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Out of the closet, onto the street: Foster system a 'pathway to homelessness' for LGBT youth

Scott Dukes says he’ll never forget the day he met his adoptive daughter Erica. She wore a black-and-white striped jacket with a big yellow flower on the lapel and a pair of bright pink pants.

She was 14, in need of a foster home and just starting to transition from male to female.

“I was super nervous and she looked at me and said, ‘you look scared,’ Scott remembers. "And I said, ‘I’m terrified, actually, thank you for noticing.’"

"[She said] ‘Why are you scared? I’m the one who should be scared’ and I said, ‘Well, kids are scary and this is all really new, so come inside let’s be scared together.’”

Erica had no reason to trust Scott. She had jumped between 10 or 12 foster placements before meeting him, constantly getting into clashes with temporary guardians. Every time she embraced her female identity, she says she faced harsh words and new restrictions.

“They were just very mean, they were just very judgmental towards it all,” she says. “They were like, you’re going to go to hell, that’s not what the bible wanted you to do … you’re on this earth to reproduce and you’re a man and you need to reproduce.”

But with Scott, things were different. She moved into his house in 2012 as a foster child. The next Father’s Day, Erica asked Scott to be her adoptive dad.

Now 19, Erica Dukes just started her first semester studying cosmetology at American River College. Thanks to Scott, her future is looking pretty good right now. The same can’t be said for most LGBT foster youth.

Half of all foster youth who age out of the system statewide end up homeless or incarcerated. Advocates say that number is probably higher for LGBT kids, who are less likely to find a permanent home, more frequently abused while in foster care, and more likely to run away from foster families.

Jesse Archer works with youth every day at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center. He goes so far as to call foster care a "pathway to homelessness."

“LGBTQ youth often end up in the foster system because their families are unaccepting and they live in dangerous housing,” he says. “So they end up in the foster care system, which is largely untrained and unprepared to take care of LGBTQ youth. So many of the foster families go into foster care for religious reasons, and they end up causing a lot of harm.”

One UCLA study found that LGBT foster youth were twice as likely as straight youth to report being treated poorly by the foster system, and more than three times as likely to have been hospitalized for emotional reasons.

Archer helped launch the LGBTQ Foster Youth Collaborative, a joint effort between Sacramento County, the Sacramento LGBT Center, Sierra Forever Families, Stanford Youth Solutions, Sierra Child and Family Services and CASA for Children Sacramento County.

The collaborative is now training existing foster families on how to care for LGBT youth. That might mean helping them through a gender transition, advocating for them if they’re harassed at school, or simply talking to them about same-sex dating issues.

Karen Parker, Program Planner for Sacramento County Child Protective Services, says they’re also actively recruiting new LGBT-friendly foster families at quarterly orientation sessions.

The collaborative has educated about 80 Sacramento County families about the needs of LGBT foster kids so far. They don’t know how many of them went on to house a youth.

“These youth are definitely at a higher likelihood to have more placements, more frequent placement changes, be placed in group or congregate care,” she says, “They may choose to go AWOL because they feel their needs aren’t being met or something like that. So for us, it’s important to create an environment where they have the potential for a good outcomes.”

Scott says he wasn’t sure whether or not he could get Erica to high school graduation. They argued. She struggled at school. But they slowly built a foundation of trust and respect, he says.

Together, they worked through Erica’s gender transition: buying bras for the first time, navigating the legal name-change process, and ultimately starting hormone therapy.

“I had never met a transgender person in my life before I’d met my child,” Scott says, “I didn’t get it. I still don't really get it. But what I do know is this is who she is, and this is how she is. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just is what it is. She helped me learn so much about her. I’m honored that I was able to be the advocate she needed me to be.”

He says almost anyone can foster an LGBT child, as long as they’re willing to love and support them.

“We have an obligation to take care of our kids, and help shape them,” Scott says. “Without us, those kids just have so much more to learn and it’s a much harder journey than if we just stepped in and helped.”

By Sammy Caiola
 
2 October 2017 

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