WASHINGTON — Nearly one in 30 teens and one in 10 young adults experienced homelessness in the past year, a groundbreaking new study has found.
Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall interviewed more than 26,000 people from all over the country over the past year. They found that 4.3 percent of youths 13 to 17 years old reported at least one instance of homelessness; nearly 10 percent of young adults 18 to 25 years old had experienced homelessness.
The study, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” is one of the largest of its kind ever attempted. It also offers a wider look at what one researcher called the “spectrum” of homelessness — everything from sleeping on the streets to “couch surfing.”
“We are capturing homelessness that doesn’t fit with most people’s images of homelessness,” said Matt Morton, who helped lead the study. “The scale has not been highlighted. This helps capture the fluidity of it.”
The study, released today, is the first in a series of reports that Chapin Hill plans.
Morton and his co-authors estimate that at least 700,000 teenagers and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless in the past year. Nor was the experience all that temporary: Nearly three-quarters of youth surveyed were homeless for more than a month, the study reports.
The experiences may differ greatly, but the prevalence doesn’t seem to change much from cities to countryside, the study said. Some 9.6 percent of rural young adults experienced homelessness last year compared to 9.2 percent of urban young adults; 4.4 percent of rural teens suffered homelessness last year, compared to 4.2 percent of teens in urban America.
“It’s really a national problem,” Morton said.
Researchers also crunched the numbers behind youths’ homeless risk factors:
- Education appeared to be the biggest factor. Youth without a high school diploma or GED had a 346 percent higher risk of winding up homeless than youth who stayed in school;
- Unmarried young people with children were 200 percent more likely to suffer homelessness;
- Youth in poor families were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness;
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth were 120 percent more likely to wind up homeless;
- African-American youth were 83 percent more likely to experience homelessness; and
- Latino youth were 33 percent more likely to suffer homelessness.
Perhaps most alarming, Morton said, researchers found that nearly half the youths who went homeless in the previous year were doing so for the first time. For Morton, that means child welfare officials must engage early in preventing homelessness. “We cannot solve a problem that dynamic, that cyclical, without significant intervention upstream,” he said.
Whatever the report’s specific policy recommendations, it’s “a spectacular” way to open an important conversation, said Ruth Anne White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare in College Park, Maryland.
“Those numbers are sort of staggering. Even though I’m steeped in this, I’m just blown away,” she said. “I’m glad Chapin Hall got this on paper. This is kicking off a really important conversation.”
Despite researchers’ hopes that Congress will increase funding for and create new “housing interventions,” White is skeptical. Existing law may already be “flexible” enough for child welfare bureaucrats to get help to youths who need it, she said. What matter is getting the bureaucracy moving.
“There are kids that have dozens of foster care placements. In any event, it’s a very flexible stream of funding and I’m not sure why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the report,” she said.
“The main emphasis is to use existing funds,” White added. “I don’t think there’s any taxpayer who thinks that [funds] shouldn’t be automatically triggered when there’s a kid on the street. What are we doing with all that money?”
The report’s recommendations are:
- “Conduct national estimates of youth homelessness biennially to track our progress in ending youth homelessness.
- “Fund housing interventions, services and prevention efforts in accordance with the scale of youth homelessness, accounting for different needs.
- “Federal policy should encourage assessment and service delivery decisions that are responsive to the diversity and fluidity circumstances among youth experiencing homelessness.
- “Build prevention efforts in systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in our care: child welfare, juvenile justice and education.”
- “Acknowledge unique developmental and housing needs for a young population and adapt services to meet those needs.”
- “Tailor supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited service infrastructure over a larger terrain.”
- “Target strategies to address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among special subpopulations, including pregnant and parenting, LGBT, African-American and Hispanic youth, and young people without high school diplomas.”
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LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.
"What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system," Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. "LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area."
His first priorities are "assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work," he said.
The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. "The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction," he said. "My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus."
