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.