Webinar Examines Sexual Exploitation of Girls by Gangs

CHICAGO-- Although gangs are a chronic problem in many urban and suburban areas of the nation, this city included, certain aspects of gang life don’t receive the attention – and therefore the resources – necessary to combat them.

In particular, the sexual exploitation of girls by gangs is a serious problem currently facing law enforcement, courts, educators and social service programs across the country, according to a panel that met this week to discuss the issue.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention presented a webinar Wednesday through the Missing and Exploited Children’s Program to address promising practices for targeting the commercial sexual exploitation of girls in gangs. The webinar built on MECP’s June presentation about exploitation by offering organizations and individuals suggestions for internal practices and appropriate interaction with victims.

“The top thing that sexually abused, victimized girls say they want in treatment and in custody is someone to talk to,” said speaker Keith Burt, a retired deputy district attorney and former Chief of the Gang Prosecution Division in San Diego. “Someone they feel they can trust, that they can just talk to.”

Although the speakers acknowledged males and transgender individuals suffer from sexual exploitation by gangs, the victims are overwhelmingly female. Burt also stressed that it’s important to remember these youth are not child prostitutes, but actually victims of horrible sexual abuse imposed by sophisticated perpetrators.

“What we do know about exploiters is that they are very organized,” said Jenee Littrell, who directs the guidance and wellness program at Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, and has experience working with sexually victimized students. “[Exploiters] are making a lot of money out of this. They have a huge investment in staying ahead of us, and frankly, they’re able to respond and move their systems way faster than we are. So the more that we can do to share our information and stay tight together… then the more responsive we’re going to be able to be in identifying and preventing students from falling into this.”

Alfredo Nambo, the principal at Latino Youth High School in Chicago’s Little Village, has encountered similar problems of general sexual violence among his female students involved in gang life.

“Not only does [sexual violence] happen, but there's not a support system for them to come out and get those services that they need,” Nambo said. “And so they suffer in silence that way.”

One of the slides from the MECP’s webinar emphasized a social ecological approach for understanding the issue of sexual exploitation of victims by gang members.

Nambo’s frustration with the lack of resources for this “rampant” problem was echoed during the webinar. Other problems include limited access to juvenile records and a lack of options for law enforcement when dealing with the victims.

For example, officers have typically been limited to charging youth as underage prostitutes. But the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010, decriminalized sex-trade involvement for children younger than 18. Deemed unable to consent to their own commercial sexual exploitation, minors are no longer considered perpetrators or juvenile prostitutes. And states across the nation continue to pass legislation against human trafficking.

Some states are even developing progressive programs to address the unique situations of these victims. Burt, for example, mentioned the Hawai’i Girls Court as an example of the judicial system effectively addressing the specific needs of girls who have been sexually victimized by gangs. According to its website, the Hawai’i Girls Court boasts an all-female staff and is “one of the first courts in the United States built on a full range of gender-specific and strength-based programming with a caseload targeting female juvenile offenders.”

The Hawai’i Girls Court is just one example of promising methods for addressing the issue. But beyond big scale approaches like a gender-tailored family court, Burt and Littrell stressed collaboration with victims as a means to better understand their situations and move forward together. In response to a question about what small businesses could do to address sexual exploitation by gangs in their immediate communities, Burt suggested owners could essentially befriend the victims. Instead of seeing victims as aliens or a part of a crime problem in front of their business, Burt said this approach could really make a difference.

“You’d be surprised at what information [you] can get, what little thing may… turn the tide for one of these victims in terms of changing her life,” Burt said.


Report Finds States Pulling Back from Tough Laws of ’80s, ’90s (Watch the Video)

By Natalie Krebs and Eric Ferkenhoff

Keynote speaker Robert Schwartz / Photo by Gideon Resnick of The Chicago Bureau

CHICAGO-Fears that a generation of menacing adolescents would stalk cities and kill at will never came to pass, and it appears states have gotten the message. Legislators are now relaxing harsh laws against minors enacted in the late 1980s and 1990s, according to a report out Tuesday.

The study found children lack the mental capacity to commit crimes as adults. States have also raised the age at which juveniles may transfer to adult courts, and they now recognize most minors involved in crimes have some type of mental illness.

But the racial disparities plaguing the juvenile justice system were among the most telling findings, with statistics heavily skewed against blacks and Hispanics. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) study reported, “minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage at a higher rate than their white counterparts.”

In response to this imbalance, 10 states – including Illinois – enacted disproportionate minority contact legislation between 2001 and 2011, the years covered in the report.

This echoes a study by the same group in 2009, in which the introduction states:

“African- Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans comprise a combined one-third of the nation’s youth population. Yet they account for over two-thirds of the youth in secure juvenile facilities.”

Tuesday’s report – released during the NCSL's meeting in Chicago and funded by the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – goes on to say that research “suggests that minority youth receive harsher treatment than their white counterparts at nearly every stage of the juvenile justice process.”

MacArthur Foundation Luncheon at the NCSL, with Robert Schwartz from The Chicago Bureau on Vimeo.

The start of such tough juvenile sentences largely stemmed from the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, when powerful street gangs were looking to control territory in Chicago and other cities across the country.

Stories about youth like Yummy Sandifer – an 11-year-old boy hunted by police for gunning down a 14-year-old girl and later killed by teen members of his own gang – made the cover of Time magazine. Biographers wrote books about ‘Little B,’ and authorities arrested young men and women at alarming rates for abandoning, killing, maiming and neglecting children.

