Deborah Wood Smith

Girls in Justice System Often Traumatized Victims of Abuse


Deborah Wood SmithThe concern about the increasing number of girls in the juvenile justice system and a lack of adequate programming is nothing new. Policymakers have been advocating for attention to these issues for decades.

Beginning in the late 1990s, experts began to notice the increase in the number of girls in the juvenile justice system. With recent research on brain development and trauma, more data on girls in the juvenile system and concerns over human trafficking the time has come for these problems to be addressed in a constructive manner.

The late Robert E. Shepherd Jr. pointed to studies in the 1990s showing that girls were more often arrested for status offenses such as running away, had greater mental health needs including suicide attempts and prior psychiatric hospitalizations, and a history of trauma and abuse. He also noted that girls of color were overrepresented in the system.

A recently released report from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality notes many of these same problems persist today. High rates of sexual abuse and overrepresentation of girls of color continue to be the norm in juvenile justice systems nationally.

Additionally, girls are often victimized at a younger age and are the victims of multiple acts of abuse, the report says. It describes this as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” taking the name from the “school to prison pipeline” term that has been used for decades. While the school to prison pipeline has typically been thought of as affecting black boys, a recent report found that in the 13 Southern states that had 55 percent of suspensions and 50 percent of expulsions nationally, black girls were suspended and expelled at higher rates.

[module type="aside" align="right"]

Learn more about mental health and substance abuse at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about mental health on the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.


Girls’ and boys’ brains do not mature in the same way. Abigail Baird looks at juvenile development through the lens of neuroscience. She found that boys and girls do not react to stimuli in the same way because of biological differences. According to Baird, boys tend to be less afraid of punishment or risk and girls tend to be better at relationship building based on differences in brain development.

Girls are very sensitive to punishment and in extreme cases may become suicidal when their relationships are threatened. So punishing someone who is not afraid of risks is not effective but punishing someone who is very sensitive to punishment can have detrimental effects.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study shows a connection between abuse and later mental health issues just as studies on development of the brain indicate that trauma and abuse affect the actual architecture of the brain.

While girls account for almost 30 percent of the juvenile justice population fewer studies focus on this group. The OJJDP Beyond Detention series provides several reports on a longitudinal study of detained youth and looks at differences in abuse patterns between boys and girls.

[Related: When We Fail To Ask Why: Sexually Abused Girls Funneled into Juvenile Justice System]

Girls are more likely to have been sexually abused and boys are more likely to have been physically abused. Girls represented 35.9 percent of the participants and had a mortality rate of nearly eight times that of the general population. Girls in the system are more likely to have a history of physical and sexual abuse and have a high rate of psychiatric disorders (as many as three-quarters). Intimate partner violence is of particular concern for these girls.

Some studies have found that girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to a traumatic event. Suicidal ideation and attempts are a particular problem for incarcerated youth but especially for girls. One study found that Hispanic girls had the highest rates of suicidal thoughts. When these youth were examined three years after release, significantly more girls had impairment in the domains of moods, emotions and self-harm.

These findings are not surprising based on the neuroscience that shows girls’ brains develop in a way that makes them more sensitive to punishment. The special needs of these victims of trauma are often not being addressed in the juvenile system, which may retraumatize them. Girls are more likely to be arrested for less serious offenses but are more likely to have serious problems, including a history of physical and sexual abuse, psychiatric disorders, family violence and suicidal ideation.

Girls tend to create strong sharing social groups, which have an evolutionary purpose, according to Baird. This survival instinct becomes common for girls beginning in middle school. Unfortunately, it also means they are more apt to use “relational aggression” and to suffer more than boys when it is used on them. Girls who are ostracized from the social group in this fashion are at risk for suicidal thoughts.

A study of adolescent girls found that those with less sensitivity to relational aggression had more mature development or more activity in the prefrontal cortex. Childhood trauma and abuse can disrupt the brain development of these youth. It is not surprising that behaviors such as running away or fighting with peers and family follows.

Unfortunately, this is often the entryway for girls into the juvenile justice system. Detention is still disproportionately used for girls charged with status offenses such as running away. In 2011 girls represented 53 percent of petitions for running away.

For the most part, state juvenile justice systems were designed with boys in mind. Recent research on trauma and brain development in boys and girls can improve programming for both populations.

Treatment needs to focus on the unique needs of girls exposed to trauma. Gender-specific programs such as Girls Court in Hawaii, specialized girls drug courts and programs that address girls charged with prostitution or involved in human trafficking are being developed.

Disproportionate school discipline of girls also needs to be addressed. Truancy and running away need to be recognized as a possible symptom of abuse or trauma rather than misbehavior. Evaluation of the effectiveness of these types of programs is crucial to make sure that victims of trauma are not being further traumatized.

Now that epidemiology and neuroscience have come together to show us the connection between childhood trauma, behavior, and mental and physical health, it is time to address these issues as early and as effectively as possible.

Deborah Smith is a senior knowledge and information services analyst with the National Center for State Courts. Before coming to the center she worked as a juvenile public defender and as a special education advocate.

More related articles: 

California Mentorship Program Offers Comfort to Sexually Exploited Young Women

Report: Girls Face ‘Sex-Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline’

Women’s Center Works to Lower Recidivism Rates With ‘Immersion in Sisterhood’