As for caseloads, "One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads," Cagle said. "The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large."
Another major concern is "the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations," he said.
“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.
She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.
The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.
Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.
According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.
DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining. According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.
“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.
Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.
"The work is just very disturbing sometimes," Cagle said. "You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can."
Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.
During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.
Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.
“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”
In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.
Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”
Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”
Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.
“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.
Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.
A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.
The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.
Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.
“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”
Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.
“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”
Roger Newton contributed to this story.
This story has been updated.
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It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.
The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.
Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.
This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”
It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.
These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.
The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.
As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.
That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.
Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.
Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.
So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.
And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.
While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.
It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.
So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?
If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.
It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.
What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.
Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.
Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.
As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.
It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?
October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.
Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.
Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.
Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.
To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.
Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.
At 7 a.m., teenagers are scurrying to dress and head to class. There are no parents or older siblings nearby to push them out of bed and out the door. And the commute isn’t long — just a short walk from prison bed to classroom.
But these young men at the MacLaren Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, are going someplace — and that’s a start, state educators and justice officials say.
The students meander from four different buildings, depending on their status — some as young as 15 and others who were sentenced as adults but placed in juvenile facilities — down long corridors to a central school.
“MacLaren is a regular school, and if you were to walk in you’d think you’re in a high school hallway,” said Deborah Martin, senior policy advisor for community services at the Oregon Youth Authority.
The students get the usual array of math, English and science. But MacLaren and most of Oregon’s other youth detention facilities also offer the chance to learn a vocation. An advanced auto mechanics class ties to a partnership with a local community college. Classes teach latticework and woodworking. Some students learn wildlife preservation and take advanced classes in fighting wildfires common to the Pacific Northwest.
The most advanced students, usually in their late teens or early 20s who have spent years in the facility and are ready to transition into the public sector, are allowed to work with local firefighters out in the fields.
“As a state, we’ve made a conscious decision that we can’t just give them a high school education, but give them a vocation and a chance to succeed in the work world,” Martin said. “For most of these kids, something wasn’t quite right about their life — that’s why they came to us. We want to help them get back on track.”
Oregon is considered at the forefront of efforts to improve the transition from juvenile detention back to public schools or into the workforce, according to education and juvenile justice experts.
In addition to schoolwork, the state has set up a system in which each teenager entering the juvenile justice system is assigned a parole officer who will stick with them until they exit the system.
The officers serve as case managers, arranging counseling, mental and substance abuse treatment if needed and, working with the teens, teachers and their families, devise an education and support plan as soon as they enter the system.
Additionally, Oregon provides some juveniles with transitional parole officers whose job is helping the teens and young adults in their first reentry months. What began as a pilot program four years ago with a single officer has developed into a statewide assistance program that has put about 100 teens into the workforce and helped many more return to the classroom.
Jim Kramer, chief of parole and probation for the Oregon Youth Authority, said transition officers stay in specific regions so they know about job opportunities and can build contacts in local school systems. They mostly support youth 17 and older.
All students leaving detention facilities in the state must be admitted into local schools. But “let’s face it, in some of these schools our students are going back to places in class with some of their victims, so there is some pushback,” Kramer said. “Our transition POs work to soften that landing and work with the school and student to come up with a transition plan.”
National trend to reduce recidivism
Oregon’s attempt to ease the transition from lockdown to society is part of a larger national trend that experts say is tied to a steep drop in juvenile crime and recidivism.
In the past two decades, the population of young people held in juvenile facilities or other forms of detention has been cut in half nationwide, according to a study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing solely on youth and their families.
The figures are encouraging, juvenile justice experts say, and show that more states are using data and lessons learned from comprehensive studies (such as one from the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice in 2016) as blueprints for diversion and treatment programs that keep teens in school and ultimately make them far less likely to reoffend.
But the success of diversion programs has created a new reality for educators and justice professionals: Those who are locked up now are sometimes more hardened, more difficult to reach and present a challenge to educate and treat before and after they reenter society.
