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Cook County juvenile detention center adopts LGBTQ policy
Windy City Times Special Investigative Series: LGBTQs and the Criminal Legal System
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2013-06-05

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Behind Mykel Selph's desk hangs a printout detailing the differences between being a "boss" and a "leader." The "boss" category, marked with an angry face, notes reliance on authority and fear. The "leader" category, capped off with a smiley, describes a person who generates goodwill and gives due credit.

Selph is not a person you expect to find at Cook County's Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). It could be her upbeat demeanor, her impatience with imperfection on LGBT issues or the simple fact of her position.

She is the director of the Office of Girls and Gender at JTDC. Five years ago, her job didn't exist, and it was not until after she took the position that her duties came to involve work on LGBTQ issues.

But under her supervision and after years of work by LGBTQ advocates, JTDC recently adopted a 12-page LGBTQI policy that has been hailed as model for the country. The policy is one of few in U.S. juvenile detention centers, and advocates hope it will improve the realities facing LGBTQ youth detained by Cook County.

Challenges at JTDC

Research shows that LGBT youth are more likely than straight kids to end up in juvenile detention and face greater challenges once there.

Selph, who is charged with working on LGBTQI issues at JTDC, details the questions that trans issues raise at JTDC: how do you decide if a detainee can wear a blue shirt (like the boys) or a pink shirt (like the girls)? If transgender youth comes in and asks to be called "Nicki Minaj" (a true example, says Selph), what do you call her?

For the most part, the questions boil down to a recurring theme, says Selph: "Trying to balance caring for people's rights in a facility where rights are restricted, it's a very fine line … . How do we allow a transgender kid to maintain their gender identity in a sex-segregated facility?"

Two years ago, Cook County Jail instituted a transgender policy intended to address some of those questions among adults. But transgender youth face additional obstacles that can make policy change tricky.

The jail houses kids ages 10-16, below the age 18 requirement for prescription without guardian consent. Many youth who enter JTDC on hormones have been using street hormones obtained illegally through peers, instead of prescription hormones from doctors. That means that in some cases, JTDC can't legally give youth the hormones they're on.

And LGBTQ youth raise questions about confidentiality, as they may not be out to parents or guardians.

Finally, many LGBTQ young people are still grappling with their identities. Adults, including detention staff, often dismiss LGBTQ youth identity as a phase, making accommodations for LGBTQ youth seem unnecessary to staff.

Up until 2010, those weighing some of the challenges facing LGBTQ youth detained by Cook County were doing so piecemeal.

Sarah Schriber

One who did recognize a need for a more formal effort was Sarah Schriber.

Schriber was working as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) representing gay and transgender youth when she started attending a group on girls in juvenile detention hosted by the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group in 2004.

Two years later, she met Shannon Sullivan, then project director for the Coalition for Education on Sexual Orientation (CESO). The two talked about working together to address LGBTQ bullying in schools.

Schriber had other ideas, too, however. Her work on girls in detention had made her think about the lack of support for LGBTQ youth being detained as well.

In 2008, Schriber left the ACLU and began consulting for the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group and the in Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (the organization that subsumed CESO).

She told Health & Medicine that she wanted to work on issues facing LGBTQ youth in detention, and the organization agreed.

In October 2010, Schriber convened a meeting of juvenile judges, state's attorneys, public defenders, community organizers and others who worked with detained youth.

Angela Irvine, an LGBTQ youth and detention researcher, happened to be in town for the Friday meeting, and she presented her research on LGBTQ youth in detention.

Irvine's research, some of the only of its kind, details the ways that LGBTQ youth are pulled into the juvenile legal system because society rejects them elsewhere. Once in detention, LGBTQ youth face additional obstacles.

"People were just blown away," said Schriber. "It was very compelling."

The following Monday, the group got to work. The result was the Illinois Court-Involved LGBTQ Task Force.

At first, their goals were too lofty, said Schriber. But over months, the taskforce dwindled into a small core group, and their goal of implementing LGBTQ policy at JTDC became clear.

Mykel Selph

Mykel Selph had also stumbled upon LGBTQ youth/ detention issues through other work at JTDC.

Selph appears almost out of place among the badges and uniforms at JTDC. She is all at once friendly and familiar. She seems to speak candidly, without fear or reservation. She knows a lot about LGBTQ issues, much more than many gay people. "Cisgender," a term that describes people who are not transgender, is her favorite word, she says. She likes it because it replaces what many people would just call "normal," a word she is not as fond of when talking about trans issues.

In March 2009, Selph started work as the director of gender programming at JTDC. Her expertise had been in mental health, and she previously worked at the Evangeline Booth Lodge, a Salvation Army Uptown housing program.

The move into gender programming was new for her, she said. But it was also new for JTDC.

Juvenile detention facilities have historically been designed for boys, Selph explained. Everything from the services and programs in the detention centers to the physical structures themselves need to be altered to accommodate girls.

"It's a cultural value infused into the operations of a facility," Selph said.

JTDC houses approximately 270 youth. Of those, 20-25 are girls. Seeing that gender-specific programs would benefit a small percentage of detained youth, Selph began working on gender-specific programs for boys, too.

