The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Overrepresented, Underserved: The Experiences of Lgbtq Youth in Girls Detention Facilities in New York State

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Mountz, PhD, Assistant Professor, California State University, Northridge, Northridge, CA


Purpose:  Recent years have seen increased attention to LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender and Questioning) youth as social scientists and popular media study the confluence of hostile peer groups, school and family environments. Research also demonstrates LGBTQ young people’s overrepresentation in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems as well as among homeless youth populations, although their experiences remain underrepresented within social work curricula. Despite increased recognition of the unique psychosocial and health outcomes of growing up LGBTQ, young queer women, transgender and gender non-conforming youth of color remain marginalized in social science research, social service settings, and in the community, where they are especially vulnerable to violence and have disproportionate rates of involvement with law enforcement.



This study highlights the experiences of some of the most marginalized of LGBTQ youth, those with juvenile justice involvement. Life history interviews were conducted with twelve young adults, ages 18-25, who had been incarcerated in girls juvenile detention facilities in New York State. Interviews addressed three primary research questions:

 1) How do LGBTQ young adults formerly incarcerated in girls’ detention facilities define, understand, and negotiate their gender identity and sexual orientation in relation to age, race and ethnicity and other aspects of identity?

2) What are the pathways into and out of the juvenile justice system for participants?

3) How do participants understand and narrate their experiences within juvenile detention facilities?

The study design used the principles of Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and was facilitated by a Community Advisory Board composed of practitioners, advocates, researchers and young people. Life History Interviewing was used to gain insight into participants’ pathways prior to, and following their juvenile justice involvement, in order to identify life choices, systemic barriers, experiences of violence and harassment in detention and elsewhere, and childhood and family history. Narratives were interpreted using the Listening Guide, a relational method based upon Carol Gilligan’s work on identity and moral development.


Findings revealed how participants negotiated their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and race in relation to various contexts, relationships, and systems, over time.  Results also identified themes related to the role of family acceptance and rejection in systems involvement, pipelines between child welfare, educational, and juvenile justice systems, the prevalence of interpersonal and state sanctioned violence in participants’ lives, and participants’ resilience and creative modes of collective and community based healing. Findings also highlighted the need to decriminalize young people’s survival strategies and to challenge the normative rather than exceptional use of detention.


Results from this study hold implications for our understanding of the unique experiences and complex interplay of multiple forms of trauma of LGBTQ youth in the both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and for educating social workers in these settings. Additionally, understanding youth’s pathways and experiences prior to detention illuminates some of the causes of their overrepresentation in these systems. The results also contribute knowledge to processes of identity formation and family relationships for LGBTQ youth.