LGBTQI Youth in the Juvenile Justice System: States Work Toward Improvements

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By Audrey Eisemann
Project Associate, Communications and Youth Engagement
Coalition for Juvenile Justice

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI)[1] youth are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. About 13 to 15 percent[2] of youth in detention self-identify as LGBT and 60 percent of LGBT youth arrested or detained are youth of color. Furthermore, it is estimated that 40 percent of girls involved in the juvenile justice system are LGBTQ. All of these rates are significantly higher than the widely used estimate that LGBT youth compose 5 to 7 percent of the general youth population.

There is no correlation between this overrepresentation and the rate of misbehavior of LGBT youth. In fact, these disparities are a direct result of the discriminatory policies, practices, and environments that LGBT youth face. Once detained, the situation often worsens for LGBT youth, especially those housed in adult facilities. Beyond harassment and discrimination, LGBT youth are at risk for abuse, unnecessary isolation, and forced participation in harmful conversion therapies.

Issues LGBT Youth Face in Schools

Schools, which should be an oasis from stress and abuse for LGBT youth, often have elements of anti-LGBT discrimination, harassment, and abuse. For example, LGB youth (especially gender non-conforming girls) are three times more likely to be on the receiving end of severe punishment by school administrators. Zero tolerance bullying policies that rely on punitive consequences, instead of best practice intervention methods, fail to confront the source of discrimination, harassment and abuse, which only exacerbates bullying. Moreover, they often unfairly punish LGBT youth for defending themselves. An estimated 55.5 percent of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and 37.8 percent of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their gender expression.

Darnell Young had just transferred to Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, to start his junior year. He was hoping that the harassment he experienced at his previous school would not follow him to this new one, but before long, he became a target again. Students called him a “fag” on a daily basis and he received threats of violence. His mother worried for his safety. When the school’s administration did not step in  to stop the harassment, Darnell’s mother, Chelisa Grimes, did what she felt she had to do: she gave her son a stun gun and told him to take it to school to scare off any student who tried to hurt him. On April 16, 2012, a group of students surrounded Darnell and were threatening to beat him up. He pulled the stun gun out of his bag and fired it at the ceiling, in an attempt to frighten off his attackers. It worked. Minutes later, school police arrested Darnell for having a weapon at school. He faced expulsion.”

Source: “The School-to-Prison Pipeline for LGBT Youth," by Tim Michael,


When youth do not feel safe and accepted at school, they are more likely to miss school, have lower academic achievement, have higher levels of depression, and lower levels of self-esteem. Compounded by the increased police presence in schools, LGBT youth are shuffled into the school-to-prison pipeline with few resources available to them.

Home Environments and Family-based Interventions

Home environments -- familial, foster, or group home placements -- are another vital support for affirming the sexual orientation or gender identity/expression of LGBT youth. Family-oriented care is often the best method for LGBT youth who have had contact or are at risk for contact with the juvenile justice system. Such care “meet[s] parents, families, and caregiver ‘where they are,’ to build an alliance to support their LGBT children, and to help them understand that family rejections that are experienced as rejection by their LGBT child contribute to serious health concerns and inhibit their child’s development and well-being.”[3]

LGBT youth who experienced high levels of rejection were over eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide and over three times more likely to engage in risky behaviors like using illegal drugs when compared to peers who experienced no family rejection or lower levels of rejection. According to service providers, family rejection is present in 68 percent of cases of homeless LGBT youth. Family-based interventions are often the best option for confronting this problem. “Targeted interventions can work to change the behavior of families that are not initially accepting of LGBTQ children, and research shows that even small improvements in family acceptance of LGBTQ youth can lead to better physical and mental health outcomes.”[4] Therefore, before considering out-of-home placements, family-based interventions should be explored as an option.

For some LGBT youth who are placed outside their homes, positive placements can be transformative. For others, their placement is another instance of rejection, discrimination, harassment, and/or abuse.   

Protecting Homeless and Runaway LGBT Youth

When youth do not feel safe or accepted in their home environment they are more likely to run away. As aforementioned, family rejection is a major reason that LGBT youth end up homeless -- almost 40 percent of homeless youth self-identify as LGBT. Once youth have left their home environment, they are at risk of being locked up for a status offense, such as truancy or running away. Additionally, they are often without support and at risk for being trafficked or relying on survival sex.

In New York City, LGBTQ youth are seven times more likely to trade sex for a place to stay than their heterosexual counterparts. Rather than treating these children as victims of the environments they have fled or are currently in, current laws treat these children as criminals. Furthermore, LGBTQ youth are discriminated against by law enforcement officers who either use possession of condoms as evidence of intent to engage in sex work or assume consensual sexual activities are sex work.

Andy was a skinny, shy 14-year-old when he started trading sex for shelter. Andy…identifies as queer with his gender and sexuality, a phrase some use to describe a sexuality or gender (or both) that doesn’t fit with traditional definitions of straight, gay, male or female. Andy had suffered sexual and physical abuse at home. Plus, his household was so strict that “coming out wasn’t even an option,” he says. “If I had stayed, I would have ended up killing myself,” he tells Newsweek. “And I had tried.” Andy ended up hitchhiking around the U.S., living with adults who would provide food and housing in exchange for sex...At around 17, Andy wound up in New York City. Clients raped and robbed him during his years on the streets. But he was wary of seeking help, —even in as LGBTQ-friendly a city as New York. Andy says he felt child protective services and law enforcement agencies wouldn’t be sympathetic. If he went to a shelter as a minor, he would wind up on its radar. If that happened, they would place him in foster care or, worse, send him back home, he feared.”

Source: “Why are Homeless LGBTQ Youth Trading Sex for Shelter?” by Victoria Bekiempis,


In the Spotlight: CJJ Members as Reformers

These facts are not new or surprising to many who work in juvenile justice advocacy. The faces are all too often lost in the crowd, seen as a statistic, neglected, and ignored. Many states are working to improve their systems’ responses to LGBTQI youth; here are examples from several of CJJ’s members.


The Colorado Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) implemented a policy in December 2014 to create safe environments for LGBTQ youth with required staff training through their online education program. They have also taken steps to obtain certification through the All Children-All Families LGBT Certification project offered by Human Rights Campaign (HRC), “which provides a framework for agencies to achieve safety, permanency and well-being by improving their practice with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and families.”[5] This will involve meeting the 10 Benchmarks of LGBT Cultural Competency enumerated by HRC.

Building off of the 2014 online training, Colorado is taking yet another step forward by developing interactive, in-person trainings on how DYC staff should work with GLBTQ youth. Jack Storti, a member of the Colorado State Advisory Group’s Emerging Leader’s Council, explained that “the purpose of our trainings is to truly educate providers in a way that allows them to gather information so that they become comfortable and confident in working with the GLBTQ community. As well as be able to update their policies and procedures to incorporate GLBTQ needs, while being inclusive and respectful. All providers that attend our free training may then apply for mini-grants that will assist them in reforming their policies and procedures with technical assistance and on site assistance.”

Much of the momentum of this initiative can be traced to the Emerging Leader’s Council, the youth council of Colorado’s SAG. In their three year plan, their designated areas of focus were determined to be: Equal Services to Youth in Diverse Communities, Professional and Education Development for Youth, and Community Outreach. The development of GLBTQ -specific training and services was part of the Equal Services goal. As noted by Storti, “the Emerging Leaders not only recognized the lack of GLBTQ specific treatment within the juvenile justice system but weren't afraid to face the problem.”

Their curriculum, based on Toward Equity Training Curriculum that is provided for free by The Equity Project, is still being finalized with both pre- and post-evaluation tools. It will be focused on Colorado’s DYC,  but adaptable for the needs of other state agencies and departments. Over the course of the one-day interactive training, participants will be ensured that they are in a safe space and that their voices will be heard, but also will reflect on their own personal biases.

South Carolina

South Carolina has taken steps forward to develop LGBT-specific trainings for their Department of Juvenile Justice and has offered trainings throughout the state to increase the competency of professionals and staff who work with youth in the juvenile justice system or youth at risk for entering it. This involved a partnership across agencies, including but not limited to, the Department of Mental Health, the Foster Care Association, and the Governor’s Office.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has awarded a grant to address and prevent youth suicide in the state and part of the development of this prevention is ensuring that there are policies and practices that address the needs of LGBT youth. Alexandra Karydi, the newly appointed Director of the South Carolina Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative[6] who has worked on LGBT-specific policies in South Carolina for a variety of agencies, explained that when creating these policies and practices, it is important to recognize that these youth are “struggling because of outside sources, not because of who they are.”

In Karydi’s experience developing trainings to reform youth-focused agencies, she noted that the hardest obstacle in creating systemic change is individual ideologies, not the lack of services. Karydi’s suggestion to those looking to institute reforms in their communities, agencies, organizations, and states is to “learn your customer’s language, learn what is of value and interest to them” and to connect with them on that level so that they can “reexamine how they are treating kids and see if it matches their values.” Secondly, Karydi advises that “this is not something that anyone should tackle on their own or take ownership of.” Community involvement and partnership is vital to creating long-lasting systemic change.


Florida, through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and other reform implementations, is individualizing care for their youth. Their Roadmap to System Excellence states that “[w]e must recognize that each youth is different and individualize our services.” This direction of care supports the case-by-case assessment, service provision for, and placement of LGBT youth. This philosophy reinforces the PREA implementation that has taken place in Florida as well. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Detention Centers have successfully instituted policy and practice changes that include screening and identifying all youth who are vulnerable to victimization, providing all youth with access to trauma services, including counseling for LGBTI youth, and allowing LGBTI youth to shower separately and have single room stay for the length of their detention.

CJJ’s Resources

For those SAG’s, departments, and agencies looking to institute similar trainings and reforms, CJJ’s webinar on “LGBT Youth in Juvenile Justice: Creating Agency Policies for an Equitable System on the State and Local Level” is a strong place to start. During this webinar,  Christina Gilbert, Director of The Equity Project,  Lisa Belmarsh, Director of Policy & Training of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, and Laura Garnette, Chief Probation Officer of the Santa Clara County Probation Department discuss the factors that go into developing agency policies that protect legal rights of LGBT youth, with specific examples of how this was carried out in Santa Clara and Massachusetts.


[1] Different studies and programs may look at and/or work with all of some of these youth.  In this article, the acronym appropriate to the group included is used (e.g., if a study only looked at Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual youth, the abbreviation LGB would be used; if it also looked at transgender youth, the abbreviation would be LGBT.)

[2] More recent studies suggest the LGBT youth are even more overrepresented than this study found.

[3] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children. HHS Publication No. PEP14-LGBTKIDS. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

[6] Previously known as the Young Lives Matter Project.


Audrey is responsible for overseeing CJJ's communications and expanding youth engagement portfolio. In addition, she provides research and project support for CJJ’s policy, training and technical assistance, and other work. Prior to joining CJJ, she was the Executive Assistant for Ralph Nader at the Center for Study of Responsive Law. Audrey has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science with a concentration in Urban Development and Social Change from Clark University, as well as a Master’s Degree in Public/Nonprofit Administration from Clark University.