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Testimony on the Impact of Institutional Placements on LGBTQ+ and Homeless Youth

Youth Justice Project

Testimony on the Impact of Institutional Placements on LGBTQ+ and Homeless Youth

Date Posted: 

The following testimony was delivered to Philadelphia City Council on May 17, 2018. 

My name is Whiquitta Tobar and I am a Staff Attorney in the Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services. Thank you for the opportunity to offer remarks about the serious issues faced by LGBTQ+ youth and girls in institutional placements and to also discuss the types of investments/resources needed to prevent unnecessary institutional placements, with hopes that our youth can transition safely back into the community.  

For the entirety of my career I have focused on solving issues system-involved youth face, with an emphasis on girls and LGTBQ+ youth. I started my career as an attorney and Zubrow Fellow at Juvenile Law Center focusing on improving education for youth in institutional placements, eliminating solitary confinement, reducing unbearable costs and fees for juvenile justice involved youth, and working on preventing youth homelessness in Philadelphia. 

Currently as a staff attorney at Community Legal Services, the largest provider of free legal services in Philadelphia, my work includes providing holistic, youth friendly, civil legal advocacy to system-involved,  transition-aged youth and young adults experiencing homelessness In particular, I focus on reaching youth who are over-represented and under-served in our systems, including LGTBQ+ youth who represent over 40% of the youth homelessness population in Philadelphia, and girls experiencing homelessness, 34% of whom are pregnant or parenting.

In addition to providing direct services, I also provide trainings for youth and youth serving agencies, and survey youth and service providers about the drivers of and solutions to youth homelessness in Philadelphia.

I have been fortunate to gain access, to learn, and to serve this population through collaboration with many youth serving agencies and shelters, including DHS, and specifically Timene Farlow and David Bruce, who have been amazing partners in the effort to explore the needs of juvenile justice involved LGTBQ+ youth and girls.   

In the span of six months, I have facilitated over 60 surveys, led workshops for over a hundred youth and youth service providers, and interfaced with countless housing insecure youth who have been or are currently in shelter, juvenile justice placements, or in the child welfare system. What came out of those conversations was the hard truth that for many youth, their cyclical interactions with homelessness and system involvement 1) came as a direct result of the lack of alternative community-based housing and restorative programming for LGTBQ+ youth and girls in our community, and 2) was a result of marginalization and lack of appropriate resources and gender-specific programming inside our institutions for girls and queer youth.

For example, consider the case of S who is a 22-year-old masculine presenting young woman who identifies as lesbian and is currently homeless.  S informed me that her interaction with the juvenile justice and homeless services system came as result of the lack of adequate resources, organizations, and housing for youth with her identities. S began to run away as a preteen because of the tension and abuse she suffered at home because of her sexual identity and presentation. Luckily, S and her family were given DHS prevention services, but S’s parents still rejected her identities and the family tension remained. After running away from home multiple times and missing a good portion of school, which led to truancy and loitering charges, S was placed in a secure residential placement in rural PA.

In her rural PA placement, she faced further discrimination, targeting, and punishment from staff who lacked LGBTQ+ competence and whose personal bias continuously surfaced. This targeting led to not only a more restrictive confinement, but also to an extended confinement.

Once finally released at nearly age 20, S came home to the same issues that drove her into placement. S’s family still rejected her, although they were listed as her housing option in her reentry plan, because she had no other housing option other than to remain in residential placement. Furthermore, S’s confinement outside of her community caused her not to be aware of the limited resources that were available in her home community. As a non-parenting gender-nonconforming lesbian, S did not feel comfortable or safe with the shelter options for girls and young women like her. This led S back to street homelessness.

Too many youth share stories similar to S. That is why I am eager through my project to continue partnering with DHS, shelter providers, and other youth providers in the community to ensure that girls and LGBTQ+ youth in particular receive appropriate and effective services. Services that include: 

  1. More community based safe housing options and programming for girls and LGTBQ+ youth, including queer parenting youth;
  2. More training for system-involved youth on available legal and social services organizations within their home community; and
  3.  A continued investment in LGTBQ+ competence and gender stereotyping training, city and statewide, for youth service providers. 

By focusing on building up community resources here in Philadelphia, we can continue to build on the progress that has already been made under the leadership of Commissioner Figueroa in reducing the use of congregate care for all youth and working to ensure that whenever safely possible, youth remain with their families and in their community. We can also ensure that those who do end up in placement are able to connect early and effectively with the services and resources they need to successfully transition back home into a safe and affirming environment. I want to thank Councilwoman Gym, the Department of Human Services, fellow youth advocates, and the youth who shared their stories today, and I look forward to continued collaboration with you moving forward.