Aviva plans for an inclusive future
As of October of this year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill granting all transgender children in foster care the right to placement consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the sex listed in government records, California’s social service agencies were obliged to rewrite policies to plan for a more inclusive future.
A few agencies, however, among them Hollywood-based Aviva Family and Children’s Services, had anticipated that sweeping changes were imminent and were already in the midst of careful self-assessments and interagency discussions on how to better meet the needs of LGBTQ clients.
“Here we are, in the heart of Hollywood. This is an area of huge diversity and acceptance, and we need to be stepping up and showing that we are really welcoming,” Regina Bette, president and CEO of Aviva, said during a recent discussion at the agency’s offices.
Aviva currently is at the forefront of local organizations working to prepare the entire youth social services system to navigate LGBTQ issues in the coming years.
Founded in 1915 as an adoption center and residential facility for single women in the Jewish community, Aviva has developed into a nonsectarian, comprehensive agency covering four main areas of service: residential care for adolescent girls, foster care and adoptions, wraparound care and community-based mental health.
“We have to be open to serving people where they are, and serving them as they are,” said Jeffrey Jamerson, vice president of programs and services at Aviva, calling transgender issues “the next platform of transformation.”
A 2014 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, funded by the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s RISE initiative (Recognize, Intervene, Support, and Empower), found that approximately one in five foster youth in Los Angeles — home to the largest population of foster youth in the country — identify as LGBTQ.
“That’s a huge segment of our foster care system that are not getting their needs met,” said Bette, who was previously on the RISE leadership committee. “They are not going to be prepared to go into adulthood, they are not going to feel good about themselves, they may not even make it.”
The Williams Institute study served as a call to action, Bette said.
About a year and a half ago, Aviva began sending its staff and prospective foster parents to training sessions with the RISE initiative, a pioneering project backed by the federal government tasked with creating a service model for LGBTQ youth in the foster care system, including combating heterosexism and transphobia, and working to reform policies and best practices.
And, for the first time, Aviva is receiving calls from county agencies looking for foster placement specifically for transgender youth, said Karina Souquette, Aviva’s assistant vice president of foster care, adoption and intensive-treatment foster care.
Last month, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation awarded Aviva’s Foster Family and Adoption agency its “All Children-
All Families” seal of recognition in acknowledgement of the organization’s commitment to serving LGBTQ youth and families.
At the start of the process, Aviva used an HRC survey to assess its staff’s preparedness, using the results to conduct a year’s worth of training sessions.
The seal is awarded to agencies that demonstrate their commitment to addressing LGBTQ cultural competency and inclusion by meeting 10 benchmarks covering policy, staff training, and inclusive language, among other areas. To date, the HRC has awarded the seal to over 50 agencies.
In addition, Jamerson is Aviva’s representative to an ongoing “Transgender Needs” collaborative workgroup convened by the Los Angeles County Probation Department to prepare new policies for the county’s group homes.
According to the group’s leader, Lisa Cambell-Motten, director of the probation department, Aviva is one of four group homes in the county that are ahead of the curve.
“But the kids are ahead of all of us,” Cambell-Motten said.
One of the issues is that the agency’s license specifies that its residential treatment center is for girls only.
“I don’t really know if it is all-girl, to be honest,” Bette said. “It’s youth. I don’t know whether we have any biological girls who identify as male. Now we are trying to use ‘youth’ more, but it is really an evolution.
“We are coming up to speed to accept youth in our programs based on what they identify as, but our licensing … they are not fully up to speed yet, but I think they will be there soon,” Bette said.
The licensing organization, Community Care Licensing, also is participating in the workgroup, and Cambell-Motten said she expects the organization’s certifications to change as a result.
But there are difficult issues that the workgroup still needs to resolve, including “the possibility that a [self-identifying] girl could become pregnant with her roommate.”
Cambell-Moten said she expects the group to continue meeting throughout the next year.
In the meantime, Bette and her staff are in the process of updating their program statements to account for gender fluidity.
“We are evolving as an organization. We are doing it in what I hope is a very respectful and natural way. We are building on the strengths and interests of our staff and helping them to move forward,” Bette said.