Oprah Winfrey’s book, “What I Know For Sure,” comes to my mind often when I look at what life has presented me with and what I face each day. I often ask myself what do I know for sure about girls involved in our juvenile justice system.
What I know is that our girls today are scared and often lack the guidance of a caring adult. It is my experience that many girls who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have experienced some form of trauma, mental health diagnosis, substance abuse and the absence of a caring adult in their lives.
Today’s generation has a culture of allowing social media to guide our youth’s footsteps. They lack the opportunity to interact with a caring neighbor, teacher, church youth group or simply a nonjudgmental person. We have forgotten how to love our young ladies, and they are left to turn to social media such as Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat for approval.
Our young ladies are exposing themselves in a dangerous and vulnerable way just for a “like,” “view” or “thumbs up.” We have allowed social media to provide temporary relief for their pain and feeling of abandonment way too often. We have fewer and fewer positive venues for our young ladies, so the desire to reach out to their peers for acceptance will repeat whether they get a positive or negative response.
Lead4Life, Inc. in Maryland provides community-based gender-specific programming for girls who are involved with the juvenile justice system or are at risk of being placed out of their homes due to negative behaviors displayed in the community, school and home. Time and time again these girls start the program not having a voice, feeling insufficient, assuming no one will understand what they are going through and, most disturbing, feeling completely alone. Throughout the program, we are able to see these girls blossom.
Lead4Life uses a strength-based, Positive Youth Development (PYD) and restorative practice approach. Besides providing a safe program structure, topics that address daily life practices and a special dinner, we provide the group with caring adults. Through the strength-based model, we make sure that we acknowledge every positive decision, action or response they make. It can be as simple as arriving to school on time, helping a stranger or providing support to a peer.
The PYD model empowers the young ladies to lead the groups. They come up with the topics, community service projects and build their own community support system with peers. The restorative practice approach allows for caring adults to process the decisions the young ladies are making and the impact it is having on them personally, their community and anyone who may have been victimized by their behaviors. It empowers the young ladies to accept responsibility for their decisions and make a commitment to change what they do not like through a supportive environment. Through the three approaches, the young ladies feel empowered, their voices are heard, sharing their story is safe and they are building positive relationships with peers and caring adults.
Many say we, the facilitators of the group, have poor boundaries because we embrace the girls with a hug and tell them they are loved. If we focused on boundaries, we could not get to the core of the issues these young ladies struggle with daily. The challenging issues they face have included sexual abuse, domestic violence, a mental health diagnosis they do not agree with, failing school and, more common than not, substance abuse.
There is an emphasis on each and every strength each girl possesses, brings to the group and to their community. We celebrate each girl and all the assets they contribute. We celebrate birthdays. Many of us take our birthday for granted and think negative thoughts about how we are getting old. Many of these young ladies do not get recognized for their birthday with a card or cake so we make sure that happens in our groups.
We also allow participants who successfully complete the program to apply to become a youth leader for the program. They gain positive workforce development skills, positive communication skills, a stipend and continued support system.
Lead4Life, Inc.’s purpose is to create a culture of love and support for our participants. We are given the gift of learning from these young ladies and their struggle to find a purpose. We are addressing the school-to-prison pipeline in a very nontraditional manner but one that is extremely effective and provides a meaningful experience for most participants.
Lead4Life has been providing gender-specific programming since 2009. Since its conception we have serviced approximately 54 to 62 young ladies per year. Of those participants (annual average), 78 percent are African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 6 percent other and 4 percent Caucasian. One year after participants’ successful completion of the program, Lead4Life tracks how many youth have recidivated in the criminal justice system. On average, 74 to 78 percent of youth did not recidivate (commit a new crime), which speaks volumes to the impact we are having.
Jennifer Gauthier is the CEO of Lead4Life, Inc., an emerging nonprofit serving youth and adults in the criminal justice system. She brings both life experience and professional training to her work of empowering young people and young adults in the criminal justice system.
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Juvenile justice reformers risk leaving girls behind if they fail to consider how traumatic experiences push girls into the system, says a new report.
Officials and advocates are more aware than ever of the way trauma affects girls’ behavior, but too few reforms are tailored to those experiences, said Francine T. Sherman, lead author of the report and a clinical law professor at Boston College Law School.
“Not only are we not fixing it, we are in an unfair and biased way penalizing girls for their background,” she said.
The report, “Gender Injustice,” examines how trauma shapes girls’ behavior and how girls end up in the juvenile justice system, and recommends reforms to help girls rather than penalize them.
