Researchers on an ambitious research project at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco published their first report on Wednesday.
Years in the making, the research focuses on women, transgender and gender-nonconforming people who have been involved in the criminal justice system or foster care system.
It sets out to tell “the stories of young people most impacted and marginalized in San Francisco,” said Young Women’s Freedom Center executive director Jessica Nowlan.
The report, titled “A Radical Model for Decriminalization: Centering the Lives of San Francisco System-Involved Women, Transgender & Gender Non-Conforming People (TGNC)” was issued and its key findings discussed during a lunch in San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday.
Nowlan challenged the audience to think about how to dismantle intertwined structures of foster care and criminal justice that lead to cycles of incarceration and disadvantage many people from a young age.
“We need to move beyond language. We need to listen with our hearts,” she said. “We need to really listen to imagine what could be.”
The Young Women’s Freedom Center has operated in the city since 1993. The organization is opening an office in Oakland next week and has plans to expand to San Jose and Los Angeles.
The group has impacted policy in the city and statewide. Last year, it worked with state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, on a bill to end late night release of jail inmates following the death of Jessica St. Louis, who was released at 1 a.m. from Santa Rita Jail and was found dead at the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station last July.
It also was involved in the recent campaign to shut down San Francisco’s juvenile hall, which is now slated to close in 2021.
“It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Young Women’s Freedom Center to close down juvenile hall,” city Supervisor Shamann Walton said Wednesday.
The researchers developed a detailed methodology to interview 100 young women, transgender people and gender non-conforming people who had been in the foster care system and the criminal justice system in San Francisco.
The interviews stressed the emotional safety and consent of the participants, as it was important for the researchers not to cause any further trauma while studying them.
“If it is done by the people, research can prevent us from being silenced, from being categorized and boxed in,” said Jocelyn Mati, a research organizer with the project.
The participants were interviewed over the last two years. Thirty-five percent identify as LGBTQ, 3 percent identify as transgender, 2 percent identify as gender fluid and 2 percent identify as gender non-conforming. Forty-three percent are black and 16 percent are black/biracial.
More than half had interactions with both the foster care system and either the adult or juvenile criminal justice system and 71 grew up in families who were reported to Child Protective Services, showing how intertwined the institutions can be.
For most of them, their families also were involved in the criminal justice system, including 52 percent of their mothers, 68 percent of their fathers and 60 percent of their siblings.
That turmoil at home brought challenges for many participants to find and hold stable housing. Particularly for people who identify as LGBTQ, homelessness is a frequent challenge.
Alezandra Melendrez, research director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, said that LGBTQ youth make up 49 percent of the homeless youth population.
“Stable housing provides the foundation for people to focus on other aspects of their lives and to build the skills and practices that will create self-determined futures,” the report said.
“Without stable housing, participants were at risk of losing their children or had to spend a majority of their time looking for a place to stay at night,” according to the report.
The report makes a series of general policy recommendations to improve opportunities for people who have grown up in unstable family environments or are trying to improve their lives after involvement in the criminal justice system. It recommends improving communication between agencies and putting more resources into community resources instead of government bureaucracy.
In San Francisco, most of its recommendations involve housing, specifically by funding more housing for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and removing barriers to obtaining housing for people with criminal records.
“At the federal, state, and county levels, government institutions need to address deep-rooted biases that cause disproportionality and criminalization,” the report said.
“Instead of looking to reform one system, reformers need to consider the entanglement of multiple, not work in silos, and collaborate across sectors in housing, health care, justice systems, child welfare, and economic markets,” researchers said in the report.
The full report is available for download here.