Finding Permanent Homes for LGBT Youth in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems

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Finding Permanent Homes for LGBT Youth in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems

Angela Irvine, Director of Research - Oakland, NCCD

The child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems have concurrently created disparate outcomes for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming youth. For example, Himmelstein and Brückner (2010) uncover evidence that LGBT youth are more seriously punished for the same crimes committed by straight youth. They found that nonheterosexual youth are more likely to be expelled from school, arrested, and convicted of a juvenile offense compared with straight youth engaged in the exact same transgressive behaviors.[1] A recent national study found also that LGBT youth are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system: At least 15% of the population in juvenile detention is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or gender non-conforming.[2] And while some criminal justice professionals assume only white youth are LGBT, African American and Latino youth disclosed lesbian, gay, or bisexual sexual orientations, or non-conforming gender identities, at the same rate as white youth.[3]

This involvement in the juvenile justice system is strongly linked to conflict in the home. Irvine’s (2010) study of youth in the juvenile justice system found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming (LGBT) youth in juvenile detention were twice as likely to have a history of home removal by a social worker, placement in a group or foster home, or homelessness when compared with their straight peers.[4] LGBT youth are also twice as likely to be detained in the juvenile justice system for running from home or placement. The disparity in detention rates for running from home or placement is staggering: 28% of gay and bisexual boys are detained for running away compared with 12% of straight boys. At the same time, 38% of lesbian and bisexual girls are detained for running away compared with 17% of straight girls.[5] Once LGBT youth are arrested, it is often difficult to find out-of-home placements, leading to unnecessarily long lengths of stay in detention centers.

For example, “Michael” is a 13-year-old bisexual, African American boy in Minneapolis.[6] He was removed from his parents at a young age and placed in a foster home, which he later ran away from, leading to a period of homelessness. Once he was arrested for running away, probation had a difficult time finding a home that would accept a boy who identifies as bisexual. As such, sexual orientation lies at the heart of this institutional conundrum that leads to unnecessarily long detention periods.

Similarly, “Candice” is a 16-year-old white, transgender girl living in Las Vegas who describes her sexual orientation as “pansexual.”[7] Like many LGBT youth, she was removed from her home as a child and placed in a foster home. Her offense history includes only minor status offenses such as loitering and skipping school. Yet she has been held in detention for long periods of time because she, like “Michael,” is “difficult to place.” While in custody, transgender youth like “Candice” face the greatest risks because probation line staff are rarely trained on how to ensure the well-being of youth who identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. [8]

Given the high rates of running from home, group homes, and foster care placements for LGBT youth, as well as the poor conditions of confinement LGBT youth face in detention, NCCD has started a project called Improving Permanency for LGBT Youth. Located in Alameda, Orange, and Fresno counties in California, this project seeks to build an infrastructure of permanent, culturally competent housing for LGBT youth. Child welfare workers in each county will be trained to more effectively serve LGBT youth. In addition, each county will develop their own priorities for reform within the juvenile justice system. Some sites will develop anti-discrimination policies for their detention centers. Other sites may train police officers to avoid status offense arrests that unfairly target LGBT youth. Yet other sites may train probation officers to more accurately assess when running behavior is tied to sexual orientation or gender identity. Regardless of which strategies counties select, they will each take steps toward stopping the cycle of running away and homelessness that anchors LGBT youth into the juvenile justice system.

For more information, contact Bernadette Brown, senior program specialist for the Improving Permanency for LGBT Youth Project.


[1] Himmelstein, Kathryn E. W., & Brückner, Hannah. 2010. “Criminal-Justice and School Sanctions Against Nonheterosexual Youth: A National Longitudinal Study.” Pediatrics, 127(1): 49–57.

[2] Irvine, Angela. 2010.  “’We’ve Had Three of Them’: Addressing the Invisibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Gender Non-conforming Youth in the Juvenile Justice System.” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 19(3).

[3] Irvine, 2010.

[4] Irvine, 2010.

[5] These statistics are based on an analysis of data comparing lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth to straight youth. The comparison between gender non-conforming and gender conforming youth are almost identical.

[6] “Michael” is a pseudonym. The information on “Michael” is taken from one of 2,200 surveys that were collected for Irvine, 2010. 

[7] “Candice” is a pseudonym. The information on “Candice” is taken from one of 2,200 surveys that were collected for Irvine, 2010. 

[8] Majd et. al., 2009; Garnette, 2011.

Submitted by Visitor on January 23, 2014 - 9:30am.

Having been a caseworker for all the populations mentioned, I am happy to see some stats that ring true with what I have observed. Issues relating to poverty and disenfranchisement definitely relate here. It's like the parents, police, and eventually, the courts, see the child as an other, rather than one of their own. Let's see everyone as ours, and practice some equality and fairness.

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