Judges’ Council Discusses Gay Youth, Checklists for Judges

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Former Florida juvenile and family court judge Irene Sullivan agreed to check out the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) annual conference in July, and report back to Youth Today on whichever panels and sessions she found to be the most interesting.

Following is Sullivan’s recap of the session on the treatment of gay youth in the juvenile justice system. Click here for Sullivan’s look at an NCJFCJ-led project to help judges ask all the right questions when it comes to removing children from the home.

LGBT Youth in Care Are Treated Unfairly: The Data’s In To Prove It

New York City – The day after same sex marriages became legal in New York, Kimberly Forte, supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, and Judge Paula Hepner, supervising judge in Brooklyn, gave an overview of recent research that clearly shows lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are at a higher risk for mistreatment in both dependency and delinquency systems nationwide. Then they asked the audience to examine their own values, stop dealing in stereotypes, and get rid of assumptions. 

In their presentation at the 74th annual conference of the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Forte and Hepner began with statistics that showed that:

  • Nationally, 15 percent of youth in pretrial detention identify as “not straight.”
  • 4 to 10 percent of youth in foster care identify as LGBT; in New York City, up to 20 percent.
  • Of the LGBT youth who are detained before seeing a judge, 28 percent are detained in juvenile facilities for running away from their home or placement. Only 12 percent of detained heterosexual juveniles are detained for those reasons.   
  • LGBT youth are at greater risk for harsh treatment and poor outcomes outside the juvenile justice and child welfare systems as well, Forte and Hepner said. They represent 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States.
  • LGBT kids who experience high levels of family rejection were 8.4 times more likely than other LGBT kids to have attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sex.  

LGBT youth who arrived in juvenile court were likely to be runaways, the presenters said, truant from school, experiencing family rejection, bullying and low self esteem. Therefore, they accumulated a lot of “points” on any standard risk assessment instrument used in detention hearings, were more likely to be locked up where they experienced more bullying, physical and psychological abuse and ineffective treatment from poorly trained mental health professionals. Many were incarcerated more quickly and for a longer term.

Frankly, the statistics weren’t surprising as they confirmed what I’d suspected as a juvenile judge and had discussed with court personnel on individual cases. The hard part in the presentation came next, as Hepner challenged the audience to move from the statistics to the “next frontier” by gaining “cultural competence” in working with LGBT youth in our care. Operationally, she defined cultural competence as “the process by which individuals, agencies, and systems integrate and transform awareness of assumptions, values, biases, and knowledge about themselves and others to respond with respect and from a place of acceptance.”  It’s about “moving beyond blindness, avoidance and simple tolerance of sexual orientation, sexual expression and gender identity to embrace the principles of equal access and non-discriminatory treatment in the delivery of services to LGBT youth and adults.”

For example:

  • Don’t assume that same sex adults with a youth in court are mother and “neighbor who came to support her.” They very well may be “Mom and Mommy” or “Dad and Daddy,” and their voices need to be heard.
  • Don’t try to figure out whether some is LGBT by questioning them, by encouraging them to come out or by “outing” them with good intentions. Make no assumptions about anyone and learn to act as if anyone may be LGBT whether you know it or not.
  • Seek placements and services that address the expressed needs of the LGBT youth. At the same time, make sure they have the same programmatic and recreational opportunities as all youth.
  • Accept the choice of attire of LGBT youth in court without discussion.
  • Use gender-inclusive terms in your questioning, e.g. not “Who’s your girlfriend?” but “Do you date anyone?”

It isn’t easy to get rid of assumptions, my mind told me. It takes a lot of practice. Ms. Forte and Judge Hepner provided a good starting place. Can a boy wear a dress to school? That’s a good place to start a discussion on cultural competence and the LGBT youth.

Irene Sullivan is the author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge’s Insight into Juvenile Justice. To read an excerpt from the book, click here.