Research has documented that LGBTQ youth of color are significantly overrepresented in child welfare and youth justice systems. Once in government custody, these youth experience high levels of mistreatment and instability, leading to diminished life outcomes. Many of these same youth cycle between foster care, carceral settings, psychiatric hospitals, and homelessness. To date, reform efforts aimed at repairing these systemic failures have focused on developing professional standards and regulations, adopting agency nondiscrimination policies, and delivering cultural competency training to the agency workforce. These efforts are important because they have raised awareness and created some level of accountability for the safety and welfare of LGBTQ youth in public custodial systems.
Yet, as we acknowledge progress, we must also recognize the limited impact of these reforms. Their essential failure is that they assume these systems could operate humanely with some operational tweaks. However, after decades of workshops, reports, research, legislation, litigation, and blue-ribbon committees aimed at reducing discrimination and disparities, these features remain baked into custodial systems. LGBTQ youth of color, and other marginalized youth, continue to populate foster care and carceral facilities in numbers much higher than their share of the general population. Worse, there is no evidence that reforms have improved their life outcomes.
A growing movement to fundamentally reimagine child welfare and youth justice systems acknowledges their historical and structural racist, sexist, and homophobic underpinnings, and the untold harms visited upon generations of children and families who have been subject to their reach. In part, these movements are fueled by the enormous investment of public funds into systems that consistently fail to achieve anything resembling “child welfare” or “youth justice,” despite good intentions. Advocates of abolition assert that these systems cannot be “fixed,” but must be dismantled and defunded. A critical question posed by abolition movements is what should take the place of these failed systems?
SupportOUT—a collaboration of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs (“Office”) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (“NCLR”)—embraces the movement to reimagine public custodial systems. The initiative’s objective is to create a safety net of affirming, accessible, and community-based services to promote the well-being of LGBTQ youth of color in their homes, schools, and communities. SupportOUT seeks to preserve families instead of separating them, heal harms instead of inflicting punishment, and prevent systems involvement instead of facilitating it. The initiative aspires to raise the bar in Santa Clara County from ensuring “safety” and “tolerance” of LGBTQ youth of color to promoting their well-being and sense of belonging.
The principles that guide the initiative, as well as the priorities in the work plan, were identified collaboratively with young people and key county stakeholders. The Office contracted with Ceres Policy Research to survey public school students and conduct focus groups of LGBTQ youth about their conception of well-being. The Office engaged Rhodes Perry to conduct in-depth interviews with key county leaders about what public and private supports currently existed for LGBTQ youth of color, and what was missing.
Based on this input and the growing consensus on how to transform harmful systems, SupportOUT embraces the following elements of youth well-being:
- Access to necessities that constitute the social determinants of health, including food security, stable housing, economic security, healthcare, quality education, transportation, and connection to one’s culture, family, and community.
- Commitment to healing the harm and trauma caused by structural racism, sexism, and heterosexism and embracing anti-racist, gender-affirming, and equity-driven attitudes, practices, and policies.
- Opportunities for young people to develop competence, take responsibility for their mistakes, and contribute to their communities.
- A continuum of services tailored to the unique needs of each young person and family, and accessible geographically, culturally, and practically.
- A meaningful process for youth and their families to lead decision-making processes that impact their lives.
SupportOUT is an ambitious undertaking that will require commitment and coordination among public agencies, community-based organizations, schools, and youth and their families. In the coming months, the initiative partners will prioritize linking LGBTQ youth and their families to community supports, recruiting and supporting a Youth Advisory Council, refining data through expanded surveys and focus groups of youth, and training public agencies and contractors to collect and analyze SOGIE data. At the same time, the initiative will build partnerships with county and community leaders, and a communications infrastructure to sustain focused messaging in a county overwhelmed by competing innovations.
SupportOUT is intentionally focused on young people who live at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression. LGBTQ youth of color are among the county’s least empowered and most jeopardized residents. Centering their health and well-being is the essence of systemic transformation. Undertaking this work requires imagination, collective courage, and a laser focus on dismantling harmful structures and building healthy families and communities.
[*] Shannan Wilber is the youth policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. A career child advocate, she currently focuses on developing policies to transform public systems of care to promote the health and well-being of LGBTQ Youth of Color. Maribel Martínez is the director for the County of Santa Clara, Office of LGBTQ Affairs, the first office of its kind in the U.S. She has spent the last 20 years working with various community agencies addressing issues including K-16 education reform, neighborhood safety, health care access, and LGBTQ public policy.
 See Bianca D.M. Wilson et al., Sexual and Gender Minority Youth in Foster Care: Assessing Disproportionality and Disparities in Los Angeles (2014), https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/sgm-youth-la-foster-care/.
 See Angela Irvine & Aisha Canfield, Reflections on New National Data on LGBQ/GNCT Youth in the Justice System, 7 LGBTQ Pol’y J. 27 (2017).
 See Shannan Wilber, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in the Juvenile Justice System (2015), https://www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/AECF_LGBTinJJS_FINAL2.pdf.
 See Laura Baams et al., LGBTQ Youth in Unstable Housing and Foster Care, Pediatrics, Mar. 2019, at 1, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/143/3/e20174211.full.pdf.
 See Angela Irvine & Aisha Canfield, The Overrepresentation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Youth Within the Child Welfare to Juvenile Justice Crossover Population, 24 Am. U. J. Gender Soc. Pol'y & L. 243 (2015).
 See Bradley Brockman et al., Emerging Best Practices for the Management and Treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Intersex Youth in Juvenile Justice Settings (2018), https://fenwayhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/TFIP-33_Best-Practices-for-LGBTI-Incarcerated-People-Brief_web.pdf.
 See Wilson et al., supra note 1; Irvine & Canfield, supra note 2.
 See upEND Movement, https://upendmovement.org/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2021).
 See Los Angeles County Youth Justice Work Group, Los Angeles County: Youth Justice Reimagined (2020), https://burnsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/YJC_report_11.pdf.
 Programs, County of Santa Clara, https://www.sccgov.org/sites/lgbtq/Our-work/programs/Pages/home.aspx (last visited Feb. 14, 2021).
 Support OUT, National Center for Lesbian Rights, https://www.nclrights.org/our-work/legislation-policy/support-out/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2021).
 Home, Ceres Policy Research, https://www.cerespolicyresearch.com/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2021).
 Home, Rhodes Perry Consulting, https://www.rhodesperry.com/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2021).
 “SOGIE” is an acronym that stands for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Typically, a staff person elicits SOGIE information from youth as part of the intake process.