When 16-year old twins Tasmiyah and Jasmiyah Whitehead were arrested earlier this year for murdering their mother, family friends seemed hardly surprised. The mother’s boyfriend, Robert Head, speculated the girls killed their mom for money. A neighbor, Angela Avery, said the mom lived in fear of her daughters. In police photos the twins look particularly mean. And news reports have, in many ways, already convicted the girls although they have yet to be tried.
Their arrests have raised the question in local and national media of whether girls, particularly teens, are becoming more violent. Ironically, rates of murder by girls are at their lowest levels in forty years -- but lately the number of female juvenile delinquents has exploded.
Between 1980 and 2003, the arrest rate for girls on simple assault charges tripled. Their arrest rate for violent crimes – defined as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, skyrocketed – by 46 percent. The arrest rate for boys for violent crimes decreased over this same time period. By 2008, girls accounted for 30 percent of all juvenile arrests.
A 2008 Department of Justice report concludes “there is no burgeoning national crisis of increasing serious violence among adolescent girls.” Instead, most experts believe changes in policy and policing standards are sending more girls to court.
“Who’s changing their behavior are the people labeling the behavior,” says Meda Chesney-Lind, a leading expert on girls and violence. She points to zero tolerance policies in schools and a heightened sensitivity to domestic violence, resulting in “mandatory arrest” policies in many states, as two of the main factors leading to higher arrest rates for girls in recent years.
“When you start paying attention to family violence and criminalizing it, don’t be surprised to have a lot of kids showing up with this as a charge,” says Chesney-Lind.
To date, the juvenile justice system seems unprepared to deal with the swelling number of girls. It remains largely geared to boys – outdoor programs are a staple, for example – and has yet to ramp up female-specific programs that girls need to deal with the underlying issues and ensure they stay out of trouble when they leave the system.
“We are bringing girls into the system, yet we have no idea what to do with them,” says Lisa Pasko, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver. “The juvenile justice system is now left to deal with these really problem girls, but it’s not equipped to be a mental health entity or provide family services.”
Jasmine White of Atlanta is one such “problem girl.” [Her name has been changed for this story] At 16, Jasmine was charged with robbing a middle-aged woman on a MARTA train. She can’t explain what drove her to do it. “I don’t know why,” she says sheepishly – but whether out of boredom or anger or something else, she hatched a plan with her girlfriends to rob the woman – who was two months pregnant at the time – in broad daylight.
It wasn’t Jasmine’s first time acting out. She got in a lot of fights with other kids – “pushing fights” as she calls it. They were over little things like “paper, pencil, basketball.” Once she spent a night in jail after participating in a riot at her school. “Cause I been through so much stuff, any little thing that someone said would tick me off,” Jasmine explains. “I just got my anger out on them.”
The social worker's report on Jasmine is a heartbreaking read. Her life has been filled with violence, neglect, and emotional trauma. The report describes the various abusive relationships endured by her mother, even going into detail about the night Jasmine’s mom was raped by her boyfriend in front of Jasmine and her siblings. At 15 years old, Jasmine started dating a man in his 20s. Within months she got pregnant. At nine months pregnant, the “boyfriend” beat her up and a DFACS (Department of Family and Children’s Services) case was opened. The social worker wrote:
“Miraculously, statutory rape charges were never filed against him because he was providing financial support to the household. All adults in Jasmine’s life were aware of the age difference, probably aware of the physical abuse, and perhaps condoned some of it, but there was no intervention.”
When the police came to arrest Jasmine a month and a half after the robbery, her infant daughter was left in the care of her mother. She was charged, booked and sat in jail for a violent crime---a crime she still can’t explain why she committed.
Linda Pace, Chief Assistant Public Defender to the Juvenile Division of DeKalb County, represented Jasmine after her arrest. She describes the girl’s situation as “the extreme end of typical.” Pace explains that for girls who end up in juvenile court, “usually there’s a history of domestic violence. Sometimes you wonder how a child could grow up in that environment at all.”
Meda Chesney-Lind, who is a professor of criminology and women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, found that delinquent girls reported high rates of physical and sexual abuse – between 40 and 70 percent. “One of the things with girls who have problems with violence is that they mimic the male violence that they see in their lives and their families. They see boys and men as powerful because they are capable of violence. [Acting out] is a way of identifying with the aggressor,” says Chesney-Lind. “It can’t be simply that any girl who has ever been victimized is knocking off a 7-11. But in combination with other problems yeah, you go back there and see domestic violence and physical victimization in the home.”
