Recently, Rebecca Burney and Larson Binzer called for the voices of girls in the justice system to be heard. We extend their plea, adding the vitality of the voices of girls caught up not only in the justice system, but in the foster system as well. Academics and practitioners alike call these young people crossover youth.
For more information on dual status youth, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Dual Status Youth
Through 33 interviews with incarcerated girls at a California detention center, we find these voices and experiences to be particularly salient to any efforts for justice or other system reforms. These girls withstand similar injustices to those involved in one system, yet their challenges are compounded by the involvement of multiple systems tasked with their care.
Crossover youth face a series of added challenges compared to young people only involved in the foster care or juvenile justice system. For example, justice-involved girls in foster homes suffer from an identity defined by their justice involvement and are mistreated in the foster homes more than their foster-only counterparts.
The girls spoke of being adversely treated at their foster homes, mistreatment connected directly to their time spent behind bars and on probation. The girls believe that “probation kids,” who were previously arrested and were now on probation, were treated worse than other youth, or “social work kids.” They spoke of social work kids receiving more privileges, like having a cellphone and freedom to go out regularly, as well as rule violations being handled differently.
‘They think we’re criminals’
The girls felt staff turned a blind eye to acts of disrespect or noncompliance as well as to violations such as alcohol and minor drug use among non-justice-involved girls. Denise, 17, described the problem this way:
Denise: “Social worker kids would have more privileges than the probation kids. They would throw their tantrums at the house and they [staff] wouldn’t say anything. But us probation kids, since we’re on probation, they think we’re criminals.”
Interviewer: “Oh, yeah?”
Denise: “[A staff member] was telling me ‘We know you’re gonna wanna run away’ and one called me a whore. So I called her a bitch. And then they’re like, “Oh this is why we don’t take juvenile hall girls …”
Sandra, 15, explained how “probation kids” are treated in group homes:
“… Well, once you go into placement, there’s the ‘social worker girls’ and the placement or the ‘probation kids.’ The social worker girls look at the probation kids as, “Oh, all [they’re] is trouble, you know, there’s no problems at home. They’re just on probation because they fucked up’ … And staff just, look at you different, they think you’re a thief, just a bunch of different stuff.”
Other girls reported that staff often viewed justice-involved girls as “criminals” or “drug addicts” who make their jobs and lives difficult. The stories of the justice-involved girls about their treatment by and interactions with foster home staff included overt hostility, verbal abuse, punishment for trivial offenses, fabrication of stories to elicit further punishment, withholding of food, clothing and general allowances, and physical mistreatment. Sandra recounted a disagreement she experienced with a staff member:
“I said, ‘I’m gonna call ICC [foster care complaint hotline] on you, cause you haven’t given me my clothing allowance for three months!’ I didn’t have anything, I was wearing the same clothes over and over, I had to wash them. [And] I still had my hall [jail] shoes. And then she was like, ‘Oh really? So you’re gonna go ahead and call ICC on me, well, I see that you just made a hole through the wall … and you tried to hit me.’ She didn’t know though that one of the other staff was actually in the bathroom right around the corner, so when the staff came out. [She said] ‘Are you trying to make up a lie about Sandra? I don’t think she did any of that. In fact we’re gonna call ICC and the director, and you’re gonna get fired. Don’t you ever treat her like that again.’”
Hard to avoid getting arrested again
The second major challenge faced uniquely by the crossover girls was the severe response they received for their minor offenses, increasing their risk for probation and further punishment. In California, following an arrest youth may be placed on formal probation, informal probation, house arrest, group housing or a combination of these things upon their release from secure detention, which was the case for the justice-involved girls interviewed.
The girls discussed difficulty meeting the many requirements of formal probation and avoiding a return to detention, such as remaining sober, maintaining passing grades at school, avoiding excessive school absences and honoring curfew. Often the struggle was exacerbated by responses justice-involved girls received from foster home staff. Virginia, 16, spoke of a disagreement with another girl:
Virginia: “Some girl … accused me of stealing a wallet, but it was her … And she took 80 dollars from the wallet … She was like trying to blame it on me … so I just started bombing on her [hitting her] … at the end they ended locking her up cuz she stole.”
Interviewer: “Did you get a charge?”
Virginia: “Um huh.”
Normally a fight in a group home will result in some form of official sanction and occasionally could lead to a citation or possible arrest. Yet for justice-involved girls this behavior will almost always lead to arrest and more time in detention. Virginia fought with a housemate who falsely accused her of stealing and, despite her innocence, was charged with assault and sent back to detention.
Unique to crossover girls, their probation status meant they were regularly arrested for leaving their new home, a commonly reported roadblock to compliance with probation requirements. While the girls discussed many reasons for running away (hostile staff, unpredictable housemates, strange men in the area, rules restricting substance use), if these girls ran away, even for a few hours, they were in violation of their probation and subsequently incarcerated, no matter the reason. Given this, the girls shared that they would often preemptively leave after a disagreement with a staff member or housemate instead of staying and risking eventual rearrest.
Alexis described making the decision to leave after getting into a minor fight with another girl in her foster home:
“[After the fight the staff member said] ‘OK, get ready. You’re going to school.’ And I didn’t believe it. I was like, ‘This sounds way too good to be true. She’s gonna call the cops and I’m gonna get arrested.’ So I went into the room [and told my friend] ‘Damn I’m gonna get locked up right now.’ So I showered real quick and I got all my stuff ready … all I took was a backpack, two pairs of clothes and my makeup. All my makeup. And then I just walked out the door and I was like, ‘Bye everybody.’ And I just started running. I ran and ran and then I got to the mall and I took the bus to the south.”
Alexis, and the voices of the other girls interviewed, show how the juvenile justice and foster care systems collaborate in a way that punishes young people. If we are listening to these voices, we should hear how crossover youth are negatively affected by both organizations while behind bars and when they leave. These experiences suggest a feedback loop of punishment and incarceration.
In addition, behaviors that are often considered innocuous and normal limit-testing associated with adolescence carried severe, criminal consequences for these girls. We should hear that crossover girls are suffering from this feedback loop beyond that of other youth. We should hear that girls need safe spaces in their communities and that for crossover girls, it is imperative that foster homes be these spaces.
These voices should not be only heard, they should receive action as well. From these girls, we should hear and call on foster care staff and criminal justice agents alike to exercise caution and change their responses to minor offenses so as to not overly punish these girls. Policymakers, foster care professionals and law enforcement officers should hear these girls’ voices and make a collaborative effort to minimize the harm caused to girls while in the child welfare system.
Janelle Hawes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Washington Tacoma in the Social Work and Criminal Justice Program. Her areas of interest include inequities in education experiences and outcomes, mental health and well-being, and the criminal justice system, focusing on marginalized populations and practical applications.
Jerry Flores, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Toronto. Professor Flores recently published his first book titled Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration (University of California Press)