Trans Youth at Risk in Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice Systems

A year after her release from the juvenile justice system in West Texas, Lydia* still struggles to sleep through the night.

“I wake up because I’m not sure I’m in my room, and I think there’s someone trying to hurt me, like what happened when I was gone,” she said. “Sometimes, I just don’t sleep at all.”

The transgender teen said she endured threats, beatings and ridicule during her two years in the juvenile justice system. On three occasions, other youth beat her so viciously that she needed to be hospitalized, recalled Lydia, now 19. Rather than housing her with girls, officials placed her with boys, making her a frequent and vulnerable target in detention.

Lydia’s experience is not an anomaly, according to a new study about gender nonconforming youth in state custody. Released Monday by authors from Lambda Legal, Children’s Rights and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the report is called “Safe Havens: Closing the Gap Between Recommended Practice and Reality for Transgender and Gender-Expansive Youth in Out-of-Home Care.” It found that such youth are both overrepresented and likely to experience bias in child welfare, juvenile justice, runaway and homeless youth systems. Youth are overwhelmingly placed in facilities based on sex, their gender identities overlooked. And since most states do not have well-defined laws and policies to protect youth who do not conform to gender norms, the study found that these juveniles have poor outcomes unless providers willingly affirm their gender identities.

“There is an incredible impact on young people’s daily life that a child welfare system has when kids are in state custody,” said Christina Remlin, study co-author and lead attorney for Children’s Rights, which advocates for youth in the child welfare system. “Almost all aspects of their lives — from what they can wear to the environment in which they have breakfast, lunch or dinner — are affected. … For this particular group of young people, discrimination has a tremendous harmful effect on their self esteem — suicidal ideation, profoundly serious psychological ramifications.”

Just 27 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) protect youth from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in the child welfare system; only 21 states (and D.C.) do the same for children in the juvenile justice system, and a mere 12 (and D.C.) do so in facilities for runaway and homeless youth. New York and California stand out as the only states with comprehensive protections for LGBTQ+ youth in care, while Alaska and North Carolina lack any protections at all for these young people.

Remlin said these findings trouble her because large numbers of LGBTQ+ youth end up in care because their families have rejected or abused them.

LGBTQ+ youth make up just 5 to 7 percent of the general population but roughly 25 percent of those in foster care, 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system and 50 percent of youth without homes. Encountering discrimination in state custody serves to traumatize them once again, Remlin said. Moreover, gender identity is often one of several ways that youth in care are marginalized.

“A lot of them have overlapping risks of discrimination,” Remlin said. “Not only are they from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, not only have they experienced some degree of trauma or abuse, they’re also LGBTQ.”

Experiencing mistreatment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity may also put youth at greater risk for entering the juvenile justice system, according to Currey Cook, study coauthor and director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project at civil rights group Lambda Legal.

“It’s not unintentional that they get bullied and picked on, and they’re the ones that get arrested for assault,” he said, referring to Lydia’s entry into the juvenile justice system.

Lydia said that she was supposed to be placed in a psychiatric hospital to address her “delinquency issues” but instead wound up in detention and then a halfway house for males. She’s now trying to earn her G.E.D. but found it impossible to concentrate on school work before her release from the juvenile justice system.

“For the most part, my [gender] identity wasn’t respected nor was my [sexual] preference,” she said. “I was always on edge. I couldn’t do any of my schoolwork. I always got in trouble. I was being harassed nonstop by staff and youth. I pretty much could never get anything done.”

Workers routinely declined to let Lydia dress in a way that reflected her gender identity, she said. In fact, just 10 states have implemented guidelines allowing transgender youth in juvenile justice systems to dress how they prefer. Lydia also said staff would tell her to “stop acting like a girl” and sometimes encourage her peers to torment her. To boot, the memory of a chaplain telling her she’d face damnation if she didn’t change her sexual orientation still stings.

In the child welfare system, Jennifer*, a transgender teen from Louisiana, also felt marginalized and discriminated against by peers and staffers. Now 18, she entered the system when she was about 15, and her parents rejected her. In her residential treatment facility in Texas (none in Louisiana would take her), Jennifer could clothe herself in a manner consistent with her gender identity, but officials placed her in a room with a boy.

“It was terrible,”Jennifer said. “I really couldn’t be myself. The first roommate ended up beating me up, and the staff didn’t do anything. They heard what was happening, and they knew what was happening.”

Eventually, Jennifer left that facility and transitioned into a program called Diversity House, which provides homes and support for LGBTQ+ youth in Louisiana. Jennifer felt welcome there. However, her socioemotional problems got the better of her, and she wrecked an apartment they provided, forcing her out of the program. With the help of a disability rights attorney, Jennifer has secured services that allow her to pay for her own apartment.

Now Jennifer wants other transgender youth to have a better experience in the child welfare system than she did. She believes caretakers should affirm the gender identities of such youth, and states should ensure that facilities have enough placements for them.  

“To meet with Jennifer in person, there’s no way to overestimate or underestimate how important it was to be in a more affirming environment,” Remlin said. “She’s been willing to talk about her desires to make sure what happened to her doesn’t [happen] to other kids.”

In addition to affirming the gender identities of youth in care, the “Safe Haven” authors contend that states must adopt policies to protect gender nonconforming juveniles in their custody and treat them fairly. They also want states to listen to the experiences of these youth during the policymaking process.

Remlin said that while the public tends to view transgender identity as a complicated issue, the goals outlined in the report are simple.

“In terms of the bottom line, they need to be safe where they sleep at night,” Remlin said of transgender youth. “They need to be able to live in an environment where they’re affirmed and not subjected to bullying and violence.”

*Names of youth were changed to protect their privacy.

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and

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