Bullying Behind Bars: PA's Juvenile Detention Centers Fail to Protect LGBT Youth

By Laura Rena Murray
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Nov. 30, 2011

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This summer, Pennsylvania was forced to come to terms with some of its failing juvenile justice systems. In August, Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. was sentenced to 28 years for his role in the Luzerne County “Kids for Cash” scandal, in which he sentenced thousands of youth to private, for-profit juvenile detention centers in exchange for payment. Later that month, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) settled with a young transgender female for discrimination and abuse she suffered during her time in the city’s juvenile detention facility, the Youth Study Center, as a result of her gender identity.

And another day of reckoning is on the way.

National statistics show lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth in juvenile detention facilities fare worse than their heterosexual peers. According to a 2009 collaborative report, “Hidden Injustice,” by the National Juvenile Defender Center, Legal Services for Children and the National Center for Lesbian Rights: “Staff and other youth regularly subject LGBT youth to shocking physical, sexual, and emotional abuse on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.” The report further states, “Facility staff sometimes instigate or facilitate fights or sexual abuse between youth.” It also revealed that 80 percent of professionals who work in juvenile justice across the country reported a lack of safety in detention as a serious problem for LGBT youth.

LW, 16, wound up serving close to two and a half years in juvenile detention after breaking another boy’s arm when he was 13. While in detention, LW says he suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hands of other kids as well as staffers. The lanky and soft-spoken teenager was openly gay when he was arrested and charged with assault, which he says was self-defense against gay bashing. LW remembers the boy taunting him because of his sexuality. “He said if I walked away, he was going to hit me,” LW says. “I knew that if I let that boy hit me, I could have been dead the next day or hurt and in the hospital.” He was sentenced to two years at a private, nonprofit residential treatment institution, George Junior Republic, in Grove City. It was there that LW says he experienced physical abuse at the hands of staff. “They would slam you on your neck when you’re not even doing nothing,” he says. He points to an incident in which one staff member punched him in the eye while breaking up a fight between him and another boy. “When he grabbed me, he threw me on the ground. He was trying to act like he was holding my arms when he hit me. I had a black eye the next day.”

Philadelphia’s DHS commissioner, Anne Marie Ambrose, cites homophobia and the resulting abuse by some staff at the Youth Study Center as a serious concern. “The detention experience, because staff sometimes aren’t trained and aren’t sensitive and aren’t respectful, can be a horrific experience for LGBT youth,” says Ambrose. “Sometimes we’ve had in the past taunting, teasing, really disrespectful, completely inappropriate and unprofessional actions on the part of [our] staff.”

In May 2009, Ambrose attended a town-hall meeting where LGBT youth met with officials to testify about their experiences with DHS. She said the stories she heard “devastated” her, including the young woman who would go on to file charges against the Youth Study Center. “I believed everything that she was saying,” Ambrose says. “The things she experienced were real and that was painful as the person who … You know I’m responsible for the well-being of these kids.”

After the meeting, DHS established a nondiscrimination policy mandating fair and equal treatment for LGBT detainees by the Youth Study Center staff and providers. Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center, estimates that 15 percent of the 1,000 LGBT kids who seek services at the Attic have cycled through the juvenile justice system. Jacobs believes most are targeted by police in the city’s Gayborhood and picked up for truancy when they skip school to avoid harassment. Jacobs believes there is also a racial component. “They’re targeting the young African-American boys who are out there and happen to be LGBT, and they’re there because traditionally it’s been a safer place for them.”

Once in the system, Jacobs says the kids continue to be targeted by homophobic staff who act according to personal bias instead of protecting LGBT youth from attacks. As a result, youth fight back and continue to get in to more trouble. “There’s no restorative or reformative components,” Jacobs says. “If you want to make a criminal, you put him in the juvenile justice system and he will become one. That’s a horrible thing to say but it’s been my experience, over and over.”