Sherman and co-author Annie Balck call on the juvenile justice system to end policies that criminalize such behaviors as running away or fighting at home, to engage families, to use trauma-informed approaches, to promote positive youth development, to limit secure confinement and to use health care funding to help girls who have experienced trauma.
“The strategies are out there, but they’re not being applied intentionally,” Sherman said. “There are all these opportunities to do a better job.”
She pointed to diversion from the juvenile justice system into community programs as one method that many jurisdictions pursue but that could be more effective for girls if it targeted their experiences.
At the other end of the system, jurisdictions should look carefully at their secure facilities for girls, where often only a few girls are being held, Sherman said. Girls have sometimes been an afterthought because they are so few, but that’s precisely why systems should look for solutions, she said.
History of trauma
Research has shown girls in the justice system often have experienced abuse, violence, adversity and deprivation. Studies have found 31 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced in-home sexual abuse and 84 percent have experienced family violence.
Those experiences lead to behaviors that push girls toward the justice system, the report said.
The researchers highlighted data that shows girls’ share of the juvenile justice system has grown during the past 20 years at all stages, including arrest, court caseloads, detentions and probation.
In 2012, girls were 29 percent of youth arrested nationwide, compared with 20 percent in 1992, even as the number of arrests declined overall. Girls’ arrests were disproportionately for offenses that were not public safety threats, such as prostitution or theft.
Once girls are arrested, they risk moving deeper into a system that is not prepared to meet their needs, the report said.
Girls also are more likely than boys to be detained for status offenses (behaviors such as running away or breaking curfew, which would not be crimes if committed by adults), technical violations and for simple assault.
Those are offenses that would be better dealt with in girls’ communities than in detention, the report said.
Liz Ryan, chief executive officer of the Youth First! Initiative, said the report is a road map for how to change that experience — and comes at a time when reformers are open to ideas about girls.
“There’s this rhetorical phrase a lot of us have: ‘What about the girls?’ I want to get to a point where I don’t have to ask the question in meetings,” she said.
Ryan said the report highlights important concrete strategies to help girls, such as ending the valid court order exception for status offenses (which lets judges issue detention orders) and ensuring mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence don’t inadvertently affect girls.
The report also looks at how particular populations of girls are affected by the juvenile justice system. Girls of color and lesbian, bisexual, questioning/gender-nonconforming and transgender girls face additional barriers to appropriate care, the authors said.
Reformers also need to think carefully about the particular needs of girls who are pregnant or parenting, have run away or are victims of sex trafficking or in-home violence, the report said.
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The 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"]
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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.
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.
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Girls serve longer sentences than boys in the Texas juvenile justice system, and for less serious offenses, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin.
Researchers studied 5,019 juveniles in three large, urban Texas counties over two years, finding that a female’s likelihood of remaining in confinement was 12.5 percent greater than that of a male.[module type="aside" align="right"]
Learn more about mental health on the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.[/module]
Females were held longer for less serious offenses, the study found. They were released at a much slower pace than their male counterparts for “status offenses,” such as running away from home or skipping school, and spent an average of five days longer in pretrial detention for less serious offenses than male counterparts.
Girls in the juvenile justice system are also more likely to have a mental health issue and to have experienced trauma prior to incarceration, the study said.
Lead researcher Erin Espinosa said trauma might influence the longer confinements.
Certain aspects of detention, such as a door slamming or footsteps coming down the hall, can trigger girls who have experienced sexual abuse or assault to act in self-defense, Espinosa said, leading to new charges and a longer stay.
In a fight or flight scenario, girls in detention don’t have an opportunity to flee, so they fight, she said.
Advocates called for better trauma-informed therapies within detention facilities, and more community-based programming outside them to reduce the time girls spend locked up.
Girls “end up languishing in these facilities that are meant to help treat their underlying issues … yet these facilities don’t have sufficient programming to support their recovery,” said Elizabeth Henneke, policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
There is a need for “an investment in community programming specifically directed to girls and youth who are struggling with issues that can be best resolved in the community rather than in a facility,” she said.
Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said locking girls up for status offenses is a misguided approach to protecting them.
“I think the best solution is for most of these kids not to be in a facility in the first place — to be getting trauma-responsive services in their communities,” she said.
Kids who do need to be detained need trauma-informed and gender-responsive programming, she said.
“If the system is designed to be rehabilitative in nature … then what are we really achieving by keeping them locked up just because they’re girls?” Espinosa said.
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In video footage (above) released today from inside Connecticut’s juvenile correctional facilities, a distressed girl screams as she is restrained on the ground in a corridor.
She is left alone in a room where she ties a shirt tightly around her neck, tries to pull nail-studded wood off the wall and ultimately is taken out of the facility on a stretcher.
In another video (below), a boy who had reported suicidal thoughts is restrained and left lying on the floor, alone in a room.
A chart in the accompanying report from the state’s Office of Child Advocate tallies 55 instances of suicidal or self-harming behavior during a year in the same facilities.
The release of the video and report today is the latest from the state’s OCA. The watchdog agency helped reignite a debate about the safety and efficacy of the facilities in July with a critical report on conditions.
The discussion mirrors debates across the country about locking up juveniles and the services they need when they are confined.
Connecticut is often lauded as a leader in juvenile justice reforms and its decisions are likely to be watched carefully in other areas of the country.
The report this summer highlighted inadequate suicide prevention, lack of appropriate support and training for staff, inadequate and harmful crisis management, and a lack of transparency at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CJTS) and the Pueblo Unit.
Most youth at the facilities have been adjudicated delinquent for nonviolent offenses. Many have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. They may have complex psychiatric disorders or special education needs, the report said.
The reports and videos show that the risks of juvenile incarceration are real even in a state with “one of the most richly resourced juvenile correctional programs in the country,” said Sarah Eagan, the state’s Child Advocate, during an online presentation of the videos.
She said many correctional facilities have evidence of self-injury, suicidal behavior and the inappropriate use of restraint. But there’s little data that the facilities work as a public safety measure.
“If we’re not seeing sort of rehabilitative, public safety bang for our buck and we are seeing a lot of risk and despair, the question that stakeholders and the state have to look at it is: How do we do the public safety work without doing harm to kids?’’ Eagan said.
The state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) said in a statement today that officials have banned the use of prone restraints and are phasing out the use of mechanical restraints.[module type="aside" align="right"]
Learn more about mental health on the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.[/module]
“We have already begun more effective use of clinical staff to prevent restraint and seclusion whenever possible consistent with safety. We are now implementing additional comprehensive action steps that will significantly improve the care and treatment of the youth at both the boys and girls programs while also reducing the use of interventions that we all want to avoid,” officials wrote.
About 11,000 young people are involved in delinquency proceedings annually in Connecticut and about 300 of those are sent to DCF’s custody by a juvenile judge, often after being provided community-based services, according to the department.
As of today, 68 youth were in custody at the facilities. The state reported a 60 percent decline in incarcerated youth from 2001 to 2011.
The department also released a report in July about conditions at CJTS and Pueblo that called for reforms.
Lara Herscovitch, deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said that while the state has been a leader in some ways, there still is much work to do.
Advocates want to see the state move aggressively away from a corrections model to one that emphasizes therapeutic, rehabilitative strategies. The alliance has recommended closing both facilities.
“Connecticut is looked to because we’re willing to admit we don’t do everything perfectly. There’s a big fork in the road right now for the Department of Children and Families and the governor to provide real leadership. They have a tremendous opportunity to do the right thing for kids,” she said.
Herscovitch said earlier juvenile justice reforms in the state have tinkered at the margins, while wholesale change is required. In 2002, the Child Advocate’s Office and state attorney general documented many similar problems at CJTS in a report.
“This is a conversation 13 years in the making,” Herscovitch said. “We’ve had chronic problems with this types of facility.”
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Through times of trauma and distress, often all a child needs is to be showered with love. It may sound corny, but for the estimated 100,000 children who are sexually exploited per year around the country, it can be transformative.
The Lasting Links Mentorship Program at MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit, works to end child exploitation and help victims through the formation of healthy, supportive and loving adult relationships.
“Some of them will even just come in to the drop-in center for a hug; they’ve said that to us,” said executive director Falilah Bilal at MISSSEY.
In Oakland, MISSSEY’s efforts are more than necessary. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the top three epicenters of human trafficking in the United States along with Los Angeles and San Diego, with 46 percent of all prosecuted human trafficking cases in California coming from the Alameda District Attorney’s office.
“People think that this is a problem that happens to kids ‘over there,’ whether it’s kids from other countries or poor black kids or boys from another place,” said Bilal. “People don’t think that this is an American-bred issue that happens across all class and all gender. This is something confronting and impacting all of us.”
“The goal of the program is to provide a restorative healthy adult relationship to youth who have experienced disruption and betrayal in adult relationships,” said mentoring and training coordinator Liz Longfellow.
To become a mentor, applicants must attend an information session, fill out an application, be interviewed, participate in a rigorous 20-hour training program and go through a criminal background check. From there, the match process can take a while, depending on what youth want from a mentor. MISSSEY works to have several mentors on hand so there is an individual mentor who meets the youth’s specific requests as soon as the youth requests a mentor.