“What the data shows is that as incarceration rates have gone down, the population still incarcerated are higher risk and higher need, and recidivism rates still tend to be pretty high because it’s a challenging group to work with,” said Josh Weber, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York City.
“It requires a more nuanced reading of data and a more sophisticated understanding of risk placement and how to tailor education programs to the individual,” Weber said. “The juvenile field has done a good job, much better than the adult system, of keeping kids from coming back into the system. But I think we’re still struggling with developing enough programs for mental health and substance abuse.”
Recidivism and dropping out of school
Educating teens held in facilities is crucial to helping them return to the classroom when they are released, experts said. But that’s not always easy, in large part because of circumstances students can’t control. Some teens are in locked facilities for only a few days or weeks, making it difficult for teachers to learn the best ways to help them learn. Nearly all students can be pulled from classes for court appearances or other reasons related to their legal issues.
In all, two-thirds of teens released from juvenile facilities never return to school and “find themselves far behind their peers,” according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on disparities in the justice system — adult and juvenile.
“A huge problem, and I’m not sure it’s talked about enough, is the lack of transfer of academic credits when students go from a facility back into a local school system,” said Kate Burdick, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “When they are going to school in a facility, they think they are getting credit, and they should be. But when they go back to their old school — or sometimes it’s even worse because they are forced to a new school away from where they live — they come to realize the school districts won’t accept those credits.”
That leads to frustration for the students and increases dropout rates, Burdick said.
National guidelines and action plans
Several states and local jurisdictions have implemented new rules to increase the chances that students graduate when leaving detention facilities. For example, New York — pushed into action by a lawsuit and consent decree — has created “credit equivalency charts” that provide uniform standards for integrating students back into the classroom. That includes efforts to make sure students are enrolled in schools in the same district in which they and their family live, increasing the odds they stay in school.
Virginia and Washington state have introduced legislation that speeds up the time between students leaving detention and being enrolled in a local school system.
The federal government has also created guidelines in recent years, aimed at smoothing the transition from detention to graduation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for disciplining students, part of an effort to keep teens in school and out of the justice system.
The guidelines stressed the need for strong partnerships among mental health agencies, counseling, law enforcement and school systems — designed to help divert students who might be sent to the juvenile justice system into counseling or specialized school programs. But the guidelines also focus on helping schools and students adapt as they leave lockdown facilities and return to public schools.
In 2016, the Department of Education released a “reentry toolkit” that provided tips and resources for local jurisdictions to provide services for students returning to the classroom.
Another program designed to help both adults and juveniles reenter society, the 2015 federal Second Chance Act, overcame efforts by the Trump administration to slash its budget by 30 percent as of press time. On July 14, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to provide full funding for the project at $68 million with support from both parties, according to committee member Scott Taylor, a Republican representing Virginia. The vote is seen as a key step in the budgeting process.
There is still much work ahead, said Weber of the Council of State Governments. States must do a better job gathering and analyzing case data that will help them craft more effective education programs to help teens graduate high school when they leave detention, he said.
“The good news is that the field is more aware of the need for having a more robust reentry program, and the planning starts much earlier,” Weber said. “It used to be that 30 days before release planning programs would begin. Now, from the moment they are placed in facilities, we see families involved, treatment planning with staff, making sure kids get re-enrolled in school as soon as they are released.”
Despite the difficulties, Weber and others said there are several concrete steps jurisdictions can take to improve the chances teens graduate after incarceration. First and foremost is having mental health and substance abuse treatment programs inside the facilities and in the school systems.
“We’re struck by how few states have a dedicated mental health or substance abuse system,” he said. “The default in many instances is to handle those problems as criminal justice issues, and that’s not where they belong.”