She worked with community organizations, convincing them to use grants to work with detained youth to meet her challenge of limited funds.

But the programs were limited in other ways, said Selph. Among them, JTDC was seeing many lesbian-identified and transgender women.

"It became clear that staff were asking for training on LGBTQ youth," said Selph.

Selph identifies as heterosexual, but LGBTQ issues were not unfamiliar territory. She had long been interested LGBTQ rights and issues. In undergrad, she wrote several papers on gender and LGBTQ issues. And she had kept up on LGBTQ issues since.

It took some convincing, said Selph, but in summer 2009, JTDC offered its first LGBTQ training to staff working with girls. The following year, JTDC trained all direct care staff, which are those who have the most contact with youth. JTDC also folded the training into its pre-service training for new employees.

Selph also felt that a policy was imperative for JTDC. Without, she said, it was hard to train staff in proper procedures.

"You're getting trans kids, you're getting LGBTQ kids here all the time. You have to give staff something to go on," she said.

Selph was among those to begin early work in 2010 on the JTDC policy with Schriber.

The group looked at policies in New York and Texas, some of the only in the country.

Almost three years later, and their own policy is finally in place.

That has changed what Selph's job is, a job she now thinks may not exist elsewhere in the country. Selph regularly travels around the country to present her work to other detention centers, where LGBTQ issues are less known.

LGBTQ youth in detention

A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress estimates that 300,000 gay and transgender youth are arrested/ detained every year, more than 60 percent of them Black or Latino.

LGBT youth make up at least 15 percent of the juvenile detention population, according to a report by juvenile justice LGBTQ researcher Angela Irvine.

That report, which surveyed 2,200 LGBTQ youth in the system, found that just three percent openly identified as LGBT. Another three percent identified as straight but were assumed to be LGBT because of their gender expression. Nine percent identified as LGBT but were not out. The study also found that among girls booked, 27 percent were lesbian, bisexual or gender non-conforming.

Irvine notes that LGBT youth in detention were twice as likely as straight kids to have been removed from their homes by social workers, put in group homes or to have experienced homelessness.

Experts say that that queer youth are more likely to be arrested and convicted than their straight peers. That trend, they say, often starts with trouble at home where parents may reject queer youth, turning them out onto streets where they commit survival crimes. It can also start in schools where anti-gay bullying can lead youth to truancy.

The Center for American Progress report notes that, "Programs designed to keep children and youth off the streets, such as foster care, health centers, and other youth-serving institutions, are often ill-prepared or unsafe for gay and transgender youth due to institutional prejudice, lack of provider and foster-parent training, and discrimination against gay and transgender youth by adults and peers. As a result, many youth run away from these placements, actions that could also land them in the custody of the juvenile justice system."

And LGBTQ youth face hardships in detention, where gendered facilities and clothing can be difficult to navigate.

The policy

Once in detention, transgender youth especially, present a number of challenges for detention staff.

But detention staff also present a number of challenges for LGBTQ youth, Selph said. Often LGBTQ youth struggle more with lack of acceptance from detention staff than they will with their peers.

"I think the level of, I hate the word 'tolerance,' but the level of respect, awareness, tolerance and lack of awareness is with our adults, is with our staff definitely," said Selph. "I think that we mirror society in being heterosexist just naturally. I don't exclude myself from that. I think we are heterosexist in the way we deal with the kids, in the way we deal with each other."

The new policy, which went into effect in March, is an attempt to correct some of those issues.

The policy lays out basic LGBTQI terms for staff, mandates equal treatment for queer youth, forbids staff from searching youth for the purpose of determining their gender, prevents staff from disclosing a youth's sexual orientation or gender identity to peers and requires JTDC to inform detainees about the policy upon entry. It also states that the director of Girls and Gender (Selph's new title since expanding LGBTQI initiatives) will have resources on hand for LGBTQI youth.

Further, it creates an LGBTQI Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) that must make recommendations on placements, clothing, names and pronouns, and services for each young person who identifies as LGBTQ. The MDT consists of the JTDC's executive director, mental health director, a health services administrator, JTDC's school principal, Selph and a handful of other senior staffers.

Finally, all staff, regardless of whether or not they work with youth, must receive training on the new policy.

For Selph, the most important part of the policy deals with transgender kids. Sexual orientation, while an issue, she said, is less pressing because sex at JTDC is forbidden.

It's too soon to tell how the policy will play out, and determining outcomes may take a while. Most youth spend just 17-21 days at JTCD.

Selph believes the policy does not go far enough, but she does hope it will be an important start. Even as it is now, she says, some staff will not agree with the changes it mandates.

"At the end of the day, we feel a lot," Selph said. "We feel negatively about a lot of stuff we do with our policies, but you do it anyway. That's another one where we just try to work with our staff. You say, the kids are here because they've been accused of doing something that you don't agree with. We don't agree with gang banging, we don't agree with robbing, we don't agree with using drugs, we don't agree with any of those things. But you're still able to see the humanity of the kid behind that. So this can be one of those issues."


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