Some of the mentors are already connected to the field, therapists or social workers or nurses who have worked with sexually exploited youth in the past. Other mentors are simply people who want to help. The minimum duration of the mentor-mentee relationship is one year.
“It’s a commitment to become a mentor,” Longfellow said. “The process of getting matched with a mentee takes so long because the mentor has to show they will give their time and commitment. If the relationships doesn’t last a year, it’s not going to be as effective for the youth.”
The sense of love and care the young girls can get from a mentor has proven to bring about monumental positive change, especially since many of the relationships last beyond one year, she said.
“The year is a great benchmark but it’s great when it continues on,” Longfellow said. “We’ve had some of the youth come back and say [their mentors] are stuck with them for life. That’s a successful relationship.”
Take Sheila (all clients’ and mentors’ names have been changed), now 18. After being exploited for many years in Oakland, she realized that in order to get out of the life, she needed to move away from the city. She wanted to be far enough away to feel safe, yet be able to visit family and friends every now and again. Her child welfare worker in Alameda County helped her find supported housing in the Antioch/Bay Point area. But when Sheila got there, she felt very alone and disoriented. She didn’t know how to use the bus system to get to the store, let alone to look for a job.
Longfellow matched her with a mentor named Ena who is also a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation. Ena, who has lived in Antioch for many years, was able to show Sheila around. With Ena’s support, Sheila eventually was able to find a job. Ena also helped her decorate her new apartment, which in part involved creating a vision board to give Sheila a daily visual reminder of her dreams and goals. Ena, who was a college student then, knew about many area resources to make school more affordable. She referred Sheila to several people in her support network so that she could feel more encouraged to take college classes and feel more connected to her new community. After many conversations about Sheila’s traumatic history, Ena convinced Sheila to reconnect with a therapist.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make it here without Ena,” Sheila said. “She has helped me so much and I feel really comfortable talking with her and telling her personal stuff about myself. That doesn’t really happen for me. It’s a relief.”
From 2007 to 2014, MISSSEY has served approximately 1,000 girls. And the organization’s services do not stop at the mentorship program. It also offers case management for youth looking to get out of the life of sex trafficking and a foster youth program, funded by Alameda County Social Services to prevent and intervene in child sex work.
MISSSEY was founded by two survivors of commercial sexual exploitation of children along with two allies. It’s staffed by a number of other survivors of sexual exploitation.
“Because we are survivor-led and survivor-informed, young people know that there are staff with these experiences,” Longfellow said. “So there is a less of bridge that needs to be crossed to reach the youth and they know there is an understanding on our end, which is profound for young people.”
The young women who request mentors through MISSSEY are usually first in the case management or foster youth program, like 18-year-old Mia. While doing a sentence in juvenile hall she was connected to a mentor named Linda.
While Mia served her sentence, she wrote to Linda. When Mia was released and sent to a group home placement in Sacramento, Linda drove to Sacramento from the Bay Area on weekends to spend the day with Mia, taking her away from the often hectic environment of a group home.
Telling her story to Linda, Mia felt open and comfortable enough to talk about her experiences. Even when Mia eventually moved back to Oakland, Linda never lost touch with her. She was eventually able to get permission from Girls Inc. to invite Mia to her home and introduce her to her own children.
“This is the most peaceful place I have ever been. I feel safe here,” Mia said during her visit.
Today, Mia has come to rely on Linda for support when times get difficult and for encouragement in moving toward her goals. They celebrate birthdays and holidays together. Linda knows that one of the main things she does for Mia is simply show up, consistently. No matter what is going on with Mia, Linda maintains their relationship and unconditional positive regard for Mia.
“The idea is that it’s the responsibility of the mentor to do the reaching out and build up a relationship with at least a couple hours a week of available time for the mentee,” Longfellow said. “They have to schedule with the young person and there has to be regular contact so it can register as a sense of support” for the youth.
An essential part of this system of support, according to Longfellow and Bilal, is continuing to support the youth as they struggle with leaving a life of sexual exploitation.
“It’s common in the first year that we work with someone that they are in and out [of the life],” Longfellow said. “They want help and we find them to provide it but then their exploiter often finds them again and maybe they’re back in for a while and then they get back out.”
“We are strictly here for them. Even if you’re in the life we will still work for you, be with you, support you,” Bilal said.
Roughly 89 percent of the young women who MISSSEY serves are black women. While most of the youth are referred to MISSSEY through the foster care system or the juvenile justice system, young girls are also able to drop in at the center to receive services.