Last year several groups focusing on juvenile justice and education issues combined to create a detailed, 10-point blueprint to aid reentry. The study and guidelines, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association Center of Children and the Law, the Juvenile Law Center and others, provides concrete examples and recommendations for states and local jurisdictions to follow.
Still, the success of any program depends on states dedicating money and time to ensure students have the best chance of graduating once they leave detention facilities, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center.
“There are software programs available, lots of innovative ways to engage students and tailor programs to individual needs,” Levick said. “But there has to be the will to do that.
“What’s always frustrated me is that these kids in locked facilities should have the same exact opportunities as kids on the outside. Yet we don’t hold facilities accountable for delivering the same quality of education. We have to really change that mindset if we want to see better outcomes.”
Trying to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline
The 2014 U.S. Department of Education’s “Guiding Principles A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline” articulates the federal government’s acknowledgement of inequity when it comes to school discipline:
“Nationwide, data collected by our Office for Civil Rights show that youths of color and youths with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspensions and expulsions. For example, data show that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although students who receive special education services represent 12 percent of students in the country, they make up 19 percent of students suspended in school, 20 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspension once ... and 23 percent of students receiving a school-related arrest.”
While the guidelines are nonregulatory, and “the extent to which states and school districts implement the suggestions in this resource guide is a matter for state and local school officials to decide,” it does provide 13 specific action steps designed to reduce suspensions and other out-of-school referrals.
- “Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.” This action item names groups of youth who are often disenfranchised — from those with disabilities to LBGTQ youth and young people of color. Specific goals may include reducing numbers of suspensions and expulsions and law enforcement referrals, and “identifying and connecting at-risk youths to tailored supports, or increasing the availability of quality mental health supports available for students.”
- “Train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner so as not to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, or at-risk students.”
“Remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”
Today I was hopeful. I was hopeful because I witnessed several NFL teams defy our current president, DJT, who a famous sports host labeled correctly a “racist and white supremacist,” and who a famous NBA star called “a bum.” DJT had, even before he was elected, ignited a national sense of urgency to resist social injustice in the so-called “mighty USA.”
However, his recent attack on Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who courageously exercised their uniquely American rights and heritage of resistance and freedom. It is actually extremely ironic that many people, such as our “bum” president, criticize those of us who stand up and speak out on injustices, such as police’s cold-blooded murder of black people such as Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sheila Bland, etc., etc., etc. (or by people pretending to be police, such as what happened to Trayvon Martin).
The irony is that Americans should celebrate and join those of us who speak out against injustice in our society. For goodness sake, this is what our country was supposedly founded upon, although initially did not live up to. No one said it better than the late great Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, when he delivered the bicentennial speech at the annual seminar of the San Francisco Patent & Trademark Law Association in 1987.
About “We the People,” the first three words of our Constitution, Marshall said, “… On a matter so basic as the right to vote, for example, Negro slaves were excluded, although they were counted for representational purposes at three-fifths each. Women did not gain the right to vote for over 130 years ...” His point, of course, is that everyone in this country was not included in this statement, “We the People.”
I strongly urge every American to read his words and consider its credibility on its own merits. I read it to whoever I am around on every July 4th. Unfortunately, Mr. DJT, America was not initially the country that other countries should emulate and try to pattern themselves after.
It’s only because of those who fought for the Union in the Civil War and the civil rights, women’s rights and LBGTQI rights movements in this country that America has begun to live up to her “promise.” It is only because of the type of protest and resistance found in these movements that America has begun to deserve the honor and glory that many have fought for and died for.
Prior to the Civil War, and subsequent social justice movements, such as the civil rights movement, America was literally just a theory, a wonderful and splendid theory, but a theory nonetheless. In practice, prior to the Civil War and civil rights movements, America was a lie and nothing to be proud of at all.
This brings me to my core point. Ironically, the Charlottesville murder of a true patriot, Heather Heyer, that DJT did not adequately deal with — instead choosing to defend the racist murderer(s) who killed her and wounded so many others that fateful day, is what crystallized these ideas for me.
DJT was defending those racists who were defending those who fought to keep slavery intact. This is consistent with DJT’s so-called defense of “all soldiers” just for being soldiers, when he attacks Kaepernick and others who kneel during the national anthem in the presence of all those soldiers on the field at NFL games.
First of all, not all soldiers should be honored and celebrated in the same way. Some soldiers, such as those who fought in defense of the Confederacy, or those soldiers who did not want black soldiers next to them or with them in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc., should not be honored.
I personally do not respect nor honor soldiers who had racism in their hearts, minds and souls. I understand and join many of those Americans who do not respect and honor them as well. Therefore, Kaepernick and others who take a knee during the national anthem are actually displaying our best and most honorable principles and traditions because they are calling attention to the racist, unjust and hypocritical conditions in this country, many of which still remain today.
So thank you, DJT. I appreciate the help. Anything anyone can do to get more people to stand up (or kneel down) and speak out against racists such as yourself is so very much welcomed. Just for the record, because it is not about me, I want to verify my credibility to make these comments.
I am a black man who happens to both have lived under a racist police state as a youth in Paterson, New Jersey and who has been studying, researching and teaching about the problem of racism in our juvenile and criminal justice systems for the past 20-plus years. I am also an associate professor of social work at a university in New York City and I have been researching and publishing on this topic for two decades.
In closing, I sincerely do thank you, DJT, for rallying the troops for social justice, human rights and real equality. Hundreds of NFL players would have never acted today had it not been for your idiotic and disrespectful comments about them and their mothers. Peace, family, but keep fighting. I’d rather stand up and die with honor on 125th Street than lie down and live without honor in an apartment on 5th Avenue, Mr. DJT.
Edgar Tyson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York. He has been a researcher and educator for 14 years and a practitioner, specializing in treatment of high-risk and delinquent youth, for the past 21 years.
Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities remains too widespread, is unnecessary and counterproductive, is unfairly applied and is harmful, a new report says.
In addition, experts lament the fact that there’s “a desperate need for better data on disparate treatment within facilities,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center and one of the report’s authors.
In the report, which aims to bridge the information gap, the center presents raw testimony from people who have experienced solitary, data on frequency and length of confinement, and solution-oriented litigation and policy strategies.
Karen U. Lindell, staff attorney at the center and another co-author, hopes that individual defenders, parents and people who run correctional institutions will find concrete tools and tactics, recent case law and policy examples in the report to help them limit and eliminate solitary confinement.
Litigation strategies include arguing for child-specific constitutional standards and challenging the failure to provide a meaningful education while ensuring post-disposition representation. Visiting local facilities and working with advocates and parents is also recommended to broaden the potential for outreach and education. The report will be the center of a congressional briefing this afternoon.
“This is a problem that can be solved,” Feierman said.
Almost half of juvenile facilities report that they isolate youth for more than four hours to control behavior. That time ranges from hours to months on end. Basic necessities such as mattresses, sheets, showers and utensils for eating plus mental health treatment are not guaranteed in solitary, let alone niceties such as outdoor time, books or writing materials.
“This is something that if I did it to my own children it would be called child abuse,” she said.
Reasons reported for use of solitary confinement range from understaffing and administrative convenience to discipline and self-harm prevention. Some subsets of the population are more likely to get put into isolation. Youth identifying as LGBTQ are at “heightened risk” of being put into solitary, as are youth of color and youth with disabilities, the report said.
Youth can be detained from 22 to 23 hours a day, with their only human contact the glimpse of a hand pushing meals through the door slat or the guard escorting you to the shower. For young people with ever-developing minds, this can have perverse effects on their mental health and neurological development.
“Solitary has affected me in ways I have never known,” said Eddie Ellis, founder of One by 1. He was put into solitary confinement at 15. His time there, combined, was 10 years.
“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve had doctors help me out,” he said. “But again, I had an anxiety attack just the other day.”
