Locking Up Traumatized Girls Is No Way to Help Them

April 6, 2015

Danielle Hicks-Best's shocking story, "An 11-Year-Old Reported Being Raped Twice, Wound Up With a Conviction" reported in the Washington Post on March 13, puts a compelling face to our mistrust and misunderstanding of girls and our harmful over use of the juvenile justice system.

Unfortunately, Danielle's story is not unique. Every day our juvenile justice system locks up girls who are victims of sexual violence, and physical and emotional abuse. In fact, we often incarcerate victimized girls in a misguided effort to provide them with services and to "protect" them.

Girls presence in the juvenile justice system has been steadily increasing -- growing from 20 percent of arrests in 1992 to 29 percent in 2012 and from 15 percent of detentions in 1992 to 21 percent in 2011. Black girls have been particularly ill-served. In 2011 Black girls were more than twice as likely as their white peers to be referred to juvenile court for delinquency and 20 percent more likely to be detained. Newresearch by Dr. Angela Irvine of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, from a sample of 1,400 girls in juvenile jurisdictions around the country shows that 40% of girls in the juvenile justice system are lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, or gender-nonconforming. We use the justice system to intervene more, yet we have improved very little in the lives of girls.

Overwhelmingly girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced profound and cumulative interpersonal violence. Recent studies using the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey (ACEs), measuring experiences of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction among girls in the juvenile justice system, found that system involved girls have particularly high rates of sexual abuse and cumulative exposure to adverse childhood experiences at rates so high that they have been connected in national studies to significantly reduced life expectancy. In a recent Florida study, girls had more instances of every adverse childhood experience than their male peers. There is no doubt that girls who enter the juvenile justice system come with deep trauma histories.

A particularly heartbreaking and all too common element of Danielle's story was the lack of credibility and trust given to her accounts of her experience by those in the system charged with protecting her. A by-product of trauma for so many young women is a sense of helplessness and loss of control, which may be expressed in high-risk coping behaviors such as substance use and running away. For many girls like Danielle, the juvenile justice system worsens those feelings of helplessness, fear, and lack of control, punishing girls for their efforts to escape violence and make some sense of their experiences. In 2011, 36 percent of girls' detentions in the US were for status offenses or technical violations of probation -- failures to obey system rules that are often disconnected from their experiences of trauma and undercut their need for safety and control. By comparison, 22% of boys were detained for status offenses and technical violations. These are troubling behaviors, but ones that should not be treated as crimes.

Indeed the juvenile justice system is a blunt tool that doesn't fit the complex issues facing traumatized girls. In fact, incarceration is harmful. Detained youth are less likely to finish school, more likely to suffer poor health, less likely to have positive relationships, and more likely to go on to deeper criminal justice involvement. Research has linked longer time in foster care, more placements, and more restrictive placements to poor outcomes as youth and later as adults.

The National Girls Initiative (NGI) is an OJJDP funded initiative to support and promote state and local gender-responsive developmentally appropriate responses for girls at risk of or currently involved with the juvenile justice system. Recently, theNational Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition (NJJDPC) recommended this budget include $10 million in grant programs to support states implementing best-practices for at-risk and system involved girls. This is $8 million more than in the Administration's budget. We endorse NJJDPC's $10 million recommendation. NGI assists states and counties to understand and provide services to girls and young women without harmful reliance on arrest, detention and incarceration. It is time we help systems support girls who are victims like Danielle rather than lock them up.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander calls out incarceration as an all too intentional twenty first century form of racism in the United States. It's time those of us in the juvenile justice community, policymakers and the public face the fact that, like racism, sexism is also more intentional than we'd like to believe and that for thousands of vulnerable teenage girls it is taking the form of incarceration. Let's stop pretending we are helping girls when we remove them from their families, schools, and communities for minor offenses and misbehavior. Let's stop placing them in facilities where they are routinely strip searched and locked in their rooms. Let's acknowledge that the most trauma-informed approach is the fairness and respect that helps them learn to control their own lives. Increased funding for NGI and state practices that are trauma informed, developmentally appropriate and do not rely on incarceration is an important start.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post. It is reprinted here with permission. 

Francine Sherman, Liz Ryan