LGBTQ Youths Detained for Status Offenses Twice as Often as Others

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are twice as likely as other youngsters to be detained in a juvenile detention facility for status offenses, experts said.

The revelation came during a webinar Wednesday on LGBTQ youth and status offenses such as truancy, running away from home and liquor law violations, none of which would be offenses if committed by adults.

The co-sponsors of the webinar – the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the Human Rights Campaign and the Equity Project – offered ways to improve treatment and access to services for LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system.

The organizations said LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and once in the system, more likely to suffer abuse and violence¸ sometimes inflicted by other youths, and may receive overly harsh punishments because of biases or be placed in isolation in the name of protecting them.

Robin Maril, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said family rejection of an LGBTQ youth can lead to high-risk behavior, including drug abuse and homelessness.

She noted research showing 40 percent of homeless youths identify themselves as LGBTQ, and homelessness can lead to “survival crimes” like theft.

LGBTQ youths also often encounter intimidation and bullying in school, and Maril pointed to research showing 92 percent of LGBTQ youths hear negative messages about being LGBTQ from peers and sometimes from school administrators, whom they often distrust.

She also said studies have shown that LGBTQ youth often receive much harsher discipline at school than their straight peers.

“Punishment for non-violent behavior including truancy, absenteeism and dress code violations really disproportionately impacts [LGBTQ] students,” Maril said.

And, she said, ensuing suspensions and expulsions can result in many more of them “ending up on the streets and engaging in criminal behavior because they don’t have a positive place to be.”

These children are more likely to use drugs, loiter and become the victims of sexual exploitation, Maril said.

A hostile school environment, of course, can lead to truancy, for which youths can be incarcerated if the offense violates a valid court order not to repeat a behavior, said Christina Gilbert, director of the Equity Project, which strives to ensure lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in juvenile delinquency courts are treated with dignity, respect and fairness.

Gilbert pointed out that the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act stipulates that status offenders are not supposed to be locked up except under rare circumstances.

But she said a common condition of probation is for a child to go to school “and if a kid is being bullied at school and we don’t know that or don’t understand the context of what’s going to happen if they skip school is, then they violated probation and they’re going to end up in secure confinement.”

And if lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths fight back when they’re bullied at school, they’re sometimes charged with assault, and depending on bias in the system, may be the only one charged, Gilbert said.

If such youths run away from home or from a shelter home or foster care because of rejection, they could be charged as well, Gilbert said.

While in confinement, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are at much greater risk of sexual victimization than other youths.

Citing U.S. Department of Justice figures, Gilbert said 10.3 percent of such youths are sexually victimized by other youths while in confinement, compared with 1.5 percent of heterosexual youths.

Gilbert also said lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are at higher risk than others of harassment and physical abuse. And she said putting these at-risk youths in solitary confinement, ostensibly to protect them, increases their risk of suicide and mental illness and can mean no access to programming and education.

“Isolation should never be used as a method of protection because that’s really just punishing youth for who they are,” said Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

While incarcerated, Gilbert said, transgender youth may be seen as uncooperative rule-breakers, say, when they ask for clothing consistent with their gender identity. That, in turn, can lead to disciplinary violations and longer incarceration.

Gilbert also said lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are sometimes placed on sex offender wings even though there are no charges or allegations of sex offenses because of a “myth that they are likely to be sex offenders,” Gilbert said.

The webinar made clear treatment of LGBTQ youth accused of status offenses falls far short of national standards on handling such offenses released in December by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Pilnik read an excerpt from the standards, which also appeared on a slide: “Judicial, legal, law enforcement, justice, social service and school professionals should ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) youth who are charged with status offenses receive fair treatment, equal access to services, and respect and sensitivity from all professionals and other youth in court, agency, service, school, and placement.”

The standards also state that no juveniles should be incarcerated for status offenses.

Family-focused interventions shouldn’t be overlooked just because family members at first reject an LGBTQ youth, Pilnik said. She cited recent research that has found families who initially did not accept an LBGTQ youth can ultimately accept the youth if the families receive information and education.

“It’s really important that anyone who’s working with youth who’ve run away from home or are truant and are showing some of these behaviors that the family is a central part of whatever intervention or services you’re offering for them,” Pilnik said.

She said it’s also important to try to discern what’s behind the status offenses when LGBTQ youths go to court.

“The biggest thing there is to look at what’s going on with the youth in their families, in their personal life, with their friends, in the community, in their school… Why is this happening? And I think that’s a very individual question.”

The behavior could have its roots in persecution, bullying or trauma such as witnessing violence.

For everything from afterschool programs to detention facilities, Pilnik also stressed the need for written policies forbidding harassment and discrimination and strict adherence to such policies.

Ensuring fairness and respect, she said, should include “allowing young people to express their own identity, and that means their own choice of clothing, hairstyle, nicknames.”

And whether it’s a parent, a teacher, a principal, a youth service provider, a juvenile justice agency official or staff at residential placement or detention centers, Pilnik said, everyone has an obligation to provide a “safe and affirming setting” to LGBTQ youths.

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