His memories and those of other youth about their time in solitary support the report’s medical findings: Studies link solitary confinement with suicidal thoughts, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and psychosis.
The report paints a grim picture of a widespread yet under-researched practice that not only differs by facility and region, but is also extremely covert — many things behind those isolation chamber walls never escape them.
“It’s very secretive, and they don’t talk to parents about the conditions their kids are under,” said the mother of a young man held in solitary, quoted in the report. Even lawyers are left out of the loop — two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that youth never receive a hearing before being placed in solitary.
The report suggests solitary in youth facilities could be put to an end, should litigators, policymakers and communities continue to unite following the lead of former President Barack Obama, who banned the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons in 2016.
“It was a huge thing for President Barack Obama to come out and target juvenile solitary confinement like that,” Lindell said. “The number of children in federal prison is very small, but it sends a very powerful message to states — this isn't something that's necessary, this is something people are moving away from.”
Lindell pointed to Ohio and Massachusetts as states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Between 2014 and 2015 Ohio lessened its use by 88.6 percent, resulting in rates of violence dropping by 20 percent in the same timeframe. Its Department of Youth Services made major shifts in visitation hours and added chats with family via webcam calls, and programming such as sports, life skills classes, and movie nights in order to “decrease reliance on solitary confinement.”
Massachusetts' average confinement time is less than an hour. They have worked to educate their staff on de-escalation tactics and adolescent development training. Like Ohio, Massachusetts has employed evidence-based therapeutic models to shift their culture from a punitive to rehabilitative.
“Any time you can get states to understand that solitary is hurting people, it’s a win,” Ellis said.
The report closes with recommendations for reform to end this practice nationally. It encourages reformists not to settle for “altering” or “ameliorating” solitary conditions “for any reason other than to prevent immediate harm, with clear limits on its use even under emergency circumstances.”
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“If someone had just asked, things might have been different,” said Mateo, a closeted, gay, gang-involved teenager in juvenile detention for committing a hate crime against a gay person. Mateo (pseudonym used to protect confidentiality) had committed a robbery at gunpoint outside a gay bar while shouting homophobic slurs at his victim.
The offense was the culmination of a pattern of escalating substance abuse and anger. Mateo had been self-medicating and acting out since coming out to his parents at age 11, an experience that left him feeling rejected and alone. He internalized his parents’ disapproval and carefully guarded this secret.
Mateo’s despair and isolation only deepened after his arrest. He described a detention facility in which staff generally assumed that youth were straight and in which homophobia, biphobia and transphobia were rampant. Because of the nature of his offense and his gender-conforming presentation, the detention staff felt freer to use anti-LGBTQ slurs and jokes in his presence.
Staff did not intervene when youth openly bullied and harassed anyone whom they perceived to be gay. In fact, the staff blamed victimized youth for “flaunting” their identity. Mateo retreated further into the closet, perceiving no safe option in which he could embrace his sexual orientation.
For more information about LGBTQI, go to JJIE Resource Hub | HUB HIGHLIGHTS
The probation agency had formal guidance for staff on how to promote the safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth, but staff members’ implicit bias about LGBTQ youth made them unable to recognize Mateo’s struggles. The primary source of his turmoil remained invisible to the adults entrusted with his care, and they missed a critical opportunity to help him.
And Mateo is not alone. LGBTQ youth are vastly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Although LGBTQ youth comprise 7 to 9 percent of youth generally nationwide, they represent 20 percent of all youth in juvenile justice facilities — including 40 percent of girls in detention facilities.
Lack of staff training focused on LGBTQ youth contributes to their increased harm in detention: They can suffer sexual and physical assault, longer lengths of stay and additional charges for self-defense, as well as increased trauma and psychological harm. To improve outcomes for LGBTQ youth, juvenile justice stakeholders and their partners must have targeted training on sexual orientation and gender identity based on accurate social science research, policies and procedures that create a fair and affirming system for all youth, and the legal and professional standards governing services to system-involved LGBTQ youth.
