Invisible No More: Let’s Make JJDPA Work for Girls

March 25, 2014

JJDPDA Matters blog iconAt the National Crittenton Foundation, we believe in the potential of all girls and young women, particularly those whose childhoods have been marked by persistent violence, abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The obstacles they face can seem overwhelming, and yet we know that with the right combination of support, services and treatment, they can heal from complex trauma and break destructive generational cycles of poverty to build positive, safe and healthy lives.

Sadly, the responses of the systems with which these girls and young women are typically involved, particularly the juvenile justice system, can either “make” or “break” their chances of turning their lives around.

Approaches that assess and treat girls early in their involvement with juvenile justice, identify the root causes of the problems they are facing, and create interventions that are gender and culturally responsive and trauma-informed, go a long way toward supporting girls in their success.  These girls have a chance to learn how to address their complex childhood trauma so they can become productive members of society.

The truth is that involvement with the juvenile justice system – for girls and for boys – is a wake up call for help.  But the reality is that different factors drive girls and boys into the system. 

In contrast, systems that treat girls as criminals and blame them for their behavior can do much more harm than good, as these behaviors are typically symptoms of the abuse, violence and neglect they experienced as children. This treatment re-traumatizes girls and places them in a downward spiral from which it is very difficult to recover. Girls whose trauma goes unaddressed become invisible to society, and marginalized from the American dream.

For girls, running away is quite often an attempt to escape sexual abuse by a parent, relative, family friend or foster parent,  and yet it often leads to the girls being arrested. Similarly, truancy is often a symptom of a chaotic home environment in which survival must be their priority, which often leads to poor school attendance that can lead to arrest. It is true that some young women end up in the juvenile justice system for aggressive behavior – but this is the exception not the rule.  For girls, early assessment and holistic services and supports that address the factors that drive girls into the system, build their resilience, and support them in healing from trauma would keep the vast majority of girls out of the juvenile justice system.

What We Can Do Now

This year, Congress may reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), the nation's landmark juvenile justice law. This presents a critical opportunity to take what we know about helping system-involved girls and make it a reality.  While the importance of gender responsiveness has always been a hallmark of the JJDPA, there is very little evidence of this at work in too many states and communities. Much more can be done to ensure that girls get the right help at the right time and in the right place in all communities across the country.

Fortunately, there is strong consensus in the field about how the JJDPA can be strengthened to insure that all youth, including girls, get the help they need to heal and thrive.  Together with the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy and the Human Rights Project for Girls, we have organized a series of meetings on marginalized girls, one of which was focused on state efforts to meet the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system. This meeting resulted in a comprehensive report – Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States – on the issues facing girls and recommendations to strengthen the juvenile justice response. 

Those relating to the JJDPA reauthorization include:

  • Ban Valid Court Order Exceptions for Status Offenders. JJDPA bans the practice of detaining youth for status offenses, but there is a loophole in the law that allows detention with a Valid Court Order.  This practice disproportionately impacts girls and should be eliminated.  We are grateful to Representative  Cardenas for introducing HR 4123, which accomplishes the goal of eliminating the VCO exception.  Click here to learn more and see how you can support this bill.
  • Conduct and fund research and evaluation. Research and evaluation in two major areas is recommended: research on best practices in gender responsiveness and research on the conditions of confinement for girls.
  • Develop and promote high quality assessment and data collection tools. Many of the assessment tools available in the juvenile justice system do not adequately screen girls for histories of commercial sexual exploitation and physical and sexual abuse.  Standardized assessment tools for girls would not only allow systems to develop more effective treatment plans and refer them to services and supports that best meet their needs, but also provide a more accurate picture of the girls in the system.
  • Strengthen the requirement for gender responsive services. Many states fall short in the development of gender responsive services in juvenile justice.  Strategies to strengthen this requirement include:

o   Require at least one member of the State Advisory Group to have experience in gender responsiveness

o   Dedicate funding for the development of gender responsive services

o   Develop national standards for gender responsive programming

The JJDPA is the major federal law governing state priorities for juvenile justice, and girls represent a growing proportion of the juvenile justice population.  While pockets of innovative state and local practice are emerging, the JJDPA can provide an important framework for the effective treatment of all girls in the juvenile justice system across the country.  

It’s time to bring the needs of girls out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

The National Crittenton Foundationis the umbrella for the 27 members of the Crittenton family of agencies operates in 32 states and the District of Columbia providing a continuum of services to girls and young women in a variety of settings including in-home, residential, foster care, and community based to support girls and young women to heal and achieve their full potential.  

JJDPA Matters Blog This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA.  To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.

Jeannette Y. Pai-Espinosa