After the Tragic Death of an LGBTQ Foster Youth, Few Answers for His Family

Claudia Alvarenga, Andrew’s aunt, (L) and Abigail Martinez, Andrew Martinez’s mother (R), at a meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week.

The family of a 19-year-old transgender foster youth who recently committed suicide said Los Angeles child welfare officials repeatedly ignored their pleas for mental health services and placement with a relative.

Andrew Martinez died on Sept. 4 by suicide, according to Los Angeles County officials. Authorities with Union Pacific Railroad said a male pedestrian was struck by a train one evening in the Southern California city of Pomona.

Martinez spent part of his adolescence in Los Angeles’ foster care system, though it is unclear if he was in the care of the county at the time of his death.

In a tearful public statement made recently to Los Angeles County leaders, Martinez’s mother, Abigail Martinez, said her child was placed under the care of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in 2016. She said each time she went to court, she requested mental health services for him, but nothing happened.

Her sister, Claudia Alvarenga, also spoke at the same meeting, and added that her family had done “everything required to get our home certified by the state, the county and the department” so that Martinez could come and live with them. The certification never came.

“He didn’t have any treatment at all,” Abigail Martinez said. “Why? Because my child was a number in [DCFS’s] agenda. Nobody was taking care of him. He was not capable to be alone. You took my child away from me alive and now I’m planning his funeral because of the neglect.”

DCFS officials said they could not respond to Abigail Martinez’s comments, or release information about Andrew Martinez, who was a transgender male, while he was in their care or why he was in the hospital for three months prior to his death. His mother said a social worker visited him in the hospital, but then Martinez was released back to a foster home alone.

The Chronicle of Social Change has requested more information about the case from DCFS, but the agency has not yet provided any details. The Chronicle has also made a public records request to the juvenile court for case files related to Martinez.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion that calls for an immediate investigation into what happened to Martinez and what they labeled as systemic issues in services that could have prevented his death.

In addition to the investigation, their motion also calls for increased training on issues specific to LGBTQ youth for caregivers and providers across the region, and to find ways to minimize family rejection of youth who identify as LGBTQ.

DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said in a statement that his department is working to advance efforts to support LGBTQ youth, including training for staff, participation in community forums and developing resource drop-in centers. But he acknowledged his department can do more.

“We continue to strive to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and look forward to our ongoing collaboration with the Board of Supervisors and our other partners throughout the County,” Cagle said in a statement provided to The Chronicle.

The recent motion passed by Los Angeles County leaders, fewer than three weeks after Martinez’s death, was commended by members of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, billed as the largest facility in the world in providing services to LGBT people. Yet they too called the motion a start into a long process of understanding this specific group and their needs while in foster care, said Darrel Cummings, chief of staff for the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

The center operates a program called RISE (Recognize Intervene Support Empower) that assists LGBTQ foster youth and their families, one of the only such programs in Los Angeles County, he told members of the Los Angeles County Children’s Commission.

“It has long been our contention that if we don’t get programs specific to this population run by people outside the system, in other words nonprofits, we’re not going to really see a systematic change the way we think is possible,” Cummings said. “I believe this motion starts us off in that direction.”

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of California foster youth self-identify as LGBTQ, compared with 11 percent in the general population. Another often cited 2014 study published by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles looked deeper into L.A. County and found that 19 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ. They also are likely to report poor treatment in the foster care system at more than double the rate of non-LGBTQ youth.

Both the data and Martinez’s death clearly show the need for urgency in reaching this population with services, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who early on in her tenure at the board began introducing motions that support LGBTQ youth in the foster care system.

“Every tragic death of a young person in our care who identifies as LGBTQ+ reminds us of how urgently we need to address the needs of this vulnerable population,” Kuehl said. “We know these young people experience disproportionate rates of homelessness, rejection, bullying, harassment and violence.”

She said there is a need for more homes where sympathetic relatives, family friends and foster parents can offer compassion and understanding.

“We need to ensure that we are training staff in the history and traumatic experiences of these young people as well as working to place LGBTQ+ foster youth in homes that will support them and allow them to thrive,” she added.

But while several programs exist to provide those services, the county appears to have challenges with delivery, acknowledged Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Andrew Martinez in an undated photo from a GoFundMe memorial page.

“I understand that it takes time to implement system-wide plans, but children and youth in our care cannot wait,” Solis said. “The importance of serving our residents requires us to overcome any challenges that might provide obstacles to our mission. We need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach. We must shore up services that meet individualized needs.”

A state audit released in May found that Los Angeles County’s child welfare agency leaves some youth in unsafe and abusive situations for too long because social workers fail to complete abuse and neglect investigations in a timely manner.

The report, released by California state auditor Elaine M. Howle, reviewed 30 cases from fiscal year 2017-18 and revealed that among those cases, DCFS completed just 72 percent of safety assessments and 76 percent of risk assessments on time and entirely failed to complete 10 percent of safety assessments and 8 percent of risk assessments.

But as harsh as the report was overall, the audit found the department’s work toward improving services for youth who identify as LGBTQ commendable.

“Although the department is only beginning the process of improving the conditions of youth who identify as LGBTQ in its care, it appears to be taking reasonable steps to address the Board of Supervisors’ motion requesting it to better support these individuals,” according to the audit.

This year, Los Angeles County leaders also approved the creation of a new office to be housed within DCFS, the largest county-run child welfare agency in the nation.

The goal of the Office of Equity within DCFS will be to curb the over-representation of LGBTQ and African American youth in foster care and to address the disparities these communities experience, officials said. The office is believed to be the first of its kind in the country and training of staff to be housed there is expected to begin in November.

The Office of Equity is a good start to understanding and working with youth disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, said Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. Wilson is one of the authors of the often-cited 2014 Williams Institute study on LGBTQ foster youth in Los Angeles County. She called the formation of the Office of Equity the result of hard work on the part of many youth advocates.

“The voices of people who have been doing this work, even before me, are being amplified,” she said. “The combination of dedicated voices and systematic data have created a turning point.”

She said she was pleased the new Office of Equity will also focus on African American children, also disproportionately represented in the child welfare system.

“The majority of the same [LGBTQ] youth we’re talking about are almost always children of color,” she said.

Martinez’s death and the immediate attention on his case as well as on the needs of LGBTQ youth in foster care in Los Angeles County will hopefully spur change nationwide, said Schylar Baber, executive director of Voice For Adoption, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that develops and advocates for improved adoption policies.

Baber grew up in Montana’s foster care system. He was placed in 11 homes and was put into conversion therapy. Only one family accepted his sexual orientation.

“There were times when I was young and I was put on suicide watch and that was before I knew I was gay,” Baber said.

He was able to survive because of his own will to push himself through school and even after he aged out of the system and was briefly homeless, he said. But not all youths are the same, he added.

“A wise mentor once told me, ‘We need to elevate the well-being of children above that of highways and trash,’” Baber said.

“The thing is, I hope [the response to Andrew Martinez’s death and subsequent actions] leads to something significant,” he added. “Maybe we can have one state that values their children, to see each other as human. How many more need to die is the question and what are we going to do about that?”

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Susan Abram
About Susan Abram 7 Articles
Susan Abram is a freelance writer who previously covered public health and L.A. County government for the Los Angeles Daily News. You can find her on Twitter at @SAbramLA.