Fortunately, there are several written resources designed to increase the field’s understanding of these issues. The Equity Project’s “Toward Equity” training curriculum provides practitioners with lessons in critical areas such as dismantling bias, building trust with LGBTQ youth and ensuring safety in residential facilities. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in the Juvenile Justice System” also highlights best practices that juvenile justice facility staff can implement to best support LGBTQ youth.
In terms of training opportunities, this year the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Impact Justice are partnering to offer a new program for system staff and providers who serve LGBTQ youth. On Oct. 17 through 20, we will join other national experts in Washington, D.C., to launch the “Supporting the Well-Being of System-Involved LGBTQ Youth” Certificate Program to help juvenile justice, child welfare and other system partners improves outcomes for at-risk LGBTQ youth. (Applications are available here and must be submitted before midnight on July 7.)
As part of this intensive four-day curriculum, participants will receive information on cutting-edge ideas and practices being used across the country, guidance on developing an action plan to lead efforts for systems reform in their jurisdiction, connections to a network of other professionals working to improve conditions for LGBTQ youth and ongoing technical assistance following the training. The program is designed to increase understanding of relevant terminology and research around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and explore strategies for supporting the development of LGBTQ youth in our systems — whether it is elevating the youth voice, engaging families and communities, or working across agencies to deliver a more holistic and aligned set of services.
By strengthening our service delivery teams, we can create environments for young people in which they feel comfortable and open about who they are and in which they can receive the support and services they need to thrive. And if we can do that, we just might be able to alter the life trajectories of system-involved youth like Mateo for the better.
Shannan Wilber is youth policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Shay Bilchik is research professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative conference began today after a year when issues of youth, race and policing, solitary confinement and the fate of youth prisons have been in the headlines.
About 900 juvenile justice practitioners, researchers and advocates gathered in Phoenix for dozens of workshops and plenary sessions over three days. The week also will feature the release of a practice guide about LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system.
JDAI, which works to safely reduce the use of secure detention for juveniles, operates in nearly 300 sites in 39 states and the District of Columbia.
The conference includes workshops on: detention reform, from the basics to how to scale results; collaboration and engagement, including between law enforcement and the communities they police; how to reform the “deep end” of the system, such as secure confinement facilities; and ideas about how the juvenile system can work with groups such as girls, LGBTQ youth or immigrant youth.
Nate Balis, director of the foundation's juvenile justice strategy group, said the conference has grown and evolved alongside JDAI.
“It’s exciting to see how this is never static. We can always do better. I think the best part of the initiative is when I’m in the room and [see] how many people are committed to continuous improvement. It’s inspiring,” he said.
The conference is an ideal time to learn because it brings together so many stakeholders — judges, probation officers, law enforcement, child advocates, families and young people — said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
National discussions of the justice system are likely to be on people’s minds at the conference, he said. People could be drawn to sessions that look at those topics, such as community relations in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray or Casey’s call to close all youth prisons.
“I think national issues heighten people’s interest in coming to conference like this. It has been designed to pay attention to what’s happening,” Soler said.
LGBTQ Youth Guide
The practice guide is the 11th in a series that look at best practices in detention and offer solutions from small fixes to systemic improvements to ensure the safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth.
Balis said the guide reflects a growing awareness of the unique needs of LGBTQ youth, both in society and in the juvenile justice system, a welcome shift he wouldn’t have predicted even a few years ago.
“The guide sets a high bar but the right bar for juvenile justice systems working with LGBT youth,” he said.
The guide, by Shannan Wilber, youth policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says that LGBTQ youth represent 20 percent of detained youth, a disproportionate share of the population.
“LGBT youth are at heightened risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, particularly in secure settings,” the guide says.