Like LW, 24-year-old Nakiya Bradshaw says she endured abuse in Pennsylvania’s juvenile detention centers, then went through a number of transfers. After coming out as a transgendered girl when she was 14, Bradshaw started running away from home to escape her mother’s verbal and physical abuse. By the time she was 15, she was locked up for solicitation and sent to Philadelphia’s Youth Study Center, where she was housed with boys, although she identified as female. Bradshaw says she endured intimidation, cruel jokes and sexual abuse. “One of the staff tried to have sex with me,” she said. “They moved him across the hall but he would still come over and talk loudly about me.”

After being marked as “failure to adjust” (FTA), a commonly reported result following assaults by staff, according to LGBT youth—kids who are classified as FTA are relocated to a new facility or placement and are not granted time already served—Bradshaw was transferred to Green Chimneys in New York City and eventually flown to a facility in Tennessee. Neither out-of-state placements worked out for Bradshaw and she ultimately returned to Pennsylvania.

At 17, Bradshaw was transferred to Weaversville Intensive Treatment Unit in Northampton, Pa., a post-disposition correctional facility for violent male offenders between the ages of 14 to 21. There, Bradshaw says she and other transgendered girls were harassed nonstop by staff and other youth. Bradshaw remembers being subjected to forced isolation because of her feminine appearance. When she refused to submit to punishments like scrubbing the walls with a toothbrush, the repercussions were extreme. “When it was snowing outside, they took clothes and bedding out of my room,” she says. “They took everything out of the room and left the windows open.”

Commissioner Ambrose acknowledges that some of Philadelphia’s experiments with sending youth to other state programs have failed. “LGBT youth are inappropriately made a part of the juvenile justice system by default, because ideally they wouldn’t be rejected by their families,” she says. The search for placements both in and out of state is a problem that Philadelphia continues to grapple with.

Currently, Philadelphia is one of six Pennsylvania counties participating in a pilot program with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to implement the Juvenile Alternatives Development Initiative (JDAI), which aims to eliminate “unnecessary or inappropriate detention” and improving existing facilities. According to one of the foundation’s directors, Bart Lubow, Pennsylvania will be joining 35 other states that have designed and implemented JDAI.

By working with the Casey Foundation, Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission hopes to strengthen the state’s new juvenile justice system enhancement strategy. Keith Snyder is the statewide coordinator overseeing the reform efforts, which officially began in October. “This is the beginning of a state-wide effort to standardize the decision-making efforts to place kids in detention facilities,” Snyder says.

Ambrose believes that Philadelphia will lead the way in statewide reform. “We’re determined to do whatever is necessary to help our kids,” she says. “The voice of the youth needs to be part of any planning that we’re doing.”

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Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Steve Crutchfield said... on Dec 1, 2011 at 08:40PM

“The voice of the youth must be heard!!! But the youth must also "listen" to the voice of mentors and people willing to invest in their future! We can make a difference if we'll spend time with students instead of throwing money at reform and regulating everything to death.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Dec 3, 2011 at 12:20AM

“As an editorial comment, Ms. Murray — and I'm sure you meant no harm by it — "transgendered" is considered offensive; it should be just "transgender", as in the adjective and not the verb.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 9, 2011 at 10:43AM

“This does not just happen at Youth Detention Centers. Look at the inmates that were sexually assaulted at SCI Pittsburgh becuase of thier sexuality or perceived sexuality.”

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4. Ex WITU employee said... on Feb 5, 2013 at 05:22PM

“Hi all,

I came across this article as I was looking for information on the Weaversville Intensive Treatment. I was an employee there for many many years. This ended when PA DPW closed all of the small facilities in 2005. WITU was a model for small programs but not fitting the new direction of the state. It was the 1st private for profit juvenile institution in the country when run by the RCA Corporation.

After WITU closed, a for-profit company from Florida rented the facility and opened a girl's program. This is the one you are writing about. This facility was called "Wings".

Please do not link the Wings program to WITU. The only thing they had in common was the mailing address. Thanks!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jul 27, 2013 at 12:34PM

“Weaversville was an elite program. I was a resident there in 1984, 1985. To me it is the only thing that saved my life. Although the program morphed and changed over years it was still an excellent program. At 16 , I was told I would be dead 26. At 46 I am a top sales with an international company. They help me to learn how to deal with problems and situations. They help me get my GED and helped me into maturing into an adult.”


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