Teen’s Suicide Brings Struggles of L.A.’s LGBTQ Foster Youth into Focus

Yaeli Galdamez also known as Andrew Elijah Martinez celebrates a birthday in this undated photo from the GoFundMe page created to raise funds for Andrew/Yaeli’s memorial. Photo from GoFundMe page.

On Sept. 4, a 19-year-old foster youth stepped in front of a freight train in Pomona and was killed. The only mention of the fatality was brief article published by OnScene.TV, which noted that an unknown pedestrian had been struck by a Union Pacific train at around 9:50 p.m.

Despite the lack of media attention, the death of the reportedly transgender young man — identified by a GoFundMe memorial as Yaeli Galdamez/Andrew Elijah Martinez — has prompted Los Angeles County leaders to conduct an immediate investigation into what they labeled as systemic issues in services for LGBTQ foster youth that could have prevented the death.

“Andrew M.’s death must be met with urgency to provide youth, including transition age youth in foster care, identified as LGBTQ+ with support and resources to live proud, productive, happy lives,” according to a motion proposed by Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl that will be introduced at the supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday.

The motion also calls for strengthening services such as more training for caregivers as well as providers across the region, and to find ways to minimize family rejection of youth who identify as LGBTQ. The need for specialized service for LGBTQ youth will also be discussed at a Monday meeting of the Los Angeles County Children’s Commission.

Details surrounding the circumstances of Andrew’s care and death were unavailable Friday. In a statement, officials with the county’s child welfare system cited state laws that protect the confidentiality of records for all children and families who come to the attention of child protective services.

“We are deeply saddened by the news reported of a tragic suicide,” said Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) officials in the statement. “Our mission to protect children is one we share with our partners in law enforcement and the community. We continue to collaborate toward our shared vision of ensuring every child is able to grow up in a safe and loving home.”

LGBTQ youth served by the DCFS have come into more focus in recent years. This year, county leaders approved the creation of a new “Office of Equity” to be housed within the $2.4 billion agency. The move is aimed at curbing the overrepresentation 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.

DCFS Deputy Director Angela Parks-Pyles said strengthening services that will focus on these youth is the department’s priority.

“We’re digging deep to really understand this population and what they need,” Parks-Pyles said.

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

A recent GoFundMe memorial page written for Andrew, who was also identified as Yaeli Galdamez, describes them as a transgender male who was caring and who helped many of his friends. But they also struggled with depression for several years.

“It was a long battle that was courageously fought,” according to what was written on the page. “That is why we are not just raising money for the memorial, but whatever we raise that is left over will be donated to an organization(s) that is making a difference in providing mental health support for youth who are in need and battling similar battles like the one Andrew did for as long as he could.”

Supervisor Solis said the motion is being introduced because any death prompts urgency.

“Any death is a failure and one too many,” Solis said in an email statement to The Chronicle of Social Change. “We know that transgender people face heightened risk of suicide. With Andrew’s death, it is clear that more must be done – now – to support foster youth who identify as LGBTQ+. Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ face many disparities, and those inequities are compounded when you are a youth in foster care.”

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Susan Abram
About Susan Abram 11 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.