OP-ED: We Can Do More to Ensure Equitable Treatment of LGBTQ Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

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Co-authored by:
Marie Williams, Executive Director, Coalition for Juvenile Justice    
Ellen Kahn, M.S.S., Director, Children, Youth and Families Program, Human Rights Campaign

We need to do a much better job ensuring that teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) are treated equitably by the juvenile justice system.

A report from the Equity Project, tells us that LGBTQ youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to be placed in a juvenile detention facility. Additionally, Dr. Angela Irvine has found that LGBTQ youth are detained at nearly double the rate of heterosexual teens for status offenses, like skipping school and running away from home. Status offenses are behaviors that constitute a crime merely because the person who engaged in them is not an adult.

Advocates believe this disparity in detention rates is due in part to implicit bias among some police and judicial officers who may feel that these teens would not be safe in the community. Once behind bars, however, they are often anything but safe. The Equity Project found that among LGBTQ youth who were detained, 80 percent reported safety was a major concern for them. Additionally, a 2007 study undertaken by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that gay and transsexual inmates were 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted while in jail. The Equity Project reports that LGBTQ teens are also regularly placed in isolation, a practice that can have serious impacts on mental health. In fact, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has found that nearly 62 percent of teens who take their own lives while in detention centers were subjected to solitary confinement.

Families, law enforcement officers, and the judicial system, must all help ensure that LGBTQ youth get the services they need to feel safe in their homes and schools, thus enabling them to avoid status offense behaviors.

In December of last year, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice released the “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.” The Standards include specific recommendations for law enforcement, social service providers, courts and others to effectively address the needs of LGBTQ youth charged with status offenses.

Among the recommendations was recognizing families as allies in the process of identifying and meeting the needs of LGBTQ youth who are system-involved. Recent research by the Family Acceptance Project has found that therapy and counselling services can result in significant improvements, even among families where homophobia and rejection of their child initially existed. This in turn results in better physical and emotional outcomes for LGBTQ youth. The National Standards also encourage providers and families to support youth in their relationships with positive LGBTQ role models.

The Standards further call for providers to:

  • Ensure that LGBTQ youth are connected to affirming social, recreational and spiritual opportunities, and that their confidentiality is respected in this process.

  • Identify when youth are entering the system due to alienation, exclusion, or persecution at home, in foster care or group homes, in the community or at school, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Review nationally available best practice standards, and follow a written nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy.

  • Recognize and acknowledge that prior experiences at home and elsewhere may have been traumatic, and that LGBTQ youth may need support, intervention, or treatment for trauma.

  • Treat all youth, including those who identify as LGBTQ or non-gender conforming, with respect and fairness, and permit them to express their identities.

By using best practices, providing youth with access to appropriate services, and implementing the “National Standards” juvenile justice system stakeholders can help make sure all youth are treated fairly by the juvenile justice system.


This op-ed has been reprinted from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Marie Williams, JD, is Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and leads the organization’s Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project.



Ellen KahnEllen Kahn, M.S.S., is the director of The Children, Youth and Families Program at the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.