Bilal stressed there is more MISSSEY wants to do if and when it can get the funding. Child exploiters can make up to $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year. Bilal frustratedly noted that MISSSEY and several other similar nonprofits suffer from a lack of financial resources in comparison.
“We need more funding, need independent donors to stand for us, people to put their money where their mouth is in terms of this issue,” Bilal said. “It’s discouraging that we don’t have more for young people in these circumstances.”
In the meantime, Bilal and Longfellow said they are thrilled by the positive change they have witnessed thus far for the young women and encourage other members of the community to volunteer.
“We are rooted in this idea that the young women are not their experience. They are bigger and brighter than their experience,” Bilal said. “We see them and accept them for where they’re at and we move them from that place and they feel it so they stay connected to us. It’s pretty awesome.”
“It’s amazing when you see someone feels heard and seen and comforted and not judged,” Longfellow said. “Those are huge gifts to give to a younger person in need. And we get to witness the journey of how strong and resilient these young women are in their healing process.”
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Girls are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population. Despite the significant progress that juvenile justice advocates have made over the past few decades to spread awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline, to increase understanding about the role of trauma among children in the juvenile justice system, to reduce incarceration through development of alternatives to detention and to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, girls have not seen the benefits of these efforts.
In the past two decades, the proportion of detained girls has increased at a rate four times as fast as the number of detained boys. And racial and ethnic disparities among justice-involved girls remain stark: Girls of color are detained, committed and sent to residential placements at rates significantly higher than their Caucasian counterparts. According to OJJDP, there is no evidence that girls are becoming increasingly violent or criminal. So, what is leading girls into the juvenile justice system?
A report recently released by Human Rights Project for Girls, the Ms. Foundation and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality entitled “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” illuminates how girls, particularly black and Latina girls, are being criminalized because of their unique vulnerability to sexual abuse.
Nationally, one in four girls will experience sexual violence by the age of 18 — often at the hands of a caregiver. But when girls display natural reactions to the trauma of sexual victimization or run away to escape abusers who may be in their homes or foster placements they are arrested as status offenders. In fact, running away is one of the most common offenses for which girls are arrested.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the sexual abuse to prison pipeline articulated in the report is the continued arrest and detention of girls who are the victims of domestic child sex trafficking. Despite the fact that federal law clearly defines any child under the age of 18 engaged in a commercial sex act as a victim of trafficking, girls continue to be arrested for prostitution and other offenses committed as a direct result of their being trafficked. Girls account for 76 percent of all prostitution-related arrests for youth under 18.
As the “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” report emphasizes, racial and ethnic disparities do not just affect boys. Girls of color are two-thirds the population of justice-involved girls, despite being minorities in the general youth population. African-American and Latina girls are especially impacted by both paternalistic and racialized stereotypes that paint them as “bad girls” who are “hypersexual” instead of recognizing and understanding their behaviors as responses to gender-based violence and trauma.
As an advocacy community, we have neglected girls because they represent only a small percentage of youth in the juvenile justice system, and because they typically come into the system for low-level status offenses such as running away or truancy. We have failed to ask the necessary question — why?
When we don’t ask why, we fail to recognize that running away, skipping school or self-medicating with illegal substances are all behaviors that the National Child Traumatic Stress Network identifies as responses to trauma.
When we do ask why, the answers are heartbreaking. In a local study of girls in Oregon’s juvenile justice system, 76 percent of girls had experienced sexual violence by the age of 13; in another study in South Carolina, 81 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system reported a history of sexual violence. Research demonstrates that sexual abuse is one of the leading predictors for girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Our failure to ask why has had dire consequences. Instead of treating our girls as victims of child sex abuse, we further traumatize them. We subject them to arrest and detention, and place them in danger of experiencing more abuse within juvenile facilities. We have created a system that labels the most vulnerable members of our society as criminals and fails to identify the traumas they have experienced, let alone provide them with the services necessary to heal.
If we are truly interested in reforming our criminal and juvenile justice systems, then we cannot allow the experiences of our girls to remain in the shadows any longer. In the coming weeks, members of Congress will deliberate the reauthorization of a strengthened Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that intentionally contemplates the need to divert girls away from the juvenile justice system, implement necessary protections and to gather more data on justice-involved girls. As advocates, we have a unique opportunity to act together, and to finally let our girls know that they are not invisible.
Maheen Kaleem is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Toyota Motor Corp. and Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP at the Human Rights Project for Girls and director of client services at Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth.
