Let’s Continue to Improve Justice for LGBT Youth

June 23, 2014

Pride Month celebrations across the country are more cheerful than ever thanks to recent stories of momentous progress within communities and the federal government. For the first time in United States’ history, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are enjoying the freedom to live openly as accepted members of the big extended family that is America. As the year moves on, we can do even more to help disenfranchised LGBT youth succeed in life and move further toward LGBT equity.

As Congress considers reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), there is an opportunity to substantially improve the way our justice system deals with youth delinquency and its prevention. Through this process, it is important that vulnerable LGBT youth — years away from feeling the effect of strides like Windsor v. U.S. — are not left behind. LGBT Americans under the age of 18 experience higher rates of violence; are four times more likely to attempt suicide; are disproportionately homeless; and are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system when compared to their heterosexual peers.

Young LGBT individuals are exposed to several risk factors that increase their chances of interacting with the justice system. Chief among these are frequently hostile school environments. Research indicates a majority of LGB children begin to identify their same-sex attractions as early as age 10. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the more than 7,000 LGBT students surveyed in 2009 between the ages of 13 and 21, eight in every ten students had been verbally harassed, 40 percent had been physically harassed, and one in every five had been the victim of a physical assault at school within the past year.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2011 National School Climate Survey found that students who experienced victimization because of their sexual orientation were three times as likely to miss school. Frequently, in an effort to escape further harassment, many LGBT youth skip school only to find themselves facing truancy charges. This issue is compounded by the fact that 60.4 percent of students surveyed by GLSEN did not report incidences of victimization to school staff — most often believing little to no action would be taken.

The 2009 report, “Hidden Injustice: LGBT Youth in Juvenile Courts” revealed school officials disproportionately target LGBT youth for punishment and refer them to juvenile court for minor misconduct that could more appropriately be handled at school. The report explains cases in which parents refuse to assume custody of their LGBT children and courts rely on detention without considering alternative resources, such as community-based mental healthcare. A 2009 study explains that LGBT adults, who reported high levels of family rejection during adolescence when compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection, were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Youth with mental health conditions and histories of trauma are disproportionately represented in juvenile courts. According to the American Psychological Association, 66 percent of males and 74 percent of females detained in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for at least one mental health diagnosis. Similar statistics are common among LGBT youth, and have substantial influence on the social adjustment and well-being of LGBT individuals. Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that LGBT people experience significantly higher rates of PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders than the general population.

Efforts are in motion to improve social services for LGBT youth. SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative aims to increase collaboration with the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Issue Team of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to identify areas in which behavioral health issues contribute to disproportionate LGBT youth contact. Resources already exist to support social service providers’ interactions with young LGBT individuals, including SAMHSA’s Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children and several other LGBT-focused educational materials.

Youth-serving organizations, mental health counselors, and other social service clinicians have made great strides towards meeting the needs of children and young adults. The services and outreach provided to young people who identify as LGBT have vastly improved over the past several years. Reauthorization of the JJDPA affords policymakers another opportunity to take a giant leap forward to improve care and services for our children — particularly through culturally competent and trauma-informed interventions that promote resiliency. To reduce LGBT youths’ involvement with the justice system, connecting them to high quality mental healthcare must be a priority.

While deliberating reauthorization of the JJDPA, lawmakers must appreciate the experiences of LGBT adolescents and ensure juvenile justice agencies have the capacity to screen for mental health and addiction disorders, and the resources available to refer youth to community-based alternatives. Taking these steps will be another of many in the right direction towards equality for all Americans.

Adam SwansonAdam D. Swanson, MPP, is a Policy Associate with the National Council for Behavioral Health in Washington, DC. Contact him via email at AdamS@thenationalcouncil.org. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamDSwanson.



This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. jjdpa matters icon

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.

Adam D. Swanson



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Kudos Adam!