The Kids Aren't Alright

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Jylon Collins
Photo by: PHOTO: Vanessa Velasquez
Over her own objections, Jylon Collins was placed with boys in a juvenile facility in Texas. Then her mother called Lambda Legal.

Few states provide total protection for LGBTQ youth in foster, justice and shelter systems. Thanks to Lambda Legal and other players, that may be slowly changing.

After many painful years of discrimination and abuse in Texas’s juvenile-justice system, Jylon Collins (pronounced “Jaylen”), 19, is in a good place. She’s living with her biological mom and sister in San Antonio, right across the street from the Chinese restaurant where her boss, coworkers and customers all accept her gender non-conforming identity. Her bipolar disorder is under control. She’s looking to earn her high school equivalency diploma. And she dreams of going to culinary school and becoming a chef.

Obviously, Collins’s fighting spirit is intact after a grueling four-year battle to survive in state youth institutions that began when cops pulled her away from her mother’s home while she was having an extreme manic episode. Thus began a journey in and out of juvenile detention centers and halfway houses in which she reports that she suffered every manner of discrimination and verbal and physical abuse for being gay and gendernonconforming.

Over her own objections, she says, she was placed with boys whom she was goaded into fighting in self-defense. The same went for staffers who called her a “punk” and a “ho.” A volunteer chaplain told her she was going to hell for being gay. Her life was threatened more than once. and some staff blamed her for being victimized because she was “not like other boys.” Group pressure turned her one male friend against her. Her meds were taken away. She was sexually abused. She had feces thrown at her. Even in the best of the facilities she was in, she was not allowed to dress in a way that reflected her gender identity.

“It was horrible,” she remembers of the entire experience. “The people working in the system didn’t understand anything about being LGBT.” Collins’ mother called Lambda Legal. Currey Cook, Lambda Legal counsel and Youth In Out-of-Home Care Project director, and Melinda McKew, legal assistant in Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, intervened. Lambda Legal helped get Collins out of the locked facility and then a dangerous subsequent placement in a half-way house for boys. Finally, she landed with a caring, LGBTaffirming parole officer who affirmed her identity and helped her to successfully complete parole.

Sadly, stories from LGBQ and transgender, gender-expansive and gender non-conforming (TGNC) youth like Collins are endemic in state out-of-home systems nationwide. Lambda Legal made that clear earlier this year in Safe Havens, the first comprehensive analysis of the lack of explicit laws and policies in most states to protect TGNC youth in the child welfare, juvenile justice and runaway/homeless youth systems.

The report found that LGBQ and TGNC youth are dramatically overrepresented in such systems compared to youth at large, making up 25 percent of youth in foster care, 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice and almost half of youth experiencing homelessness. It also found that such youth were twice as likely as their peers at large to have experienced child abuse or out-of-home placement.

“That indicates that something’s going on within society and families,” says Cook, adding that the report was sparked by the countless calls for help on the issue he receives. “The principal component is family rejection, these youth being pushed out or emotionally or physically abused against a backdrop of homophobia and transphobia. And there aren’t enough community resources to provide assistance to their families and give them a safe place if home is not a healthy option.”

“Across the board nationally,” Cook adds, “we see that if youth are placed out of home, government systems are not complying with professional standards and the law and are failing the LGBTQ youth they’re supposed to be helping.”

Moreover, legislatures are not doing enough. Only New York and California have LGBT protections across all their child out-of-home care systems, with only 27 states providing explicit protections in their child-welfare law, 21 in their juvenile justice law and 12 in facilities serving runaways and homeless youth. Despite the broad use of the terms ”sex” or “gender“ appearing in regulations governing sexsegregated housing, clothing and searches in such systems, only three states define those terms to include gender identity, opening the door to personal bias and discrimination.

And only four states have legal or regulatory guidance regarding placement of transgender youth in out-of-home care in accordance with their gender identities.

Such a lack of laws leads to traumatic situations for LGBTQ youth, says Cook. There’s Savannah (not her real name), whose gender identity was rejected by everyone from her parents to child-welfare homes, where she was forbidden to buy girl’s clothes with her wardrobe stipend and was withheld hormone therapy despite the recommendations of a health professional. There’s Jennifer, who identifies as female but whose residential facility made her room with a cisgender boy who beat her up.

“Some young people are leaving these systems more damaged than when they went in,” says Cook.

Thankfully, there are some positive steps forward. Lambda Legal helped a LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care work group in Nevada and local advocates advance two pro-LGBTQ youth laws this session. Cook gave testimony in Carson City in support of both. One requires that child welfare and juvenile justice agencies treat transgender children in their care in accordance with their gender identity and system staffers to receive LGBTQ training. The other created a bill of rights for all youth in juvenile facilities in Nevada and explicitly protects LGBTQ youth from discrimination.

“Doing good on behalf of LGBTQ youth improves the system for everyone because you’re creating a culture of acceptance,” says Cook.

But there’s also the opposition. A handful of states— including, recently, Collins’ home of Texas— have laws saying that foster-care contract agencies can refuse service to LGBQ or TGNC youth (or would-be foster parents) based on religious beliefs. The Texas law, which Lambda Legal is formulating a challenge for, even says that agencies can provide “religious instruction” to youth in their care, potentially opening the door for “conversion” therapy.

“What happened in Nevada gives us hope for the future on behalf of LGBTQ youth,” says Cook, “while Texas is digging their heels into entrenched discrimination.”

There are many fights ahead, he adds. And one of them may be more laws and supportive services to help families accept their LGBTQ children and keep vulnerable young people from entering the system in the first place.

That’s what Collins would have liked. “Being home again is the best because there are things I can do here to keep myself calm that I couldn’t easily do in the system. I love K-pop,” she says, meaning Korean pop music. “And I’ll learn the choreography to a whole music video.”

But if LGBTQ youth have to go into an out-of-home system, she says, those systems “need to know what people they can house around who. I wish there had been an LGBT section or LGBT training. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on even the worst person I know.”