Girls will often attempt to gain some power – and regain a sense of control – by beating up other girls. According to the Department of Justice report, both boys and girls are more likely to attack their same-sex peers than anyone else.
Chantel Mullen, Dean of Student Discipline and Student Relations Administrator for Atlanta Public Schools, says in her experience, girls who attack each other usually have a history of conflict. The underlying clash between girls tends to involve a “fractured friendship” – often over a boy. A group of friends splits up into opposing factions. A pattern of passive aggressive behavior ensues, wherein the girls follow each other around in a stalking manner, say derogatory statements, name call, and spread rumors. The behavior escalates into a physical fight – usually between groups of girls.
When the fights occur, they can become violent very quickly. “The weapon of choice for young ladies is usually a razor,” says Mullen. “Rarely
haveI seen a young lady bring a gun.” Girls use the razors to attack the faces of their opponents. Their objective is to cause “a disfigurement more than a life threatening injury,” says Pace, the public defender.
Complicating teacher’s efforts to diffuse conflicts before they occur is the advent of ubiquitous cell phones and social networking sites like Facebook. It’s an issue that rose to the spotlight in the wake of 15-year old Phoebe Prince’s suicide in Massachusetts. Prince endured merciless tormenting from fellow students, including an onslaught of derogatory comments posted about her on Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist, among other Websites. Prosecutors have charged nine students – seven girls and two boys– with driving Prince to kill herself.
“Part of our challenge is with the advent of social media, a lot of the conflict that we used to see in the school – the passive aggressive behavior – now takes place somewhere else. They do it in cyber space,” says Mullen. She says while boys also use social media, girls are far more likely to use it as a form of bullying because boys tend to fight spontaneously and often with people they only know tangentially, if at all.
“With the advent of social media and our cell phones, they [students] are in instantaneous contact and they are relaying information to each other at speeds that we have to adapt to,” says Mullen. “Conflict that in previous years had time to dissipate, or anger that had time to dissipate, doesn’t have that cushion any more.”
For now, Mullen heavily relies on parents to alert her to conflicts with their daughters. They will often bring in copies of their daughters’ Facebook pages, filled with vitriolic back and forth with other girls. Mullen similarly monitors her daughter’s computer use, cell phone calls and text messages. For any parent, even the most diligent ones, this is a big job. And parents of kids most apt to fight – girls and boys exposed to physical and sexual violence, often at home – tend to be absent and have their own weighty issues to deal with.
Meanwhile, experts in the field of girls’ violence and juvenile delinquency are only beginning to study the role of technology, says Chesney Lind. She cautions, “The devil will be in the details to see what piece does it explain, and how much does it affect.”
When Jasmine finally made it to her probation hearing, an unexpected witness spoke in her defense: the victim of the robbery. According to Pace, the woman, who was five months pregnant at the time of the hearing, said she had “reflected on what happened. She was initially very upset but decided to let go of her anger. She did not want Jasmine to be punished or spend any more time in detention. She would like her (Jasmine) to get some help.”
Getting help for girls is easier said than done, says Chesney-Lind. Girls’ problems are often a result of their problems as females – sexual abuse, physical violence, and early motherhood. Most programs are tailored to boys because they comprise the majority of juvenile delinquents. “What we need are programs that help girls with their relationships with their parents, with their friends,” says Chesney-Lind.
The little counseling Jasmine got has helped. She says she wants to be a good mother, get her GED, go to beauty school and avoid spending time in prison. Asked about how she plans to avoid future trouble, Jasmine replies, “I think twice about – like if I think about doing stuff – I think another way so I don’t have to do that stuff.” The judge has placed her on probation and in temporary custody of her older sister.
Jasmine cautions that counseling alone won’t change someone’s behavior -- “Just listening to folks, you’re not going to change if you don’t want to change. It’s only if you want to change.” Still, when asked what she would do if trying to help a troubled girl, her solution is “I would try to talk them out of it and tell them where it will get you in life, and where it will take you.”
A few weeks ago Jasmine she found out she’s pregnant again. She hopes to break the cycle of violence so her children don't repeat her mistakes
Emily Green is a multi-media journalist who reports on legal issues. Her work has appeared on Georgia Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio and in the Wall Street Journal