and sponsored the largest LGBT advocacy group in the state, Equality California, the bill would require caretakers to complete 40 hours of classroom instruction and best practices for providing adequate care for LGBT youths in foster care.
It's estimated that between five and 10 percent of the total foster youth population are LGBT, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Evans said actual percentages could be higher since many of these youths face abuse at home, or get kicked out when they come out about their sexual orientation, which can land them in the foster care system.
Yet few resources are available to train care providers about these youths' needs.
"There's a lot of different forms of discrimination with the foster care system. Even well-meaning caregivers don't have the tools to support these youths," said Maceo Persson, program manager at the Transgender Law Center. The Center works to change policy and advocates for transgender people.
Need for cultural competency training
Gay foster youth face discrimination that could range from caretakers failing to call them by the preferred name or pronoun that's in accordance with the gender identity to forcing the teen to dress in clothing that doesn't fit the gender the youth identifies with, Persson said.
A 2006 study documenting experience of LGBT youth in the foster care system called "Out of the Margins" found that these foster youths are vulnerable to violence, rejection or abuse not only from their home but also in schools, foster care and communities.
"As we delved into it more, we noticed there was a dearth of training in LGBT sensitivity," said Cecilia Tran, an assembly fellow with Ammiano's office.
Some foster care agencies, Evans said, have forms where potential foster care parents can indicate if they're not willing to care for an LGBT youth.
"Why are we accepting foster parents who say I don't want or will not take care of an LGBT [children]? How we can allow that to be?" she said.
Fostering Support for LGBT youths
Marissa Guerrero, a program manager at California Court Appointed Special Advocates, said there's a push in California to incorporate LGBTQ cultural competency training for those working with foster teens.
Some CASA programs, a network of child advocates, in the state, for instance, integrate LGBTQ cultural competency into their core training. Volunteers undergo at least 30 hours of core training on dependency law, child development, among other topics. Two programs, including those in Riverside and Santa Cruz, have incorporated LGBTQ cultural competency into their core training, Guerrero said.
"LGBTQ youth in foster care need the same things all young people need - to feel safe and supported, to have opportunities to engage with their cultures and communities, and to find permanency and interdependence," Guerrero said. "The value of cultural competency training is that oftentimes the adults in these kids' lives are committed to ensuring and providing these things for kids, youth, and young adults, but may not know how to do this for LGBTQ youth."
In April, California CASAhosted a symposium on mental health and LGBTQ youth in the foster system, led by the Y.O.U.T.H. Training Project, a program of the California Youth Connection, and Rob Woronoff, a leader in training for LGBT youths, and director of Family Builders Putting Pride into Practice Project.
"We just have to teach general acceptance support and love," Evans said.
Rosa Ramirez is a reporting fellow for Fostering Media Connections, a news organization covering children and youths. This story was first published in the Chronicle of Social Change.