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

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Jeannette Pai-Espinosa and Jessie Domingo Salu
Jeannette Pai-Espinosa

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa

Jessie Salu

Jessie Salu

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.

hub_arrow_2-01Like 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.

Tanya has a high ACE score; what does this mean? The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) data provides us with insight into the impact of childhood exposure to abuse, neglect and household dysfunction before age 18. Scores range from 0-10 with increasing likelihood of further victimization, chronic disease, addiction, poor work performance and more — including a reduction of life expectancy. Understanding ACE helps us to more clearly define the challenges and root causes of the involvement of girls and boys in the juvenile justice system, though females tend to have higher scores than males.

In a recently released article, “The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the Lives of Juvenile Offenders” in the Journal of Juvenile Justice, “Disturbingly high rates of ACEs” were found in 64,329 juvenile offenders in Florida — 27 percent of males and 45 percent of females reported five or more ACEs.

Similarly, in a sample administration of ACE in 18 states through Crittenton agencies, 62 percent of girls who had involvement with the juvenile justices system had a score of 4 or more, with 4 percent having scores of 10. But the importance of ACE is not the level of adversity. The real story is the resilience and courage of the youth who survive and thrive. Early assessment and the provision of support and mental health services leverages their internal strengths and assets. We need to focus more on healing and less on detention.

Why didn’t they just call one of their relatives or friends to let them know what was really going in their lives, or why didn’t they ask for help sooner? Well, you would think it would be that simple, but from their perspective it isn’t.

In our society, there is a deep underlying presence of age-old social gender role expectations. Girls should be “sugar and spice and everything nice.” The consequence for not meeting those gender role expectations is to be labeled for life “a bad girl” and have your trauma criminalized.

This label stops them from asking for help or speaking the truth. It stops them from standing up for themselves, using their oh so powerful voice and letting their light shine. Why? Because deep inside they are internalizing this “bad girl” image and something tells them it might be true. And the way that our societal systems are organized reinforces that it is indeed true.

So what is the solution? How can public policy responses strengthen the ability to get girls the help they need to heal from the trauma they have experienced as children? Taken together, the steps below would provide an excellent starting point to shift the conversation from how to deal with “bad girls” to one that recognizes the strength and resiliency of girls so they can get the support they need. These steps include:

  • Promote universal assessment for girls and boys involved in the juvenile justice system to better understand their exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.
  • Advocate that girls in or at risk of entering the juvenile justice system receive gender and culturally responsive, trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate services to heal from the violence and abuse they have experienced.
  • Push for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, with a focus on preventing detention for status offenses and the importance of gender-responsive and trauma-informed services.
  • Endorse and advance the important work of organizations like the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.

The reality is: This is the “easy” stuff. Passing legislation and advancing standards only takes the stroke of a pen or changing the words in policy guidance. But, in the end, negative attitudes and assumptions about girls will undermine the best of intentions. The “bad girl” image will continue to thrive and we will fail to support girls in breaking destructive cycles of abuse and neglect. As a society and as individuals we need to think about whether we see girls and young women in the juvenile justice system as “bad girls.”

Do we understand that their behaviors of acting out and being out of control are really their way of coping with experiences that are unthinkable to us? Can we meet them where they are rather than where we think they should be?

Today, Tanya — seen by many people throughout her life as a “bad girl” — reflects back and describes the support she eventually received as a “…bridge to a different kind of life.” She goes on to share,

“I had no way of knowing at the time, that self-love would be something that I would have to first learn that I was missing, and then fight like heck to reclaim it in order to be happy … I have come to learn that life and its successes unfold incrementally, so that in each moment we can see some measure of success. Some days this may simply mean that I decide to keep moving forward, on other days, I may have honored my personal truth a little more. Healing does not EVER happen overnight, but incremental success does.”

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

6 thoughts on “OP-ED: First Problem Is Seeing Abused Girls As ‘Bad Girls’

  1. This article is part of a trend in juvenile justice and juvenile mental health. I think however, that it is a wrong approach. Some people insist that it terrible to detain girls for status offenses and that it further triggers and traumatizes girls to be placed in juvenile detention facilities.

    I disagree. First of all, those who have been traumatized will be triggered no matter what you do. Almost anything can be a trigger, and as such it is impossible to know what will or will not traumatize someone.

    Second, these traumatized girls are not receiving services anywhere else. Traumatized girls typically do not report trauma to an intake officer. It is through the juvenile justice system that the girls are identified as needing services. In many cases, perhaps even most, the traumatized girls who enter the juvenile justice system have no access to the services they need. Juvenile courts can order and arrange payment for the needed services.

    So why not arrange for these girls to get services without detaining them for skipping school?

    Juveniles aren’t typically detained for a few absences. Usually, we’re talking double digit absences. Even assuming that detaining the girls is unnecessary, how are you going to fund services for a girl who hasn’t been identified as needing them yet? How are you going to ensure that the girls’ needs are being met?

    These are questions that juvenile court units do not like to answer. There is a movement afoot to dismantle these services and then outsource them to private facilities, where the cost to the taxpayer is much higher. And of course, then there are the cracks: How many girls and their families are going to go unserved while you’re trying to put this place?

    And all because some jackass thinks it’s unfair to detain girls for status offenses.

    A far better option is to train those who work with the juvenile girls to be trauma-ready, and divert girls to treatment oriented services within the system.

  2. Pingback: Reducing Negative Stigma Around Girls in the Juvenile Justice System | Reclaiming Futures

  3. If mothers were missing, justice left the ship sinking, believe that mother, has no support for credit, to justice.was last thing to do, believe in this mother, because who love, care, the mother who loves and has responsibility,
    enlists the help of competent after, deliver the stepfather the police and not the daughter.

  4. Pingback: First Problem Is Seeing Abused Girls As ‘Bad Girls’ | WOMEN. HEALING. VIOLENCE.

  5. Thanks to the authors for such a well written and timely article. The policy, systems, and programmatic changes must occur along with social change in our attitudes toward girls and directly addressing the “bad girl” imagery in our vocabularies and in our ideas and thoughts that drive our attitudes and actions.

    Question: have we looked at this through a race and ethnicity lens to look at disproportionate impacts among girls of color? Communities that are identified as white tend to accrue the benefits of privilege, including escaping or avoiding entirely the “bad girl/boy” label. I’d love to see more inclusion of equity and disproportionate punishment in these and future investigations to support intersectional change and justice.

    Great work!

  6. Thank you for this important perspective on girls involved in the juvenile justice system. I worked as a chaplain in juvenile detention facility for a short time, and I was struck by how deep the shame and self-blame were for the girls. They often wanted to see me to “confess” and yet, given the time and safe attention, they would tell me more about their lives and the abuse of all varieties they had experienced. What was so upsetting was the degree to which the girls believed they were “bad girls.” I would tell them, again and again, “You are a good kid, who was just trying to survive after adults did bad things to you!” They had never been told before that they were good, and love able in the eyes of God. It was heartbreaking. So I am thrilled to hear of your attention to this deep-seeded issue.