The numbers are huge: An Oregon study found that 93 percent of girls in the state’s juvenile justice system had been sexually or physically abused at some time. South Carolina research found that 81 percent of girls in its system had experienced sexual abuse.
Some are victims of sex trafficking. Some who have been abused run away from home and are truant. Some have been abused in the foster care system.
“It’s far more than the vast majority of people are aware of,” said Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
The center, along with the Ms. Foundation and the Human Rights Project for Girls, released a new report Thursday: “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.”
It pulls together the story of traumatized girls — and a story of punishment instead of assistance.
“Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls, are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children,” said co-author Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls.
“But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized,” she said.
Once girls are arrested, they enter a system that is often poorly equipped to identify their needs and “treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests,” said the report written by Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal and Yasmin Vafa.
“Girls who have been trafficked get arrested rather than the pimps … They’re treated as criminals rather than victims,” Edelman said.
When girls run away or are truant, they are treated as status offenders.
“What happens very often is that she runs away [again] and violates her probation as a status offender … Now she’s transformed into a juvenile delinquent — and that needs to be changed,” Edelman said.
The punitive environment of juvenile detention can retrigger trauma, the report says.
“There needs to be significant mental health services in the juvenile corrections system but there just isn’t,” Edelman said.
The sex-abuse-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects girls of color, the report said.
African-American girls make up 14 percent of the general population, but 33 percent of the juvenile justice population, it said.
Efforts to reform the juvenile justice system are not adequately taking note of girls’ experience and the distinct pipeline that funnels them into the system, the report says.
“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” Saada Saar said. The debate over criminalizing boys of color must also address the criminalization of girls.
The report calls for a number of actions:
- Increase mental health and trauma services for girls; the report details how that can be done through Medicaid.
- Improve identification of victims of abuse.
- End arrests of girls under 18 on prostitution charges.
- Close the loophole in the law, the Valid Court Order Loophole, that allows girls to be locked up for status offenses, such as truancy or running away.
- Provide law enforcement training on gender bias.
- Create supportive and safe group homes for girls.
Since the day she ran away from her mother’s home at 14, Danielle Lynette Robinson was in and out of Hillcrest Juvenile Hall in San Mateo, Calif. for the next four years.
“It was like my first real home actually — somewhere I could be safe and well taken care of,” Robinson said.
With her cousin serving as the director of her juvenile hall and her brother staying in the boys’ camp, Robinson said she felt comfortable doing time — at least, much more comfortable than she did while living with her mother or while living in foster care.
“Me and my mom wasn’t getting along too well,” Robinson said. “My dad spoiled me so I would run away to him when he and my mom split up.”
Then, a year after her first juvenile hall sentence, Robinson’s dad passed away.
“That’s when things got much worse for me,” Robinson said. “[The court] moved me to San Francisco and began putting me into foster care.”
Instead of her ending up in juvenile hall for repeatedly running away from home, she soon began serving time for more serious offenses: multiple truancies at school, fighting at school, getting kicked out of class and bringing alcohol to school. She spent her four years of high school at five different institutions including San Mateo High School; Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School; Civic Center Secondary School; Margaret J. Kemp Camp for Girls, a juvenile justice facility in San Mateo; and finally the continuation school at Hillcrest Juvenile Hall.
“I just figured since I was under 18 and I could do whatever and just end up in juvenile hall, I didn’t care,” Robinson said. “There were times I felt like I was going to change but that’s only because I was locked up. Once I got back on the street, I acted the same.”
Motherhood changed her
But when she turned 18, things changed for Robinson — she served her last sentence in juvenile hall and had a daughter one year later.
“Having a daughter changed my whole mind frame in life,” Robinson said. “I had someone else to take care of and I wanted to be there for her.”
Still, Robinson felt alone. She had trouble gaining employment, did not have the financial support of her family, did not have many friends and suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her long-term boyfriend. Finally getting out of her abusive relationship and feeling as though she had no one else to turn to, she spoke to her yoga mentor from juvenile hall who recommended she visit the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) in San Francisco and apply to their Sisters Rising job program. In 2013, at 21, she applied and was accepted.
For 20 years, the Center for Young Women’s Development has been a safe space for thousands of young women ages 16 to 24 who have been incarcerated or are homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area. In part, the center serves as a recreational area where these marginalized, low- and no-income young women can socialize and use the center’s computers, plus the children’s playroom since many are young mothers.
CYWD administrators also go to local juvenile halls to conduct workshops for incarcerated young women — many of whom end up coming to the center when they are released. The center is most recognized for its strategies to give these women opportunities for personal and professional growth, such as the Sisters Rising program.
