Home News Center Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and Opportunity

Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and Opportunity

June 12, 2015
Judy Yu


[Part 4 i in a series of posts celebrating NJJN's 10th anniversary and our nine principles of youth justice reform. See "Why Youth Reentry Matters"; "First,  Do No Harm"; "Got Gault? From Processing Youth to Due Process," Protecting LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System -- Progress and OpportunityBlocking the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Key to Ending Racial Disparity in Prison, and The Best Way to Help Kids in the Juvenile Justice System? Keep them Out of It. --Ed.]

A young man in a youth correctional facility endures threats of rape by other youth who also rub semen in his face because they think he is gay. A lesbian in custody and her girlfriend suffer routine verbal harassment by officers who make sexually explicit and demeaning remarks. A transgender girl encounters repeated verbal abuse by both staff and other youth, and physical assaults and groping by youth, which occurs in front of guards. The facility’s response is to place her in isolated segregation — which is known to be psychologically damaging to youth.

Where do these stories come from? A federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) in 2005 by the ACLU of Hawaii, which highlighted each of these abuses. Sadly, these stories are not unique — or a thing of the past. One national survey found that approximately 80 percent of youth indicated that “lack of safety in detention” was a “serious problem” for LGBT youth.1  

Though numbers vary, research shows that there are a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth in the youth justice system. One survey of secure facilities for youth found that thirteen percent of youth are non-heterosexual,2 while another found that 15 to 20 percent of youth in youth justice facilities around the country are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming.3 Moreover, these are predominantly youth of color.4 Once there, they face harassment and mistreatment.5

Youth justice reformers across the country can help put a stop to this. We’ve chosen this month to highlight this issue because it’s June, celebrated nationally as LGBT Pride Month, and because we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) —  a national organization of 51 state-based advocacy groups like the Correctional Association of New York working in 39 states on behalf of youth in trouble with the law. Each of NJJN’s member organizations has endorsed nine principles of youth justice reform, including the importance of recognizing and serving youth with specialized needs. While “specialized needs” can include a broad range of youth, including girls, youth with mental health needs or youth with learning disabilities, it also applies to LGBTQ youth in the system. 

And we’ve made some progress on this issue already. Youth in New York State’s youth justice system have also reported inhumane treatment based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. A 2006 lawsuit  against the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) on behalf of a transgender woman, Alyssa Rodriguez, who was denied hormones and punished by OCFS for expressing her gender -- coupled with similar stories from collected from LGBTQ youth about their rights being violated in custody -- prompted the LGBTQ Work Group of the New York Juvenile Justice Coalition, coordinated by the Correctional Association of New York (CA), to work with OCFS to develop a groundbreaking policy and set of guidelines for working with LGBTQ youth. We also engaged diverse stakeholders in this process, including soliciting the feedback of system-involved LGBTQ youth participating in our youth leadership, advocacy, and community organizing training program, Safe Passages.  

Released in 2008, OCFS’s policy was one of the first of its kind in the country, serving as a model for other jurisdictions. It is notable for its comprehensive provisions to create an environment and culture sensitive to the particular needs of LGBTQ young people. For example, the policy describes best practices for supporting youth who choose to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, mandates the use of a preferred name and gender pronoun for transgender youth, and establishes procedures for youth to begin or continue hormone therapy in accordance with accepted standards of care. The policy also promotes and reinforces best practices for working with all youth, using a positive youth development-based model.

And the policy has had a positive impact. Red Hook Residential Center, the same facility that denied Alyssa Rodriguez her hormones and discriminated against her for her gender identity, now specializes in working with LGBTQ youth. During a visit by the Correctional Association to evaluate the implementation of the policy, we were impressed by the positive caring relationships between staff and youth that we saw on our visit. We learned that Red Hook provides extensive and repeated training to staff on working with LGBTQ youth, and is committed to using positive youth development principles. Their work shows that it is possible to transform a punitive discriminatory facility into one that supports and affirms LGBTQ youth.

Advocates in New York have also used OCFS’s policy successfully to press New York City’s youth justice system to adopt its own policy, which we helped draft. We continue to engage with youth justice agencies in New York to push for non-discrimination policies. We work closely with these agencies to ensure the meaningful implementation of these policies, including effective training and coaching of all staff, and orientation for youth about their rights. A number of jurisdictions around the country now have LGBTQ non-discrimination policies, such as New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission, the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center, and Ohio’s Department of Youth Services, to name a few. Advocates across the country must and can continue to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth by asking about and lobbying for model policies within their jurisdiction that protect court-involved LGBTQ youth and for meaningful implementation of such policies, including robust training. LGBTQ incarcerated youth deserve and need culturally responsive and respectful environments where they can develop and explore all aspects of their identity – a vital part of healthy adolescent development. The adoption and comprehensive implementation of LGBTQ non-discrimination policies improve conditions of confinement not just for LGBTQ youth, but also for all incarcerated youth.

About the Author

Judy-Yu_Correctional-Association-of-New-YorkJudy Yu, MPH, MFA is the Associate Director of LGBTQ Youth Issues for the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York, where she advocates for the humane, equitable, and fair treatment of court involved LGBTQ youth, and oversees an initiative to evaluate the safety of LGBTQ youth incarcerated in New York. She also serves as chair of the LGBTQ Work Group of the NY Juvenile Justice Coalition. Previously, Judy was Director of Programs at APEX, an Asian American youth organization in NYC. She also managed the health education, arts programming and training services at the youth program of the NYC LGBT Community Center. She serves on the Equity Project Advisory Committee, the NYC Family Court Advisory Council to the Administrative Judge Committee for LGBT Matters, and the Advisory Council for StoryCorps’s OutLoud Project. She received the 2014 NYC Administration for Children’s Services Outstanding Community Advocate Award.

 Photo credits for image at top. Youth shown for illustrative purposes only.  

[1] Katayoon Majd, Jody Marksamer, and Carolyn Reye, “Hidden Injustice: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts” (The Equity Project, 2009).

[2] Allen J. Beck, Paige M. Harrison, and Paul Guerino, “Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth 2008-09” (United States Department of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 228416, 2010), http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov /index.cfm?ty_pbdetail&iid_2113.

[3] Angela Irvine, “‘We’ve Had Three of Them’: Addressing the Invisibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Gender Non-Conforming Youths in the Juvenile Justice System,” Columbia Journal of Gender & Law 19, no. 3 (2010): 28.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hunt, Jerome, and Aisha Moodie-Mills, “The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth: An Overview of the Experiences of LGBT Youth in the Juvenile Justice System” (Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012), http://bit.ly/1jEhX1C.  

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