Oscar Orellana started his career working at a group home, and has since spent much of his professional life working with vulnerable youth in the realms of foster care, mental health and disability. He’s worked with many young who were struggling with their identities over the years—which is something that he is supportive of and can relate to.
Oscar came out to his family as gay when he was 17. It was difficult, because his family didn’t understand. Even so, he considers himself lucky: while they didn’t initially take it well, his family became accepting of him after about three years of conversation.
“I think that’s why I relate to kids who are struggling with their identity and struggling for acceptance,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of kids, not just in foster care but in general in the LGBTQ community, who don’t have support systems.”
He first heard about CASA when he was volunteering with Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit that serves children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Some of the children there had CASA volunteers. Once the timing worked out, Oscar went through training and became a volunteer with Dallas CASA.
He was appointed to advocate for 14-year-old Anna*, a transgender girl in long-term foster care, about two years ago. She initially went into foster care because her mother committed her to a mental health hospital and refused to take her back. At the time Oscar was appointed, Anna was still using the name Adam.*
“When I started, she was still identifying as male, and a lot of her complications were about her family’s comments. She would say, ‘I don’t want to be gay because my mom has said that God hates gay people,’” Oscar said. “I think at that point, she was still trying to go back to being accepted by her family.”
Oscar signified support and safety by opening up with Anna about his own experience as a gay man. He had a feeling that Anna might be transgender before she officially came out to him, and wanting to make sure he was being mindful and respectful of her journey, he went to his transgender friends for advice and support. He didn’t want to “say the wrong thing.” It still took about a year into the CASA case for Anna to come out to him. He was the first adult she told, and once she did, Oscar noticed her confidence immediately starting to grow.
“This kid is amazing. This kid knows what she wants and has no problem telling me what she wants. She has gained a very different kind of confidence in the last year or so, since she’s decided to let herself say, ‘Yes, I want to be addressed as she, and I want to go by this name.’”
Oscar continues to play a key role in not only helping Anna with her self-acceptance, but also advocating for her safety, her medical needs, and understanding from others. He works with Anna’s caseworker to make sure her foster placements are affirming of her gender identity and her needs. She’s currently in her fifth placement, at a Residential Treatment Center. When she started wanting to wear makeup, wigs and different clothing, and going by her chosen name, they were supportive. She also has a gender-affirming therapist and judge.
“Anna and I had the conversation, ‘What do you want the judge to call you?’ She said, ‘Anna.’ The judge was like, ‘Okay! How do you spell your name?’” Oscar said. “In April, in virtual court, Anna was in makeup and a full wig and everything, and everyone was like, ‘You look so good!’ and she was so happy.”
Her relationship with her family, however, continues to be a challenge. Anna loves her mother and deeply wants acceptance from her. Her mother is present and they’ve stayed in contact. Right now, the permanency plan is that she will remain in foster care until she’s 18, and her mother will continue to be able to visit.
Anna, now 16, often talks about going back to live with her mother once she’s out of foster care.
“I feel like I’m there to support. Because at the end of the day, it’s their life,” Oscar said. “Mom is present and we know that Anna loves her, wants to be accepted by her and have a relationship with her. So we realize that the relationship is going to continue.”
Whatever happens, Oscar will be there for Anna, every step of the way, until her case is closed.
A disproportionately high number of children in the foster care system—30% according to a recent study—identify as LGBTQ. More specifically, one in every 20 youth in foster care is transgender. This is due in no small part to the impact of family rejection.
Oscar’s advice for other CASA volunteers? You don’t have to be an expert in LGBTQ issues to be a great advocate for an LGBTQ child. If a child comes out to you, the best thing you can do for them is ask for help—like he did with his friends and his CASA program.
“You can always reach out to people, even in the organization [CASA], to get information and educate yourself about it. Because coming out is such a difficult thing that takes a lot of courage, you want to be in a place where even if you don’t know what to say, you can say, ‘Thank you for telling me,’” he said. “There’s no perfect way to do it, but there’s a wrong way to do it.”
It’s also important for members of the LGBTQ community to become CASA volunteers, because they can help LGBTQ kids like Anna have someone to identify with and not feel so alone, Oscar said. LGBTQ volunteers can understand, relate to and bond with the children they serve on a different level. Their consistent, affirming presence can make a world of difference in a child’s life.
“When I was struggling, I thought I was the only gay person in the world… but come to find out, once I came out I had all these other friends, all this support, that gave me confidence,” Oscar said. “And I think that’s what having advocates in the LGBTQ community can do for these kids. It’s helpful for them to have someone and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this person struggled with what I’m struggling with, and look at them now!’”
*Names changed for privacy.