Through Sisters Rising, CYWD administrators hire about 10 women for a nine-month-long internship, training them to be community organizers and paying them $15 an hour as they simultaneously learn soft job skills like resume building and interviewing tactics. The center tries to meet the unique needs of each woman, according to Naomi Briley, the CYWD senior administrator/operations director.
“Everyone has a different goal when they get here,” Briley said. “One might be helped with going on to pursue higher education, someone else might want to get a full-time permanent job, someone else might be getting out of an abusive relationship. We work with each woman to put together a plan with their goals so we can empower them to pursue those goals.”
This past year, those in Sisters Rising completed a participatory action research project in which they put together a survey about the needs of young, low-income women of color in the area through focus groups and street-based outreach. The goal is to share this information with other agencies and to better model the center’s programs to fill these needs.
As community organizers, they learn about the systemic issues that have directly affected their lives, such as the fact that young women of color are disproportionately suspended from school, are far more likely to be murdered and experience intimate partner violence at greater rates than white girls and women. For those who are unmarried, they have one penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth accumulated by their male counterparts and a fraction of a penny for every dollar accumulated by white women. At the same time, they experience increasingly higher rates of incarceration than their white counterparts.
In San Francisco, black women represent 5.8 percent of the city’s female population but account for 45.5 percent of all female arrests in 2013, according to a report from the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. On the national level, black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be locked up.
“San Francisco is one of the wealthiest cities in the country and this group of young women often goes under the radar in the area,” Briley said. “These unnoticed young women are not being served by the juvenile justice system and sometimes are being filtered back through it. We want to make sure this doesn’t happen and that they can work becoming leaders of their own lives and of their communities.”
By analyzing the barriers and issues that women of color like herself face, Danielle Robinson said she has been better able to understand her own life through Sisters Rising.
“We all have stuff that was just thrown at us in life and choices that wasn’t given to us and we just got to take it and roll with it,” Robinson said. “The stuff we have been through is deep and makes us act a certain way, but we just got to find a way to get past it and heal the wounds we got and find a way to make it positive, not give up, keep thriving, keep pushing forward.”
Despite the daily challenges of working to support herself and her daughter on her own, Robinson said talking through her issues with the other young women has kept her going. Without the center, she said, she would not be here today.
“The day-to-day lifestyle is just so stressful and it’s been hella times I wanted to give up and not fight or commit suicide or whatever,” Robinson said. “But I got my daughter and … my daughter can live through me and, you know, keep it going.”
Although the job is part-time, with most of the women in the program working 10 to 15 hours per week, many who go through the program end up becoming full-time employees at the center. Two such women are the director of organizing and research, Shanell Williams (who has just left CYWD), and the executive transition consultant Jessica Nowlan. Both Williams, 30, and Nowlan, 35, had been through the juvenile hall system since they were 13 and knew about or participated in the center’s programs as youth. They have worked to mentor the women at CYWD, relating their experiences to those of the new generation.
“I’m still growing and developing; there’s a lot of my life that’s still unwritten. But, it feels good to be able to tell other young women, ‘Hey, there’s a future, it’s not like your life has to revolve around being in lockup,’” Williams said. “A lot of people think once you’re in the system, you’re stuck, so it’s really important for them to see people who have been in the system and have made it out.”
“When you come to the center, you are immersed in sisterhood,” Nowlan said. “That’s really important because there’s really powerful knowledge from people that are affected by larger systems. That experiential knowledge really helps them come into their own power, and I’m so in awe of the young women that come here. I know they’re the next leaders.”
Support is crucial
Some of the women in Sisters Rising, like Robinson, have worked as community organizers for longer than the designated nine months. Since 2013, Robinson has been coming to the center nearly every day. While the steady income and the free child care are partly why she keeps coming back, she said the support from other women who have been through similar circumstances has been the most important.
“I don’t have that many friends so when I come here, I see all these beautiful people and they make me happy,” Robinson said. “When I come here I got support, I got people I can relate to, I just got people who are supportive, loving and caring and I love them.”
Today, Robinson said thanks to the Sisters Rising program and the CYWD, she is working on her future.
“It’s helping me to learn me and to tell my story better … how to word it and not dwell on it, but to uplift me and keep me going forward,” Robinson said. “I don’t want my daughter to go through the stuff I’ve been through. I want to have stability. I just want to be happy, for my daughter to be happy.”
I work with children who have parents in prison and with parents who are serving time. Much of my work focuses on effective parenting and child abuse prevention. When we reduce the occurrences of child abuse, we also help prevent violence by these same children later in life.
I do this through my job with PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit organization. My main responsibility is to manage a home visit parenting program for families with young children. In the evenings and on weekends, I work in a new program that provides children with developmentally appropriate activities and their parents with resources while they are waiting to visit someone who is incarcerated.
I’m passionate about these issues because I grew up behind bars. I entered the juvenile justice system when I was just 13 after I was accused of participating in the murder of another girl my age in my hometown of Clovis, N.M. Despite the difficulties of that experience, I grew from a child, acting out impulsively as a result of my own unresolved trauma, into a responsible, working mother active in my community. I was released at 18 and have never looked back.
As we observe the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a crime committed by a person younger than 18, it is a good time to think about how we hold accountable children who are accused of serious crimes. This accountability should be age-appropriate and trauma-informed.
When I was growing up, my family was extremely poor. My parents were alcoholics and had separated by the time I was 5 due to domestic violence stemming from daily intoxication. When something went wrong in my family, we did not talk about our frustrations or hurt.
My parents only knew how to parent the way they were parented in the 1960s and that was through hitting. I saw the same thing in my neighborhood and thought the only way was to fight for what you wanted and sometimes just to keep what belonged to you.
I was first expelled from Head Start when I became aggressive when a little boy was on a swing I wanted to use. I had been taught to hit, not use my words and say I wanted to use that swing.
By the time I was 12, I had been kicked out of two schools because of my violent outbursts. No one ever tried to find out why I was violent. No one wanted to know what trauma I had experienced. I was never properly treated for my mental health issues. No one took the time to help my family learn the skills we needed to take a different approach. I was expected to behave in school, but I didn’t know how. I knew only violence and aggression.
In August 1998, a few days before I was to begin eighth grade, the unthinkable occurred. My sister had been attacked a few days earlier by a group of girls. We decided we would get them back, so we rounded up a group of our cousins and friends. We thought we would beat them up, then brag about it when we went back to school.
But during the confrontation, a family member my age who had experienced severe abuse pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed one of the girls to death. We were all children who did not have the intention of taking the life of any human being. I was confused, angry and scared about what I had witnessed and thinking about going to prison for the rest of my life.
I wanted to have a trial because I didn’t agree with the charges and did not think I should have to say that I was an accessory to murder: I had no idea that a life would be taken.
I was held in a juvenile facility awaiting trial. After three years, I was released on house arrest as I continued to await the trial. While home, I began a relationship with my first boyfriend and became pregnant.
Because he had ordered me to have no contact outside my family, the judge said I had violated the terms of my release and had me reinstitutionalized. I decided to plead guilty to aggravated battery, accessory to aggravated battery, conspiracy and harboring a felon so that I could end the ordeal as soon as possible.
The judge sent me more than 200 miles away to a facility in Albuquerque, N.M. While there, I began to grow up. I was six months pregnant and knew that I wanted more for my child and myself. Staff from PB&J introduced themselves and began meeting with me. It was hard for me to trust initially, but the staff was trained in addressing trauma and gave me the space I needed to start learning. They taught me parenting skills and helped me develop a relationship with my child, who went to live with my mother after I gave birth while locked up.
I was 18 when I was released. PB&J helped me get my first job as a cashier at Kmart. During my four years there, I rose through the ranks and became a manager for several departments. I was encouraged to go to college. Despite my reluctance, I enrolled at Central New Mexico Community College, where I earned an associate’s degree in early childhood development.
Nearly 10 years ago, PB&J offered me a job with them. I now work as the home visiting manager, running programs for all three PB&J sites in New Mexico. I am just a few classes away from earning my bachelor’s degree.
I am proof that we do not need extreme sentences to hold children accountable. I was adjudicated in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically to address the needs of children. I was given a second chance to live in free society, unlike the thousands of young people charged as adults and sentenced to die in prison.
More than 2,500 people have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth. Approximately one-quarter of them are like me in that they did not actually commit a murder and may not have known that it was going to take place. And regardless of the role that they played, no child should be sentenced to die in prison. Everyone deserves an opportunity to prove that they have changed and are ready to be reintegrated into society.
My goal now is to help families. I also want to make sure that we diagnose and address trauma in children. The reality is that most children who are charged with these crimes come from poor neighborhoods and have experienced violence and other traumas.
We can do better. Since the Miller decision, 13 states have eliminated life without parole as a sentencing option for children, and a bill in Connecticut awaits the governor’s signature. Together, we can replace these draconian sentences with accountability measures that make sense and work.
Francesca Duran-Lopez is home visiting manager at PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit helping at-risk youth grow to their full potential in nurturing families within a supportive community.