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Arizona Group Home Offers Place Where LGBT Foster Kids Can Be Themselves

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Transgender foster teen Adrian Garcia sits in his room at the Unique House, an LGBT-only group home.

Arizona’s Department of Child Safety has 19,000 children in its care. The department recently evolved training policies to accommodate the growing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the system. One foster group home is leading the way with a pilot program taking only LGBT teens.

On the door leading into 18-year-old Adrian Garcia’s room, a pink ribbon sticker emblazoned with the word "prince" and a crown greets visitors.

“Like, it used to say princess, but I chopped the little end off,” he said. You can't even notice a difference.

Garcia is very into DIY. He painted his initials in a Van Gogh-inspired motif that’s currently hung up above his bed next to some doodles — a work-in-progress.

“I’m building a mural of sorts on my wall, like a collage," he said. "I do this kind of everywhere I go.”

Since Garcia entered foster care four years ago, he’s stayed in 14 different places.

He said he struggled to find a good fit, and thinks a lot of that has to do with the fact that he is transgender.

"Ultimately when I was at a place that didn’t accept or approve of my identity, I would get really depressed," he said. And he mentioned the kids were fine with his identity. It was the staff who were less accepting.

The worst, Garcia said, was when a caseworker with DCS unknowingly outed him to his mother, before he could.

“I did not get to tell my mother that I was transgender, my caseworker took that away from me and," he paused and sighed. "It just makes me really mad when I think about it now.”

But he said not all caseworkers are like that. Garcia was put into this group home because his caseworker knew it would be a good fit.

A Pioneer Program: LGBT, Mixed-Gender Group Home

Jennifer Redmond runs a group home in Laveen that houses only LGBT foster teens, where Garcia is staying.

Redmond’s home has been open for nine months, and she’s done her best to create an inclusive atmosphere.

"We really work on understanding definitions, understanding what LGBT means, so that our staff understand pronouns, things that kids would like to be called,” Redmond said.

It’s not just about being appropriate. It’s also about being a family. She wants it to be a place where foster kids can be themselves, something they may not be used to in the system.

"A lot of kids won’t identify themselves, because of either where they’re placed or for fear," she said. "So it's really finding those kids and identifying them and then bringing them here."

DCS spokesman Doug Nick said agency policies instruct caseworkers to be conscious of a teen’s sexual orientation or gender.

"We know there’s a fair amount and that number, in terms of identification, is increasing," Nick said. "So it’s an area that we are very aware of and sensitive to."

New LGBT Training For DCS Caseworkers

DCS started LGBT-specific cultural competency training in June, one with healthcare organization Terros and one coordinated by Barb Nasco with the Foster Children Rights Coalition. Nasco's goal is to have every DCS employee trained in three years.

“This is a very pervasive issue and it can’t just be fixed in one place," Nasco said. "It’s gotta really address all the professionals as well as foster parents.”

Some states have laws in place to protect LGBT foster kids; Arizona is not one of them. 

The number of LGBT teens in Arizona’s DCS care isn’t clear, but Meghan Arrigo at advocacy group Children’s Action Alliance says many in her field estimate it’s 10 percent nationally, but it’s likely a much higher number.

"We may not, as a child welfare agency, be screening adequately or asking the right questions when those youth come into care," Arrigo said. "So I think there's probably a lot of youth that are flying under the radar."

Arrigo said transgender youth have it tough too, because of policies that place kids in group houses specific to their sex — like girls in girls-only houses, which Garcia, who identifies as a male, found problems with. It can be difficult when caseworkers have to deal with 60 to 80 teens.

"Young people want to have a relationship with their caseworker," Arrigo said. "Those are the folks who are making decisions about where they’re going to be placed, who they’re going to be living with. So if you don’t know your caseworker and they don't know you, it’s really hard to find an appropriate placement."

For now, Garcia says he’s is very comfortable in Redmond’s mixed-gender, LGBT group home.

Redmond’s LGBT group home is currently only one of two that she knows of in Maricopa County, with the other catering only to gay males. She hopes her idea can be a pilot program for more group homes looking to address LGBT youth needs.

LGBT Youth In The Foster Care System

Source: Human Rights Campaign

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.