Supporting Systems-Involved LGBTQ Youth

“If the people with authority don’t think I’m an equal human being, why should I?”

This haunting question was recently asked by a young transgender man participating in a focus group with the Center for Children & Youth Justice, a Pride Foundation grantee. The participant shared that he felt so hopeless that he was hospitalized multiple times for suicide ideation and suicide attempts.

All of these feelings were directly tied to the lack of acceptance of his gender identity from the system professionals he encountered and from his community.

This young man’s experiences—while heartbreaking—are unfortunately not unique.

LGBTQ youth are currently over-represented in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Despite this fact, there are few, if any, mechanisms in place to ensure that youth receive culturally-competent services, resources, and the emotional support necessary to thrive. The trauma LGBTQ youth experience at the hands of these systems impacts their well-being far into the future.

Given the growing number of LGBTQ youth experiencing system-involvement, homelessness, and related trauma, Pride Foundation recently awarded a grant to the Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ), to support their eQuality project. This project marks the first statewide effort in Washington to help LGBTQ youth find safety and support for the unique issues they face in the foster care and the juvenile justice systems.

Many child welfare and juvenile justice agencies do not collect information about sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, leading to a significant lack of available data on this population. To adequately address the needs of systems-involved LGBTQ youth, it is critical to have a comprehensive and data-driven understanding of where and how these systems are failing them.

To gain insight into the barriers and challenges facing LGBTQ youth within these systems in Washington State, CCYJ compiled research, conducted interviews and focus groups, and gathered first-hand accounts from LGBTQ system alumni. Their findings were recently released in a report entitled “Listening to Their Voices: Enhancing Successful Outcomes for LGBTQ Youth in Washington State’s Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems.

The first report of its kind in the state, Listening to Their Voices highlights the harsh reality that many LGBTQ youth in our state face on a daily basis.

Why are LGBTQ Youth Disproportionately Represented in These Systems?

As outlined in the report, although initial reasons for involvement in the child welfare system vary, for many LGBTQ youth family rejection plays a direct role in becoming system-involved—with youth either being kicked out of their homes or running away. A young person is then either discovered by child welfare services, or charged with an offense that leads to their entry into the juvenile justice system.

In addition to family rejection, many youth enter the juvenile justice system through negative experiences at school. Unwelcoming and unaccepting school environments often result in queer youth being pushed out of the classroom. Both harsh discipline practices and the threat of harassment and bullying from peers, teachers, and administrators often make school an unsafe place for LGBTQ youth. Failure to stay in school increases the likelihood that students will come into contact with the juvenile justice system—a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

CCYJ’s report finds that approximately 50% of the LGBTQ system alumni participants have been involved in both the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems—also known as dual-system involvement.

What Happens to LGBT Youth Once in These Systems?

“Once in the child welfare and/or juvenile justice system, many LGBTQ youth experience significant mistreatment including discrimination, harassment, and additional trauma at the hands of caretakers, system professionals, and peers.”
                                                                                             -Listening to Their Voices

One of the largest challenges that LGBTQ youth face within the child welfare system is the scarcity of stable and accepting homes. A lack of LGBTQ-accepting placement options, combined with the fact that placements are not always screened for their acceptance of LGBTQ youth, results in frequent placement changes for queer youth.

These experiences can be especially traumatizing for young people that have already faced family rejection—leading to additional emotional and psychological distress.

“I felt more neglected in the foster care system than at home with my real parents,” a focus group participant shared.

In addition, many participants in the report indicated that their social workers were “unsupportive and dismissive” toward their identity. Two focus group participants reported that their social workers said their sexual orientation or gender identity was “just a phase,” and that they would “get over it.”

Within the juvenile justice system, queer youth are also likely to face harassment, bullying, and general mistreatment. Over 60% of LGBTQ system alumni interviewed by CCYJ did not feel safe or comfortable disclosing their LGBTQ identity to system professionals (people working in Washington’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems, including employees at Washington Department of Social and Health Services/Children’s Administration, Juvenile Justice & Rehabilitation Administration, and the Washington Association of Juvenile Court Administrators). In fact, many reported that—when they did disclose their identity—they faced further mistreatment and marginalization.

One focus group participant shared that other girls in detention would bully and tease her and other youth because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The harassment was so severe that many youth were afraid to leave their cells. Not only did the staff not address this problematic behavior, on at least one occasion, a staff person even participated in harassing youth.

These incidents clearly point to another large barrier that LGBTQ youth face as they try to navigate these systems: the lack of access to culturally-competent services and a lack of training for systems professionals.

What This Means for LGBTQ Youth:

Overall, Listening to Their Voices paints a difficult picture of what it is like to be an LGBTQ youth that is systems-involved. Isolation, fear, mistreatment, and often re-trauma were recurring themes echoed by system alumni.

The report indicates that “Outcomes such as suicidal ideation and chemical dependency in addition to experiences with discrimination, harassment from others, and victimization are also likely outcomes for LGBTQ system alumni.”

Many of these factors can lead to homelessness as well—with over 80% of participants in the report experiencing unstable housing at least once in their life.

What we are seeing throughout Washington and across the country are systems that lack the ability to meaningfully support LGBTQ youth. Current policies, services, and treatment of LGBTQ youth are unfortunately reinforcing the narrative that queer youth don’t matter and do not deserve the same access to opportunities as their heterosexual peers.

If we treat youth like they’re disposable, can we really be surprised if they begin to believe it themselves?

Moving Forward: How Do We Improve Outcomes?

Thankfully CCYJ’s report also outlines solutions to better serve LGBTQ youth. Twelve recommendations were listed, including increasing permanency outcomes for LGBTQ youth in foster care, ensuring appropriate housing for LGBTQ youth by gender identity, developing effective strategies to combat harassment and bullying, increasing cultural competency, updating non-discrimination policies to explicitly protect LGBTQ youth, providing training to all system professionals, and expanding data collection methods to gather information on sexual orientation, gender identity, and pronouns.

Taking into account the unique experiences of LGBTQ youth and other marginalized groups, including youth of color, will allow us to build systems that work better for all youth. Listening to their Voices provides invaluable insight into the experiences and barriers facing Washington’s system-involved LGBTQ youth, and identifies important next steps.

Pride Foundation will continue advocating for more inclusive data collection standards so that we have an accurate understanding of the multiple ways these systems intersect and impact LGBTQ youth across our region.

As we strive to create stronger support structures for LGBTQ youth, it is critical that we remain focused on celebrating each young person for who they are. We need to communicate to them —in a world that tells them, every day and in too many ways, that they do not matter—that in fact their lives do matter. They matter very much.

Zachary Pullin is Pride Foundation’s Communications Manager. Email Zachary.


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