Bill Aims to Protect Trans Foster Youth

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday April 26, 2015

A state bill that would ensure transgender foster youth are placed in welcoming and affirming homes passed out of its first legislative committee this week.

The legislation, Senate Bill 731, is authored by gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by several California LGBT rights groups. A number of professional associations for foster care workers are also backing the bill.

The Senate Human Services Committee Tuesday voted 3-0 in support of the bill, which now will be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the state's existing Foster Care Bill of Rights, welfare workers and caregivers are already banned from discriminating against foster youth based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. But the law is silent on how best to place transgender foster youth.

Under Leno's bill, caregivers would be required to take a young person's gender identity into consideration when deciding whether to place them with a foster care family or in a group home, many of which are segregated by gender.

"It is already law that all foster youth, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, have the fair and equal right to services and to be free from discrimination," Leno told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview this week. "The problem is, and that is what this bill attempts to address, state law does not provide any specific guidance to those who place our foster youth who are transgender. This bill provides needed direction."

The state Department of Community Care Licensing would be tasked with developing regulations to implement the bill should it become law.

"When a transgender foster child is inappropriately placed in a home that is not welcoming and supportive, that young person is at an even higher risk of bullying, harassment, and abuse," stated Shannan Wilber, youth policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "The foster care system should be a place that embraces all young people, not a place that makes them feel ashamed of who they are."

It is unclear how far ranging a problem discrimination against transgender foster youth is in California. There were nearly 58,700 foster youth in California in 2013, and research suggests that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent identify as LGBT, though no actual data on the number of LGBT foster youth is available.

Leno said his office is aware of instances where a transgender foster youth was unable to be out about their gender identity.

"And given that the broader community is still coming to learn and recognize how early gender identity begins to take shape in a young life, we need to be respectful of our foster youth when making these kinds of placement," said Leno. "Our system should be culturally sensitive and respectful."

Kevin West, right, testifies alongside state Senator Mark Leno Tuesday in Sacramento.

Sacramento resident Kevin West, 29, transitioned in 2002 while in the state's foster care system. A dependent of San Joaquin County, West lived in a number of foster homes and group homes located in Santa Cruz County.

He had been living in an all-female group home when he came out as a transgender male and requested to be placed in a home with all boys.

"It turned out I did not like living with the boys but did enjoy being allowed to have that experience. The boys were younger than me and a little more rough and tumble than I was used to being around," West recalled in a phone interview with the B.A.R. this week. "I was 16 and in high school while they were in the seventh and eighth grade."

When he turned 17 West went to live in a co-ed group home where he had his own room. He said he never experienced any overt discrimination other than some teasing from the other youth.

"I had really supportive staff that tamped that stuff done," said West, who is earning a degree in deaf studies at California State University, Sacramento and wants to earn a master's in rehabilitation counseling. "Some of the girls were not okay with it, they thought it meant I was gay and wanted to get with them. Being a guy had nothing to do with who I am attracted to; it so happened to be I am heterosexual and dating women."

West testified Tuesday on behalf of Leno's bill, as he believes it will ensure transgender youth feel safe in the homes in which they are placed.

"Transgender youth won't be forced to live in homes with foster parents who don't identify their gender," said West. "No one is wanting to go live with people of the same gender identity they identify with for sexual purposes or predatory reasons. It is just who we are."

Josh Leonard, executive director of the East Bay Agency for Children, also testified in support of the legislation. Formerly executive director of Bay Area Youth Centers, Leonard recalled how the Hayward-based agency in the 1990s was one of the first in the state to place foster youth based on their gender identity.

"Many, if not, all the transgender and gender non-conforming youth who were referred to our program had conflicts with their previous foster families and their gender identity played a role in those conflicts," said Leonard, adding that the agency's trans-friendly policy "made a good first impression on the trans youth. It suggested to them the possibility that staff would see them for who they really are."

He argued that "SB 731 provides much needed clarity on this issue" and will "ensure well matched placements" for transgender foster youth.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposed bill, though the committee vice chair, Senator Tom Berryhill (R-Twain Harte), questioned how the state would be able to implement it.

"It is a well intentioned bill, I get it," said Berryhill. "If it is turned into law, I don't know how we get there."

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