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opinion | Darlena Cunha

Mass leads on protecting LGBTQ youth

By its very mission, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services is trying to provide a brighter future for the young people in its care and custody. That can be a serious challenge — the agency oversees minors who are committed as juvenile delinquents or youth offenders in the criminal justice system. And yet, this is one part of state government that has shown a true willingness to be open and creative, particularly when dealing with teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

LGBTQ youth, by some estimates, make up just 5 to 7 percent of the overall population, but their presence in youth services departments nationwide is 13 to 15 percent, according to a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress. The reasons for this are varied but usually involve family rejection, failed safety nets, and homelessness (up to 40 percent of the homeless youth in America identify as LGBTQ). They are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and they face disproportionate dangers, including a heightened risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

Survival is paramount when you are a kid living on the street, says Missy Sturtevant, a social worker who specializes in training on gender identity issues. The law becomes secondary, she adds — a teenager who has been abandoned by her family and whom society refuses to understand, who perhaps doesn’t even understand herself, and is hungry, cold, and alone, is not going to make the best life choices without guidance.

“We’re looking at incarcerated young people,” Sturtevant said, “and we are ready to throw them away when they are actually still valuable and still have things to share.”


DYS’s focus, however, is on rehabilitation. “Ninety-nine percent of our youth get back into the community, and it’s up to us in a short period of time to figure out what their issues are,” said Lisa Belmarsh, the agency’s director of policy and training.

Over the past two years, Belmarsh has led an effort to overhaul how DYS handles its LGBTQ community. Instead of treating all young people coming through as if gender were binary, the agency now has detailed, upfront, and respectful questions to help place individual minors according to how each is most comfortable.

Belmarsh acknowledges that the old process was outdated. “We had a standard and consistent way that we placed youth,” Belmarsh said. “All of them went through an assessment period where they were looked at for background, needs, strengths, treatment, mental health requirements, and whatever they may need to be successful.” Using this information, the agency determined where each young person should be placed and when he or she could return, rehabilitated, to the community.


Adding gender identity to the mix improved understanding of each case and placement in ways that most of the adults hadn’t previously considered. Belmarsh and her colleagues say the results so far have been both safer, and more effective, for the kids.

This is an effort born out of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. Criminal justice institutions and rehabilitation centers must put protocols in place to protect their entire populations, and those plans are then audited. Sturtevant and her business partner Ev Evnen have worked with DYS not only to establish new guidelines that meet these federal regulations, but to push them further. The agency has held more than 100 training sessions since the new policy was written, educating more than 2,000 employees at all levels to date.

“We started with a lot of staff thinking that they couldn’t talk about LGBTQ issues because they didn’t know how or were uncomfortable with it or didn’t want to make the youth uncomfortable,” Evnen said. “Now we’ve given them the necessary tools to talk about it effectively and with trust.”

Evnen and Sturtevant along with DYS trainers take on classes of 20 to 30 staff members from various departments and guide them through activities meant to teach as well as to immerse. “We start with an activity where people write down four things that are really important to them. Then they find someone they don’t know in the room, and they have to have a conversation with that person without mentioning those four things or anything to do with them. If the topics come up, they have to change the conversation,” Evnen said. “People come to see how awkward it is. They don’t know quite what to do. That’s when we make the connection between what they’ve just experienced and living as LGBTQ, where it can be nearly impossible to talk freely about what is important to you.”


From there, the trainers use a mix of lecture and other group activities to stress how staff should treat LGBTQ youth and create empathy for their unique situation. One activity involves hair combs. The trainees are given one type of comb to study, all participants get the same comb. That is representative of equality. From there, it is easy to visualize how equality is not necessarily equity. That is, just like different hair types need different combs, different people need different treatment.

In this way, Belmarsh explained, staff can see that the policies don’t call for special treatment or extras for certain people but simply set the starting point as equitable for everyone who p=asses through the system.

According to Belmarsh, the policy in place now allows youths to self-identify and places them according to their chosen gender identity. It ensures young people are referred to using pronouns of their choosing and provides for hormone therapies and other transitional medical needs to continue. It also helps employees further examine specific and particular mental help and stability needs of each individual.


The hope is that this extra effort will yield positive long-term consequences, Belmarsh said. “Ultimately, these policies help keep entire communities safe because they will have healthier individuals back out there contributing to society.”

There aren’t statistical data on how DYS policies or training sessions are working yet, but anecdotally both appear to be making a difference. Young people coming through the system who identify as LGBTQ have told the agency’s PREA compliance manager that they like and appreciate the questions being asked and the way those questions are being asked, Belmarsh said. They feel safer.

Governor Charlie Baker acknowledged this vast effort last month by honoring the agency with the Commonwealth Equity in Governance Award. The honor is given to an employee or group of employees who have demonstrated commitment to and attainment of the principles of equity in government.

DYS’s ability to write new policy on these tough issues — plus its ability to implement that policy quickly, fully, and with total cooperation agencywide — has turned Massachusetts’ system into a model for other states. “We took this on, and we’ve found we are now above the standard, and that’s a nice place to be,” Belmarsh said.


Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @parentwin.