What About the Girls?


Juvenile crime has been declining for years and is now at historic lows. That’s the good news. The bad news is that girls are now the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system. Although the system is still dominated by boys, in 2009, girls made up 30 percent of all juvenile arrests; up from 20 percent in 2008. Two-thirds are girls of color.

Why this increase in girl delinquents? Program operators say there is a new kind of girl coming into their programs — girls who are more troubled than those they’ve worked with in the past. These operators blame the growing ills that many adolescent girls face every day in their communities; fractured families, poverty, poor schooling and the increased availability of drugs and alcohol. Research says that adolescent girls, already struggling with self esteem and identity issues, can be very vulnerable to the conditions around them, leading them to high-risk behavior.

Other experts say that the rise in girls’ arrests has less to do with growing community dysfunction and changes in girls’ behavior, than with society’s growing intolerance for even minor crime and violence. They note that today’s courts are coming down much harder on girl offenders than they have in the past — even for low-level offenses.

Understanding the “why” of this spike in teen girl offenders is critical. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed: What do we do about the girls who are coming into the juvenile justice system in unprecedented numbers? How do we meet their needs? How do we reduce the number of girls getting caught up in the system?

I’m not implying that the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system trump those of boys. However, because boys have always dominated the system, juvenile facilities are geared to males and have been slow to respond to the growing girl population.

The research documenting differences between adjudicated girls and boys is unambiguous. Girls commit far fewer violent offenses than boys, and are more likely to be arrested for property crimes (i.e.: shop lifting) or status offenses such as running way, truancy and curfew violations. A far higher percentage of girls than boys enter the juvenile justice system with a history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and are known to self medicate through alcohol and drugs. Finally, adolescent girls need different health services than boys, including health education, gynecological exams, and sometimes, pregnancy-related care.

The bottom line is that, in most cases, girls in the system do not get their needs met and are often re-traumatized through dehumanizing and abusive treatment.

For advocacy organizations like the Child Welfare League of America, (CWLA) the answer to my question, what do we do about the girls, is straightforward. CWLA has pushed for gender-specific programming to be implemented in the juvenile justice system.

This programming recognizes girls’ specific needs and provides them with opportunities for change and growth. Researchers have identified program elements that address these needs: an emotionally safe space where girls can hold nurturing conversations and develop trusting relationships with other females; mentors whose experiences reflect the realities of girls lives and who exemplify survival and growth; education about women’s health, including female sexuality; support for continuing education; health care, including treatment for trauma, drug dependency or pregnancy and childbirth and opportunities to make  positive life changes.

Further, CWLA believes that community institutions must work together to reduce the number of adolescent and teen girls entering the juvenile justice system in the first place. Activities that provide girls with access to caring adults, a healthy sense of their strengths, individuality and sexual identity as well as a feeling of optimism about the future, can help counter the risk of delinquency.

Certainly, gender-specific programming in the juvenile justice system and other community institutions is a key piece of what troubled, vulnerable girls need. However, currently, there are few programs and strategies either inside or outside of the juvenile justice system that provide this kind of support and guidance. And things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, (JJDPA), requires states to submit a three-year plan to the Department of Justice in order to access funding --- including a plan for implementing gender-specific services. However, advocates say this requirement needs to be strengthened and that JJDPA has not been re-authorized since 2002. Also, many states are attempting to divert status offenders to counseling or other community-based services to prevent entry into the juvenile justice system. But there are not enough alternative programs for all who need them, which means many girls are being incarcerated for minor offenses when what they really need is supportive programming and adult guidance.

So the question remains, what do we do about the girls?

We can continue to feed adolescent girls into an inadequate, dehumanizing system. Or we can strongly advocate that all federal, state and local agencies with youth serving mandates work with community institutions to help these vulnerable girls become strong, productive women. The choice is ours.

Published by

Bernardine Watson

Bernardine (Dine) Watson is a social policy consultant and writer living in Washington, D.C. Ms. Watson’s work focuses primarily on youth and community issues including child welfare, education, juvenile justice, youth development, race and poverty. Previously, she was executive vice president of Public Private Ventures (P/PV), where she ran the field operations department. Ms. Watson sits on the board of directors of Young Ladies of Tomorrow, a non-profit organization in D.C. that serves vulnerable girls.

One thought on “What About the Girls?”

  1. I ride public trans to and from my office every day and I see these girls you’ve identified in your article. I hear their conversations and it can break your heart to see their hard cold faces until they smile and a little girl’s pretty face shines out! They laugh like children even though the language is coarse and as foul as any grown man’s. The share advice from their personal experiences but some times what I hear is bad advice and will only lead to more trouble. They come in all shapes and sizes but most are overweight due to one or two babies born to them before they left high school and too many fast-food and corner store take-out meals. Too many have had a hard life and their situation won’t improve as they grow older. But I have to say I’ve seen a few bright spots for these young women – their babies’ fathers have reappeared and have taken some of the load off their backs?! More and more I see young men walking with one or two children, carrying their backpacks and school bags. I’ve seen them holding their hands walking through the subway, getting on the bus and sitting on the trolleys. These few “couples” seem to have come to some sort of agreement and worked out a plan for how, at least, the children will be cared for. They should be commended and whoever has helped them to that point should be as well. If these few young people can start and continue the trend we may be able to save more and more of the coming generations. Family connections are one of the best ways to keep our young men and our “girls” out of the system. Education has to be stressed and an affiliation with a group of caring men and women that can offer sound advice and encouragement are the supports most needed. Churches and even Sororities and Fraternities may want to collaborate with government agencies to tackle the problem? I look forward to hearing from you again on this issue. I believe the next report will be a positive one?

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