By: Robert L. Listenbee, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) with contributions from Keith Towery, Grants Management Specialist, OJJDP
All children deserve a chance—a chance to be safe, to be educated and to be themselves. Too often, this chance is denied to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, gender nonconforming (LGBTQI-GNC) and Two-Spirit1 youth. Many of these youth are rejected by their families and bullied by their peers. The lack of familial and peer support can lead LGBTQI-GNC youth into the juvenile justice system, where they may also face abuse or harassment.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is the only federal agency focused solely on the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system-and that includes LGBTQI-GNC and Two-Spirit youth. We must acknowledge the challenges that this youth population faces every day and the opportunities that we all have to help them succeed.
Some estimates indicate that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth (11 to 21 years old) represent roughly 7 percent of the U.S. youth population. Yet, they comprise more than 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system (Irvine 2010; Irvine & Canfield 2016). Their unique experiences and needs often are not acknowledged or addressed.
The 2012 National Survey of Youth in Custody reveals that non-heterosexual youth reported a substantially higher rate of youth-on-youth victimization than their heterosexual peers while in custody (Beck 2012). These youth are subjected to verbal and physical harassment, receive inappropriate placement when admitted into sex-segregated services and facilities and are sometimes easy targets for harassment due to their gender non-conforming expressions. This harassment comes from peers as well as the professionals entrusted with their care. These youth have reported feeling trapped, alone and different from their peers (Feinstein et al. 2001; Majd et al. 2009; Hunt et al. 2012).
At OJJDP, we believe that a youth's sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression should not impede his or her ability to receive fair and beneficial treatment from the juvenile justice system. This includes protecting LGBTQI-GNC and Two-Spirit youth from bullying or abuse at the hands of other youth or their caretakers while involved in the system.
Misinformation, stereotypes and implicit biases in the juvenile justice system have shaped many outcomes for this population. For example, studies suggest that LGBTQI-GNC youth are detained more frequently by police officers than their heterosexual peers (Russell & Diaz 2011; Dank 2015). LGBTQ youth are often placed in sex offender or segregated units, or in protective custody, simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (Feinstein et al. 2001).
We also know from research that LGBTQI-GNC youth often experience a hostile school climate and may fight to protect themselves (Snapp 2015). School administrators and school resource officers are three times more likely to harshly discipline LGBTQI-GNC youth than their heterosexual peers. Mandated punishments, like those required by "Zero Tolerance Policies," do not take circumstances into account and deny school administrators the discretion to employ alternative corrective actions (Himmelstein & Bruchner 2011). Youth who report having a negative school experience, with little support from school staff, often exhibit behavior problems that lead to suspension or expulsion—and may also lead to the juvenile justice system (Christle et al. 2005).
Adults must lead by example. We must establish a fair and beneficial environment for the LGBTQI-GNC and Two-Spirit youth who enter the juvenile justice system. This includes educating their peers to promote understanding and discourage bullying behaviors, as well as training staff to meet the unique needs of this population.
OJJDP's work in this area is based on the needs defined by LGBTQI-GNC youth and their advocates. In 2014, the office held a listening session titled "Creating and Sustaining Fair and Beneficial Environments of LGBTQ Youth." We recently released a report on ideas emerging from the session. In September 2015, the office awarded a grant to Impact Justice to analyze the disparities in the pathways into incarceration for LGBTQI-GNC girls arrested for prostitution.
OJJDP also maintains a steadfast focus on improving the lives of LGBTQI-GNC youth through our mentoring programs. Organizations funded under our Mentoring Opportunities for Youth program and Mentoring for Child Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Domestic Sex Trafficking initiative are providing high-quality mentoring services to LGBTQI-GNC youth.
OJJDP is listening to—and responding to—the needs of LGBTQI-GNC and Two-Spirit youth. But we have more to do, and we cannot do it alone. To truly address the needs of this population, we must come together to create policies and programs that promote fair treatment for all youth—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
1Two-Spirit is a term used by some Native Americans to identify LGBTQI and gender variant persons ONLY within their community.