It was a frightening period, and lawmakers were scared into action. State legislators passed laws that treated young children – just 12 and 13 in some cases – as adults, which automatically transferred their cases to adult court based on the nature of their crimes.

But in recent years, the courts have discussed adolescent development literature, according to the executive director of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Law Center, Robert Schwartz.

“[They’re] recognizing adolescent’s impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,” Schwartz said. “Their vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressures, and their capacity for change. Those differences, at the word of experts, make juveniles less guilty by reason of adolescence. Youth isn’t a defense, but it is a mitigator.”

Cities and states are giving a nod to this, with some passing laws that loosen the grip on teens and minors while others revisit the issue.

But for many officials, it’s more than just making decisions that aim to benefit children; for some, it’s just as much about costs which are much higher for incarceration than, for example, some treatments.

At the same time, it’s not about making excuses for youth violence and other crimes; they must be held accountable – just at the age they are, according those at the event Tuesday.

For its part, The MacArthur Foundation has started programs in 35 jurisdictions in 15 states. The idea is to build on rehabilitative services much more than punishment for crimes committed when, according to research, young brains were so underdeveloped they couldn’t grasp the gravity of the crime.

The problem, according to many experts, is there is no consistency in the system. Fifty states; 50 systems of juvenile justice. Few argue for an overall federal law, but some sameness in the legal community could help in organizing records and tracking children as they mature through the system.

The report does credit moves by the United States Supreme Court in moving states to action and away from reactive policies that punish more than help juveniles.

For example, in 2005, the death penalty was taken off the books for juveniles. Five years later, life without parole was erased for all minors convicted for crimes less severe than murder.

Then this year, in June, the high court ruled that mandatory life without parole for minors was unjust even in the case of murder, siding with arguments that a child’s brain is not developed to the point where adult decisions can be made, thought through and acted upon.

Along the way, the court cited MacArthur Research Network studies about the nature of adolescents. In a word, they’re impulsive, and should not be held to the same standard as actual adults even if the crime is fitting for tough penalties. (Here, in Illinois, the state raised the age from 17 to 18 for juveniles to be treated as adults for misdemeanor crimes.)

The Supreme Court’s rulings prompted action on the state level – which, to some degree, seemed as budget-minded as it was a recognition of a child’s mental state.

“Research also shows that moving 16- and 17-year-old youth out of the adult system into the juvenile system will return about $3 in benefits for every $1 in cost,” the report found.

But states did make their own moves. Arizona was out front, passing a law in 2001, the first year studied in the report, that said juveniles must be placed in residential facilities if “the juvenile has psychological and mental health needs and requires the court to periodically review the progress of the treatment given.”

Even traditionally non-progressive states have made seemingly bold moves.

Consider Georgia, which has recently been debating a wholesale overhaul of its juvenile system.

In 2006, the state began mandating full mental health evaluations of juveniles deemed not competent, meaning the minors be exposed to community-based treatments and other rehabilitative services before detention in a secure facility is even considered.

“The legislative trends evidenced during the past decade,” according to the report’s findings, “reflect a new understanding of adolescent development and the value of cost-benefit analysis of existing data-driven research."

Chicago’s Homicides Down in July But Worries Still Linger

By Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma

CHICAGO -- It was rare news in a summer filled with frightening crime statistics, equally alarming headlines and a mayor and police superintendent on the defensive: For the month of July, killings in this city were down 11 percent from the same period last year, with the number of homicides for the month at 49.

But such news matters little to people like Shirley Askew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, whiling away days playing in the streets and city parks. And it means little when the overall homicide rate for the year is still up nearly 27 percent. Many children are scared; they’re kept indoors, and, in a very real sense, locked out of their childhoods.

Now 59, with four sons and four grandsons, Askew indeed worries about the increasing neighborhood violence that threatens local children’s safety. Just Thursday afternoon, not far from where Askew spoke with reporters, two 16-year-old boys were gunned down and another wounded.

“God knows I wouldn’t want to go back and be a child again,“ she said, “Boy, I just feel so bad for them, because they have nowhere to play, nowhere they can go to without somebody fighting and shooting everything up.”

Askew, who was selling snow cones outside a convenience store on North Avenue, said this summer seems more violent than the last because she hears about shootings just about every day. This environment is rough for children, she added, growing quiet as a young girl and her father approached the stand.

“These babies don’t have a chance,” Askew said, watching the pair walk away with their fruit punch flavored cone.

City officials put a good face on the crime numbers that were reported in the local media Thursday. But they acknowledged the city has a long way to go to halt the killings. Through the end of July there were 308 homicides in Chicago - still far above last year's total of 243 for the same period.

Strategies borrowed from the playbook that saw New York’s crime rate plummet from a high in the mid-1990s, known as the broken-windows program, have been implemented in some cases here. The police target even minor crimes to chip away at the more headline-grabbing murders that have so marred this summer.

Some residents say much of the violence is due to gang disputes in various pockets of the city. Michael Lee, 54, also from the West Side, said he hears shots once or twice a week.

“We’re wary about walking down the streets, sending our kids to the store and letting them out of the house,” he said.

Lake View High School student Destinee Davis, 17, said the July Fourth holiday seemed to mark the height of violence so far this summer, when she could not distinguish between fireworks and gunshots.

While Davis said it is difficult, with violence so rampant, to tell if this summer is any worse than previous years, she said she has witnessed a number of muggings. She said her cousin, who lives with Davis, has been jumped three times this year.

“It makes me scared to go out,” she said as she stood waiting for her bus.


Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma are reporters for The Chicago Bureau.

Photo from Law Enforcement Today.