LGBTQ Youth Over-Represented In Juvenile Justice System, Experts Say


This article originally appeared in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), which provides daily coverage of juvenile justice and related issues in the Southeast and around the nation.

Fabian Gomez-Miller was 14 when he first came out to his adoptive parents. He told them he was gay — something he knew for years, something he had prayed to God to change, something he knew wouldn't be accepted.

Hours later, he was no longer part of the family.

“They disowned me and I got put into the foster care system,” he said.

After shuffling through several group homes, Gomez-Miller ran away and headed for Los Angeles, where he knew no one. He found himself homeless and living day to day on the streets of the big city.

“I got into a lot of bad things while I was out there,” he said. “I got into sex, I got into drugs — I had got caught up.”

He ended up robbing a store and stealing $1,000 of merchandise. Convicted with a felony, he spent nine months incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.

“I was dealing with self-loathe, self-hate,” he said. “A lot of that self-hate came from not being accepted.”

After he got out, he had another brush with the law after stealing a bottle of alcohol. The charge was dropped to a misdemeanor, but he was put on probation until he was 18.

Gomez-Miller, who is now 20, knows the reality for many LGBTQ youth is tough. Although gay and transgender youth make up just 5 to 7 percent of the overall national population, a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth come into contact with all aspects of the juvenile justice system. LGBTQ youth represent up to 15 percent of the total juvenile justice population, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. And that's a conservative estimate, says Angela Irvine, director of research at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency, and who worked on the findings.

LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as their straight peers to be removed from their homes and be detained for status offenses, like running away from home or for skipping school, according to Irvine's study.

“[They're] twice as likely to be detained for a whole variety of offenses, like running away, prostitution and almost everything we measured,” Irvine said.

One of the biggest contributing factors for LGBTQ youth to end up in the juvenile justice system is family rejection, says Christina Gilbert, the director of the Equity Project at the National Juvenile Defender Center. Many youth, unable to feel accepted or safe at home run away.

“That may lead to homelessness that could lead to a host of problems, like truancy or survival crimes,” Gilbert said.

According to a 2012 report by the Williams Institute and True Colors Fund, 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Homeless youth can be detained for status offenses such as breaking curfew laws, or will often resort to committing crimes to subsist.

Lack of support in other systems, like school, is also a main factor, says Jody Marksamer, a criminal defense lawyer and consultant on LGBTQ youth issues.

“The school-to-prison pipeline for LGBT young people is a very common way for LGBT young people to enter the system,” he said.

According to the National Climate School Survey, 84 percent of gay and transgender youth reported being verbally harassed in school, and 40 percent reported being physically harassed.

If a student experiences high rates of harassment, it's not uncommon for them to feel a need to defend themselves by carrying a weapon to school or fighting back, Marksamer said. That can often lead to expulsion and the involvement of the police.

And once LGBTQ youth are in the juvenile justice system, they can be treated harmfully or in a discriminatory way, like being put into solitary confinement to protect them from other inmates.

Because youth of color are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, many of the LGBTQ youth in the system are also youth of color, which can often make them invisible to juvenile justice workers, Irvine says.

“It counters the myth that only white kids are gay,” she said.

Gilbert, of the National Juvenile Defender Center, says there's also a lack of understanding especially around transgender youth, where judges and officials see it as a sign of rebellion. Some judges won't address a transgender youth by his or her preferred name.

“I think the system thinks they're being uncooperative or trying to break the rules when it's really about their identities, ” Gilbert said.

However, advocates say that over the past five years they've seen positive changes in both policy and attitudes. For one, awareness about LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system has grown, Gilbert said. Detention centers across the country have started to adopt non-discrimination policies to protect youth.

On a federal level, the Department of Justice released its final rule on the Prison Rape and Elimination Act in 2012, which includes national standards on how LGBTQ youth should be treated in detention centers.

Still, advocates say there's a long way to go, especially in addressing the root causes of why youth end up in the system in the first place.

“A cultural change — that's what really needs to happen,” Gilbert said.

For his part, Gomez-Miller has been spending his days mapping out blueprints of a youth empowerment program he's planning to start in Los Angeles by the end of this year.

“I want it to be safe haven for foster youth or for LGBT youth,” he said.

He knows the statistics are staggering. He hopes his experience as a gay youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems will help other LGBTQ young people, and is planning to pursue a master's degree in clinical social work.

“I want to help kids like I was,” he said. “I want to be that inspiration to that one kid who doesn't know how to make it.”

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