Being Queer in a Juvenile Detention Center: A Survivor's Story

YOUTH IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

My name is Sasha. I am 24 years old and I am from the North Philly section of Philadelphia. As a kid, I didn’t have a problem openly expressing my own sexual orientation. I started liking girls at the age of 9 and started dressing like a boy at the age of 14. My home was very supportive of my self-expression and I was never treated differently because of it. I didn’t have to deal with the topic of being gay all the time. My family didn’t like that I was “this way,” but they accepted me. They never brought it up and that was enough support for me.

I grew up in a positive environment with my grandparents, friends, and family where I was comfortable. For me life was much easier at home and I didn’t feel backlash for my sexual orientation or my gender expression until I went to placement, aka a juvenile detention center, for fighting at school. From the moment I arrived at my first placement facility I immediately felt like the black sheep. I was instantly stereotyped, by staff and other kids in placement. I felt like there was always an extra set of eyes on me. Staff directly treated me differently because of my preference. It started to become so uncomfortable, and only got worse. I ended up in a relationship with another girl at the placement and because we got into a fight, staff insinuated and accused me of forcing the other girls to be with me. But that’s not what happened. When I tried to tell them my side, no one listened. It got to the point where I had to have a room by myself with no roommate. It continued to get worse.

I started to feel harassed because staff wouldn’t give me any privacy. The staff didn’t treat me the way they treated the other girls. As time progressed, I felt like being gay out in society was way better than being gay in placement. Don’t get me wrong — I have had terrible experiences in the streets too, but this was completely different. In placement, I had to face the people who harassed me every day. I can ignore gay slandering in public because I don’t have to deal with people I don’t know. I don’t ever have to see them again. In placement I had to hear gay slandering every day and engage with the staff who did it. It was the environment. As staff, they didn’t care because they thought gay jokes were funny. As a youth, I couldn’t defend myself, even verbally. We couldn’t say what we really wanted to staff because we were afraid to get written up.

There were other times when new kids would come to the facility, and staff would tell them, “Don’t talk to her,” “She’s trouble,” and “She talks to a lot of girls.” I knew this because girls would tell me when they eventually started to feel comfortable talking to me. It was hurtful hearing these things, especially knowing they weren’t true. While I was aware that I could report this behavior, every time we reported it, we seemed to be the ones getting punished, not staff. The staff also stuck together in placement, so if we reported a staff member, the other staff that we reported to would tell the staff that we reported them. Then, staff would start being mean and we would get more write ups — at times for nothing at all. When I reported information, no one followed up with me and nothing happened to the staff. It seemed like everything I said went over their head and was brushed off.

When I look back on all my experiences in placement and the way I was mistreated, I wish I could have talked to the judge who sent me there and other people about how these experiences hurt kids. I wish that staff would be more supportive of our lifestyles and how we were raised, but instead they threw our personal information from our files in our faces to ridicule us and make us feel like we were less than other kids. It hurts because staff are supposed to comfort us and make sure we get the help and support we deserve. It’s like the judge takes us out of one unpleasant environment and puts us in a worse environment. How can we learn from our mistakes? How can we progress if we are in another negative environment facing worse mistreatment? We are already there for negative behavior. We need guidance — not abandonment.

In addition, we need more thorough background checks and requirements for hired staff. For example, I don’t think its appropriate for people who have never worked in a multi-gender facility not to be trained on things like gender expression, and how to engage and work with children. It is problematic to have staff close to our age, who are young adults themselves, working with us. These staff who are young like us can relate to some of the things we have experienced, but they do not have the experience or knowledge to work with children or teens. It feels like we are getting bullied by young adults and we have no control. There must be a better process for on-boarding appropriate staff.

In addition to hiring people who have genuine experience, they should be passionate about helping kids and be offered trauma-informed training. No staff should be hired just because they “seem” like a good fit. They need to be held accountable for their actions. It’s not appropriate or helpful for staff in these facilities to stick together and support each other, while treating us badly. That’s the number one reason why young people feel they can’t confide in staff about things they may be facing or experiencing. To also help with these challenges and connect youth to a supportive adult, facilities should make it more convenient for young adolescents to talk to their counselors. I believe that the system has this obligation — it can be better and do better for the kids who are still in facilities.

SASHA was sent to juvenile detention placement as a teen. She has since joined Juveniles for Justice, a youth advocacy program of Juvenile Law Center, where she advocates for other youth in the system. 

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