It examines how to prohibit discrimination, model respect, collect and protect information about youth, train staff, engage families and ensure sustainable reform across the juvenile justice system.
It also sets out specific detention facility standards for equal and respectful treatment, safety, privacy and dignity, and medical and behavioral health care.
The materials from the conference will be available at the JDAI Helpdesk.
This article has been updated.
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The criminal justice system in New York City is ill equipped to deal with the needs of LGBTQ young people who engage in survival sex, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.
Youth cycle through the system, an experience that compounds the difficulties that may initially have led them to have survival sex, said Meredith Dank, lead author of the report and a senior research associate at the institute.
When young people jump a subway turnstile because they don’t have a few dollars in their pocket, they may face a fine that’s many times more. When they can’t pay the fine, they may end up with a bench warrant and an arrest record. When they look for a job, their record makes it harder.
“That’s a way of turning kids into criminals,” Dank said.
The report, based on in-depth interviews, captures the criminal justice experiences of 283 young people, ages 15 to 26, who identify as LGBTQ, young men who have sex with men or young women who have sex with women. Almost all the participants identified as people of color.
In New York, all 16- and 17-year-olds are considered adults.
More than 70 percent of those interviewed said they had been arrested at least once, often for misdemeanors. Two-thirds said they had been stopped, questioned and frisked at some point in their life.
A third of the participants also reported they felt unsafe while in custody, from arrest through pre-arraignment detention. Some reported violence or abuse from the police, according to the report.
The report is one in a series that looks at the experiences of youth who engage in sex work and identify as LGBTQ, YMSM (young men who have sex with men) and YWSW (young women who have sex with women). An earlier report details why those groups of youth have survival sex and makes recommendations about how to meet their needs.
Judy Yu, director of the juvenile justice project at the Correctional Association of New York, said the research adds to a growing body of knowledge about the risks and challenges for LGBTQ youth in the criminal justice system.
“It brings into the discussion the fact that for LGBTQ youth of color, the reasons that they may be engaging in survival sex are the same funnels into the system,” she said.
The report, which features many excerpts from the interviews, paints a portrait of what young people experience and need, from their perspective, which is critical to understanding the problems they face, Yu said.
“It doesn’t back away from showing the harm that we as a society inflict. But I think it also illustrated in a beautiful way that these young people are wonderful resources. They have ideas, they are leaders,” she said.
The researchers also interviewed 68 criminal justice, child welfare and youth-serving professionals.
Stakeholders said law enforcement and court officials make a good-faith effort to treat youth equitably, though the system is not perfect. They also reported that barriers to youth needs include lack of training and services.
Dank said the young people who were interviewed felt singled out by police.
“What boggles their mind and is frustrating to them is how often they’re targeted because of their race, because of their gender presentation, because of their sexual orientation,” she said.
Some law enforcement officers felt the young people were more likely to commit crimes because of their gender or sexual identity.
“Some acknowledged that survival sex was a behavior related to a lack of financial and other resources, but many officers indicated a common belief that “nonnormative” sexual orientation or gender identity and involvement in survival sex was itself criminogenic — causing or likely to cause criminal behavior,” the report said.
Some of the youths’ perspectives on the child welfare system are included in the report because many mentioned in the interviews their experiences growing up in that system.
The researchers said steps such as more training for law enforcement would be helpful, but structural reform is necessary.
The report’s recommendations include:
- A shift in how the federal government awards grants to local jurisdictions, to ensure youth are not criminalized by policies that try to direct them to services by detaining them;
- Making it easier for youth engaged in survival sex to voluntarily access services such as food, housing, showers and health care;
- Increasing transparency, oversight and accountability in policies that deal with youth engaged in survival sex;
- Ending secure confinement or institutional placements for youth arrested on prostitution-related charges.
Dank said it is critical to follow up with youth after policies change to ensure their experiences also change.
“Does it change the mindset of young people? Do they now feel safe?” she said.
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