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

Juana Zacharias, 18, lives in a group home for foster children in Oxnard, Calif. She came out as transgender when she was 10; she entered the foster care system when she was 11, after her father was killed.
Leo Duran
Juana Zacharias, 18, lives in a group home for foster children in Oxnard, Calif. She came out as transgender when she was 10; she entered the foster care system when she was 11, after her father was killed.

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 2016 KPCC

Leo Duran