When Kids Cross Over: Trans Youth in the Juvenile and Family Court Systems

by Judge Darlene Byrne

The Heman Sweatt Courthouse, Austin, Texas. Photo credit: Eric Reyna/KUT News

I preside over the crossover docket in Austin, Texas. This docket, designed for children who are dually involved in the juvenile justice system and child welfare (or dependency) system at the same time, is fraught with stories of abandonment, sex trafficking of minors, and trauma of all kinds. Children on this docket must grapple with the pain of feeling let down by their parents while finding the strength to take responsibility for their own criminal actions and move forward. While these tasks alone might seem insurmountable for most young people, two amazing young ladies on this docket have faced an added challenge on this journey — the difficulty of struggling with their gender identity.

Judge Darlene Byrne.

I have long been aware of how difficult life can be for transgender persons, but lately our society’s hostility and lack of tolerance seem inescapable. Texas passed a law this year that allows religious foster agencies to refuse to serve foster parents or foster children who are transgender, if their transgender status would violate the agency’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” And recently, our Texas legislature considered a bill that would require transgender people, including kids over 10, to use the bathroom that coincides with the sex on their birth certificate, not the one that aligns with their gender identity. Our nation’s President chimed in on the rhetoric, asserting his opinion on Twitter that transgender persons should be banned from serving our country in the military.

In the midst of our too-often hostile world, through my crossover docket, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Denise* and Lily*, both of whom are now seventeen year old young ladies.

Lily and I have known each other for six years. When we first met, I knew her as a scared young boy of 11, named Lyle*, who had been accused of a crime. Lily was very small for his age and for years was picked on for his size and described as immature for his age. During Lily’s time with me on the crossover docket, she had 13 placements, had her parents’ rights to her terminated, identified as gay, and just recently identified as female and changed her name. Lily’s grandmother stood by her from the beginning even though her grandmother was unable to serve as the placement for Lily because every time she was in non-secure or less structured environment she would reoffend.

The challenges for Lily have been great over the years but this recent and new discovery about her true gender identity has provided her a platform to move forward. She is more self-assured, more at ease with herself, has a new direction for herself and has her grandmother by her side. For the last year she has been transitioning out of her juvenile justice secure placement into a less restrictive setting and has not reoffended. When it first came to light in a court hearing that Lily identified as female, the revelation seemed obvious to everyone who knew her. Now her court team can help her on her journey in life with the right services and activities to help her realize her dreams. Lily has expressed that she was inspired by Geena Rocero’s TED Talk about being a successful fashion model and transgender person and advocate. During much of Geena’s life, she too hid her transgender status.

The 126th District Court. Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman

This past year, while working on Lily’s case as her judge, I had the privilege of meeting Denise. Denise came from a small rural Texas town and from the age of 10 had been on juvenile probation. I first met Denise when she was 16, had found her way to Austin, had no place to live, and had six years of juvenile justice probation hanging over her head even though her assessments in my county stated she was at a “low risk” to reoffend. Denise had not picked up any new charges in the six years she had been on probation in her county of origin.

When Denise appeared on my docket for the first time, she had already discovered her female gender identity. When I proposed transferring her juvenile justice case from the original rural county to Austin, I met with great resistance from the judge and court team in the original county because of Denise’s transgender status. I noted that professionals from that county always referred to her gender identity issues in guarded words and hushed and halting tones. Due to her juvenile justice status and restrictions from the rural county (she could not be around any children more than two years younger than herself), it was nearly impossible to find her an appropriate, available placement and by default she had to sleep in the Child Protective Services (CPS) agency offices or a hotel room with one-on-one CPS caseworker supervision for almost two months.

Once I was able to move jurisdiction of Denise’s juvenile justice case to my county (which took six months), I was able to eliminate the severe conditions of her probation which limited her ability to go to public school, participate in normal teenage activities, and find placement somewhere other than an agency office or hotel room. One of her relatives tried to serve as placement for her for a while but lost patience when Denise broke curfew, lied, and took things from her relative without permission — typical teenage behavior if you ask me — especially for a traumatized teenager who is transgender and whose parents were unfit to care for her for years.

Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures

I have learned so much from these beautiful, unique young ladies. Though their road has been difficult, I know our crossover docket team has provided as many services and supports as we can and both teens have thrived in this environment. I see such hope for both of them in the future. However, I also worry for them as they prepare to age out of the foster care system. Ahead, they face the prospect of crossing over into the world of adulthood and I know this world can be so harsh. Like all youth on the cross-over docket, Lily and Denise may always to some degree struggle to overcome past trauma and stay on the right path. It is heartbreaking that these girls must do so while struggling to live freely and openly as their true selves and facing opposition from some of the ugliest parts of our society. I can only imagine that transphobia, disdain, and discrimination will confront them far too often…even when it comes to which bathroom to use.

Recently, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in partnership with the National Juvenile Defender Center, released a judicial bench card with principles and best practices to ensure youth or other juvenile court participants who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and gender non-conforming (LGBTQ-GNC) are treated with respect in the courtroom.

For more information about trans youth in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, please see report from Children’s Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

*Their names have been changed in order to honor their privacy.

Judge Darlene Byrne presides over the 126th Judicial District Court in Travis County. She is also a member and past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.


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