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Juvenile Courts Learn about LGBTQ Youths’ Complexities

With more awareness needed about the challenges LGBTQ people face in the juvenile justice system, the Ohio Supreme Court is educating judges and court staff on how best to handle these delicate cases.

A new webinar by the Supreme Court’s Judicial College examines the basics of gender identity, expression, and connections, and how those dynamics can play out in a court setting.

“There’s a lot that all of us need to learn – specifically, being sensitive in our understanding,” said Julie Norberg, the director and chief probation officer for the Allen County Juvenile Court Community Control Department.

The 90-minute presentation includes a backstory of LGBTQ inequality and how discrimination affects young people in various environments, including their homes, schools, and the legal system.

“When I was younger, I probably had some out-of-place views, but we all grow and change,” said Van Wert County Probate and Juvenile Judge Kevin Taylor. “We get a little bit smarter and wiser.”

For young children and teens who come in contact with the judicial system, through their own actions or custody matters, the courts can be overwhelming.

When that feeling of intimidation is compounded by personal and internal struggles with gender or sexuality, it can be even more difficult for a juvenile to discuss those issues and their needs to help address them, especially if those truths are hidden from loved ones.

“I recognized when I was young that there were things that were challenging for me where it would’ve been nice to have somebody to talk to,” said Karen Guerreri, a juvenile court counselor in Montgomery County.

Bullying and peer pressure remain constants for many youths, but they can be especially consequential for those in the LGBTQ community.

The 2019 National School Climate Survey states around 86% of LGBTQ students were harassed or assaulted at school. That abuse reportedly leads to lower GPAs, diminished self-esteem, and a refusal to attend school.

If an LGBTQ youth ends up in a juvenile justice facility, many times that torment continues. Such problems include misplacement in a detention center for a male who identifies as female, or vice versa, that can lead to victimization by other youth, and even staff, as well as inadequate health care or lack of supportive services stemming from a gender-identity disconnect, according to the Center for American Progress.

“We have to trust regarding their identities and understand what’s safe for them,” said course presenter Amanda Erickson.

Erickson works as an education and training manager for Kaleidoscope Youth Center, Ohio’s largest and longest-standing organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth.

Her position largely focuses on providing resources and guidance to other organizations to create greater recognition of the underlying issues LGBTQ+ people face, especially as minors.

Among the policies and protocols, such as agencies having state and local resources readily available, is how to communicate about sexual orientation while being sensitive to confidential information. In many instances, families, friends, and others don’t know about someone’s gender or sexual preference.

“None of this has to make sense. Attendees don’t need to leave a presentation fully understanding gender identities. Viewers just need to understand that all of these identities exist, and it’s our job to affirm everyone,” Erickson said.

That inclusive mentality mirrors the obligation of judges and court personnel, who must perform their duties fairly and impartially without bias or prejudice, as detailed in the Ohio Judicial Code of Conduct.

“There’s a personal responsibility for anybody who works in any type of social-service arena,” Guerreri said.