OP-ED: First Problem Is Seeing Abused Girls As ‘Bad Girls’

February 12, 2015

The numbers tell us three sobering facts about girls and juvenile justice. First, they tell us that the percentage of girls in the juvenile justice system has steadily increased over the decades, rising from 17 percent in 1980 to 29 percent in 2011. Second, girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for “status offenses” — behaviors that would not be considered offenses at the age of majority — and often receive more severe punishment than boys. Third, victimization of girls typically precedes their involvement with the system.

What the numbers fail to reveal is the story behind the statistics. For example, Tanya was physically and emotionally abused by her mother on a regular basis and was also repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriends and male friends. In an effort to get help, Tanya told her mother about the sexual abuse but was told that it was her fault.

To escape her life — the pain, betrayal and abuse — she continually ran away, taking refuge on the streets. Eventually, she was picked up and detained for running away. In court, her mother told the judge that Tanya was incorrigible. She was placed in a secure juvenile detention facility. Tanya’s experience mirrors that of many of the girls who end up in the juvenile justice system. Detained for status offenses for actions that were cries for help, not criminal behaviors, Tanya’s time in juvenile detention only served to further traumatize her.

In 2011, 35.8 percent of detained girls were detained for status offenses and technical violations of probation as compared to 21.9 percent of boys. Simply put, behaviors such as running away, breaking curfew, skipping school and possession or use of alcohol places girls at increased risk of entering the juvenile justice system. For the vast majority of these girls who pose no threat to the public, the juvenile justice system is a harmful intervention, retraumatizing them and reducing their opportunities for positive development. Girls who enter the system because they are detained for a status offense often fall deeper into the system rather than getting the support they need to change their lives.

Like many girls who enter the juvenile justice system, Tanya didn’t need to be detained. What she needed was a safe and caring environment where she could begin the process of learning to trust and to build positive relationships. But perhaps most of all she needed therapeutic services to help her heal from the trauma created by repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse and the betrayal it signified. According to the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, 42 percent of girls in custody reported past physical abuse, 44 percent reported past suicide attempts and 35 percent reported past sexual abuse.

Read the rest of this op-ed on the Juvenile Justice Information Exhange site. 

Pai Espinosa and SaluJeannette Pai-Espinosa is the president of The National Crittenton Foundation. Jessie Salu is vice president of the foundation.

This blog post originally appeared on the Juvenile Justice Infomration Exchange site. it is reprinted here with permission.

Jeannette Y. Pai-Espinosa, Jessie Salu