Policy Experts Address the Challenges Facing LGBT Youth in Lockup


OJJDP Webinar examines difficulties in providing adequate services to detained LGBT populations

Why are we focused on LGBTQI youth all of a sudden?” said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls & Gender at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in Illinois.

The DePaul University adjunct professor answered her own inquiry by bringing up findings from a 2010 report that estimates that approximately 15 percent of incarcerated youth self-identify as LGBT and/or gender nonconforming. According to Selph, that means that as many as 40 juveniles in Cook County’s JTDC right now are part of a detained population she believes are often “largely invisible” in the eyes of most policymakers.

Selph was one of three speakers presenting information at Tuesday’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Webinar, titled Understanding the Importance of Implementing an Effective Justice System Response for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex (LGBTQI) Youth in Custody. The presentation, hosted by the National Training & Technical Assistance Center, is the third Webinar in the “Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges Faced by LGBTQI Youth” series. Earlier installments in the series have examined topics such as improving the treatment of LGBTQI youth in schools and communities and the role of family in promoting the well-being of at-risk juveniles.

The most-recent Webinar examined the needs of LGBT youth in custody, as well as the impact of new United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) regulations that call for specific protections for detained LGBTQI juveniles.

Selph said that LGBT youths were arrested for prostitution, running away from home or other placements and outstanding warrants at disproportionate rates compared to the general youth population. She also noted that they were at far greater risk for bullying, suicide, substance abuse and sexual transmitted infections (STIs). Additional issues, such as legal or educational concerns, she said, often compound LGBTQI identity.

“We can’t ignore it and we can’t put it aside,” Selph said. “We want to ensure the safety for all youth.”

Selph said emotional safety is often implied, but not necessarily focused on, when addressing LGBT youth in detention facilities. She said that addressing such emotional concerns, particularly for “closeted” youth, were “of the utmost importance, because we don’t know who they are.”

Four years ago, Selph said that her facility enacted a series of new policies and programs that directly addressed the needs of detained LGBT youth. “In 2008, the JTDC began a large reorganization effort under the leadership of transitional administrator Earl Dunlap,” she said.

These policy changes addressed staff shortages, improved and increased mental health and medical care services and introduced annual review processes, as well as developed leadership training programs for management staff and a six-week pre-service training program for incoming staffers. Additional relationships with community agencies were also created, she said, to help provide programming for both detained youth and juveniles on the verge of re-entry.

Selph said that heterosexism and homophobia are commonplace in juvenile detention centers. “One way to address it is through polices,” she said, suggesting that facilities adopt gender neutral clothing, ensure the privacy of detainees while showering and discuss the use of formal names and pronouns for residents.

She advised facility operators to “eliminate” assumptions about gender and sexuality among youth in custody. Selph said that expectations and consequences should be equal for LGBT youth and heterosexual youth alike, while specific programming should address the needs and concerns for LGBTQI populations. By doing so, she said the “trauma LGBTQI youth face in detention” may be lessened or even completely remedied.

Caleb Asbridge, Juvenile Services senior associate at the Moss Group, Inc., said that facility operators needed to take legal rights, facility culture, and policy and operational issues into account when assessing the needs of LGBTQI youth in custody. In addition to safety, security and medical protections, Asbridge advised facility managers to evaluate the “norms and informal procedures” of the facility, as well as note the “level of support for non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity expression” among staffers.

He advised that facilities develop specific policies for LGBT youth regarding showering, searches and clothing and grooming. Asbridge said that LGBT identities can often complicate things like group management, recreational outlets and transportation in a detention facility. Additional cultural conflicts, he said, means that special precautions must be taken regarding things like intake screenings and information management for LGBT detainees.

LGBT identities, he said, have an especially important context regarding medical and mental health services. Many times, Asbridge said that facility managers mislabel transgender detainees as youth with gender identity disorder, and he notes that most facilities have no guidelines in place to address the needs of youth undergoing hormone therapy treatment. He suggests that facilities offer youth access to family education and outreach resources, as well as reunification and reintegration plans. It’s the facility’s duty, he said, to ensure that LGBT youth return to safe homes and have access to adequate post-release support services.

OJJDP Compliance Monitoring Coordinator Elissa Rumsey spoke about the recently enacted Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a piece of legislation passed in 2003 that wasn’t officially ruled effective by the USDOJ until earlier this week. PREA established four sets of standards applicable in all adult and juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., with specific requirements in place to address the needs of LGBTI youth.

The new guidelines, she said, create standardized definitions of terms like “gender nonconforming” and “intersex” and places greater restrictions on cross-gender searches and examinations.

“This standard requires that facilities shall not search or physically examine a transgender or intersex resident for the sole purpose of determining the resident’s genital status,” Rumsey said. Under the new guidelines, conversations with detainees, medical records, and if needed, medical examinations conducted in private by medical practitioners will be used to determine the proper identifications for residents.

Regarding staff training and education, Rumsey said the new guidelines will teach security personnel how to conduct cross-gender pat-downs and searches of transgender and intersex juveniles in a “professional and respectful manner, and in the least intrusive manner possible.” Additional employee training will be required for employees who may have contact with residents, including training in how to respond to signs of threatened and actual sexual abuse and how to distinguish between consensual sexual contact and sexual abuse between residents.

Rumsey said the guidelines also change how facilities screen for risk of sexual victimization and abusiveness and whether or not specific LGBTI residents should be isolated from the general population - a decision that she said should be approached using “extreme caution” by facility managers.

Staff must now be trained in obtaining information from residents about prior sexual abuse histories, she said. Rumsey advised that staffers take a number of factors into consideration -- including emotional and cognitive development and the resident’s own “perception of vulnerability” -- into consideration when self-identifying LGBTI juveniles are being processed.

Rusmsey said that the guidelines prohibit the placing of LGBTQI residents in particular housing, beds or units based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even so, she noted that developing procedures for placement of transgender or intersex residents may prove difficult for staffers.

“In deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, and in making other housing and programming assignments,“ she said, “the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety, and whether the placement would present management or security problems.”

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