Sacramento County foster care agencies band together to help LGBT youths find homes

Erica Dukes, 17, poses with her dad, Scott Dukes, for a portrait at the Foothill Community Park on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Erica, who is transgender, was adopted by Scott in 2013 after being her foster parent for over a year.
Erica Dukes, 17, poses with her dad, Scott Dukes, for a portrait at the Foothill Community Park on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Erica, who is transgender, was adopted by Scott in 2013 after being her foster parent for over a year. aseng@sacbee.com

Scott Dukes, a gay single man from Sacramento looking to adopt, got a call one day from his foster care agency. They had one question for him: If your teenage son came down the stairs of a mall in 6-inch stiletto heels, what would you do?

The answer he was trained to give, he said, was to bring a pair of flat shoes along in his bag, in case his son’s feet hurt. The real answer?

“If you’re going to wear those shoes, you’re going to wear them like a man,” Dukes, 40, told the case manager. “And you’re not going to whine and act crazy, because I’m not dealing with it.”

His answer, the agency told him, was odd, but perfect. Sierra Forever Families introduced Dukes to his now-17-year-old transgender daughter, Erica Reyes, shortly after that 2012 phone call. The nonprofit adoption agency has been one key player in a citywide effort to create more of these success stories and place lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in affirming homes.

Sacramento County Child Protective Services and other local foster youth and adoption agencies formed a collaborative last year to increase recruitment of parents who are open to housing LGBT youth. The group, which includes representatives from Sierra Forever Families, Stanford Youth Solutions and Sierra Child and Family Services, hosted its first recruiting event last summer and followed up with similar events in the last few months, said Karen Parker, program planner for Child Protective Services.

The collaborative is meeting Thursday to plan for a seminar that will teach existing foster parents about transgender youths.

According to a study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, LGBT youths are disproportionately over-represented in the foster care system. About 19 percent of foster youth in Los Angeles County identify as LGBT, more than double the number of LGBT youths not in foster care. Additionally, LGBT youths in the foster care system report being treated less well and were more likely to be hospitalized for mental health problems. The study is the first to measure sexual orientation and gender identity of foster youth.

“We hear of a lot of stories about youth being forced denounce who they are in order to be in the home,” said Bob Herne, chief executive officer of Sierra Forever Families. “When families don’t accept them, they end up in a group home that may not be a safe environment for them.”

LGBT foster youths are also less likely to find a permanent home, more likely to run away and more likely to be victims of violence, he said.

Erica had been in about six homes before she moved in with Dukes. She and her brothers were taken into the foster system when she was 8 years old. Her grandmother eventually adopted her brothers, but did not take her in because of her gender identity.

Once in the foster care system, many parents did not accept Erica for who she was. She enjoyed wearing makeup, skirts, crop tops and heels, but several foster parents wouldn’t allow it. She resorted to wearing girls’ clothing underneath her boys’ clothing.

“I would sneak makeup to school and take it off after school,” she said. “My foster parent would search me and bought makeup remover to wipe my eyes.”

At one home, Erica would spend her time out in the streets, partying, smoking or hanging out with friends, only coming home when her social worker was scheduled to visit.

Dukes said he was shocked when he heard one of Erica’s foster parents say that Erica would be a good kid, if only she were less dramatic.

“I told them, ‘No disrespect, but Erica is probably an LGBT kid, and LGBT kids have drama,’” he said. “‘It makes more sense to teach her how to live with that.’ 

Dukes said he knew very little about transgender people and never imagined adopting a teenager. Similarly, the fact that Dukes is gay didn’t make Erica warm up to him more easily, she said. Instead, the two gained each other’s trust with time.

Sacramento foster youth agencies want other parents to have the same openness, regardless of their sexuality.

Jolane Blaylock, a social worker for Sierra Family and Child Services, said a lot of foster parents think they can’t take care of LGBT youths because they wouldn’t be able to give them the care a different home would. But working with a teenager who identifies as LGBT doesn’t differ from working with any other teen. Their sexuality and gender identity is not their sole identifying characteristic, she said.

Making sure all LGBT youths feel safe can be a challenge, however, since not all young people in the foster system are out and the system does not track their sexual orientation, Parker said. Additionally, some foster youths may not feel comfortable coming out because they’re not placed in an affirming home.

“You can’t just put a label on them and stick it into the system,” she said. “The youth are driving this in that they are coming out more and letting us know they exist.”

Once parents are educated about the disproportional number of LGBT youths in foster care, people respond. Parker said at least 16 families in the county have wanted to move forward with the foster parent process after attending events and seminars organized by the LGBT foster youths collaborative.

Herne said the agency has a program that ensures one home is open to an LGBT foster youth at all times. The program, which was an idea born from the Sacramento County collaborative, pays a family to keep a bed open, so that when an LGBT foster youth is in urgent need of an affirming home, one is always available.

Sierra Forever Families also holds support groups and events for the LGBT community. Herne said 20 percent to 25 percent of licensed foster parents at the agency identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – a percentage he believes is larger than at other agencies.

The agency helped create a small, safe family for Erica, now a high school senior, but she still goes through the hurdles of being transgender. In class, some teachers call out her birth name purposely while taking attendance, she said. In response, she stays true to herself and says “I don’t know who that is, but I’m Erica Reyes.”

The way Erica handles difficult situations makes Dukes proud. In reality, he said, Erica is the one teaching him to be fearless.

“The best experience I’ve had is meeting my dad, because without him, I don’t know where I’d be,” Erica said. “I feel like I am who I want to be now. I’m proud to be transgender.”

Alejandra Reyes-Velarde: 916-321-1005