News & Events

Introducing JustUs: New York City’s First-Ever Gender-Responsive Diversion Program

In New York City and across the country—as a consequence of systemic racism endemic to the criminal legal system—BIPOC* girls and other lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB)/trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary (TGNCNB) young people face staggering levels of State surveillance and criminalization. In response to this mass criminalization, in intentional partnership with Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), and with funding from the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Rising Ground—through our STEPS to End Family Violence division—has launched JustUs, New York City’s first-ever gender-responsive diversion program for girls and other LGB/TGNCNB young people who are involved with or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The supports offered by JustUs are driven by a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of the lives of young people—especially those who are BIPOC and LGB/TGNCNB. Prior to the creation of JustUs, New York City did not have a gender-responsive diversion program for girls (both cis- and trans-) and other LGB/TGNCNB young people, according to Anne Patterson, Senior Vice President and head of STEPS to End Family Violence.

“There is overcriminalization and policing of Black, Brown, queer, and trans folx,” Ms. Patterson says. “With the creation of JustUs, we are saying the lives of these young people have deep and meaningful value. We won’t stand for attempts to criminalize it.” Adds Helianis Quijada Salazar, Director of JustUs: “Young people who get caught up in the juvenile justice system should not be punished; they should be given what they need to thrive.”

The Project’s Genesis

JustUs is an ACS funded, three-year demonstration initiative that in part springs from years of work done by members of the Task Force on Ending Girls Incarceration in New York City anchored by the Vera Institute of Justice. This Task Force underscores the reality that girls in the juvenile justice system—who are disproportionately girls of color and/or LGB/TGNCNB—are commonly swept into custody for low-level offenses that pose no risk to public safety. Given this, one of the key Task Force recommendations was to authentically invest in reform for girls and LGB/TGNC young people as part of a comprehensive gender-responsive reform strategy that works to transform the gendered adversities that shape the lives of young people and funnels them into the juvenile justice system.

Like all of the work done by the STEPS team, JustUs is grounded in the tenets of healing-centered, anti-oppressive practice, notes Ms. Quijada Salazar. “We begin [intake] with a lengthy, holistic process to understand who this human is, where they are coming from, what they need, what they want, and how we can best support them so that they can thrive,” she says. “We will draw up a plan for what each girl needs,” says Ms. Quijada-Salazar. “Maybe she wants to get counseling, or learn financial literacy, or get career help. Once the plan is created, she is ready to start participating in services.”

JustUs offers skilled individual counseling and coaching (in English and Spanish), evidence-based clinical interventions, group-based activities, economic empowerment skill building, and other supports. STEPS will provide these services in collaboration with GGE, an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women. Through education, organizing and physical fitness, GGE encourages communities to remove barriers and create opportunities for girls and women to live self-determined lives.

JustUs is working specifically with Brooklyn-based young people and is now accepting referrals from agencies, community-based organizations, and individuals. Self-referrals are encouraged, too. To refer someone, use the online referral form or email [email protected] For more information, email Ms. Quijada Salazar at [email protected]

BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, People of Color. This acronym is used in an effort to undo Native invisibility, highlight anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice.