The numbers tell us two sobering facts about girls and juvenile justice. First, they indicate 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.
What the numbers fail to reveal is the story behind the statistics.
As president of The National Crittenton Foundation, I have had the great privilege to get to know many of the faces behind the data; girls and young women who were involved with Crittenton agencies because they were referred by juvenile justice or child welfare systems.
While their stories are as diverse as they are, the one thing that remains constant is the way in which their early lives have been shaped for them by abuse, neglect, violence, addiction, family dysfunction and the betrayal of their trust by the very people whose job it was to love and protect them.
Victimization of girls typically precedes their involvement with the system. Up to 73 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system have histories of physical and sexual violence. A study of 319 girls in the juvenile justice system in Florida found that 64 percent reported past abuse, including 37 percent reporting abuse by a parent; 55 percent reporting abuse by someone other than a parent; and 27 percent reporting both types of abuse.
Data collected by The National Crittenton Foundation in 2011 further illustrates the extent of the trauma experienced by girls in the juvenile justice system. Our agencies administered the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire to 200 girls in or referred by the juvenile justice system in 18 states. We found that more than 62 percent of juvenile justice involved girls surveyed and 74 percent of young mothers surveyed were exposed to four or more forms of adverse childhood experiences, which include exposure to violence. In comparison, the national ACE/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study results found that 15 percent of women surveyed were exposed to four or more types of these childhood experiences.
What the statistics also don't tell us is how girls cope with the dangerous, damaging and traumatic circumstances in their lives. In fact, their "adaptive coping behaviors," including running away from homes where violence is prevalent, self medication with drugs and alcohol, truancy and unruly behavior, are the very same behaviors that put them at risk of entering the juvenile justice system because they are detained for a status offence.
In other words, we criminalize them for coping behaviors that are actually signs of strength and resiliency against the abuse and neglect they have experienced. What is the result? A system that fails to aid the girls in getting the help they need to recover from the abuse and neglect they experienced long before they entered the system.
Taken together, the five 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:
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 will undermine the best of intentions. The "bad girl" image will continue to thrive and fail to break destructive cycles of abuse and neglect.
Deeply embedded in our response to these girls, and absent from the policy discussions about solutions, is the underlying presence of age-old social gender role expectations. Girls should be "sugar and spice and everything nice." Good girls are chaste, virtuous and pure, respectful and demur, seen and not heard. The consequence for not meeting those gender role expectations is to be labeled for life as "A bad girl." We detain them for status offenses as a means of holding them accountable for not living up to the standards set for "good girls."
A Proposed Challenge
I've learned a lot from young women and women who have come through the system. They have taught me about the power and the weight of the "bad girl" image, which keeps them mired in shame and leads to isolation from family connections and social networks. It stops them from asking for help or speaking the truth. It stops them from defending themselves and for letting their light shine. Why? Because deep inside they are internalizing this image and something tells them it might be true. And the way that systems are organized reinforces that it is indeed true – once a bad girl always a bad girl.
So on behalf of the girls and young women who have shared their stories and helped me understand their reality, I challenge each and every one of us to take some time and think about whether we see girls and young women in the juvenile justice system as "bad girls." Do we understand their behaviors as acting out and out of control or do we see their actions as a way of coping with experiences that are unthinkable to us? And if we begin to understand the actions of the girls as a call for help, what can we do with what we discover?
In a society where the sexualization, commercialization and objectification of girls runs rampant in the media, entertainment industry and retail advertising, it's ironic that we still judge girls for their ability to be virtuous.
The National Crittenton Foundation has been around for more than 130 years and in the late 1800s we called them lost, depraved, wayward and fallen women. We don't use the same words today but attitudes really haven't change that much. As a society we need to value young women for their brains, their hearts and their will to build better lives for themselves.
Using a social justice framework for our work means we’re dedicated to ensuring that those impacted by policies and practices have the opportunity to advocate on their own behalf. Moreover, it is essential that everyone learn about how trauma and violence impact the lives of girls and young women in this country and at Crittenton we believe that there are no better teachers than young women survivors of violence. To this end, we provide opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills so that that young women can speak their own truths.
Below is a story of one of many courageous young women who advocate for change:
Times have been hard for me. My father began molesting me before I was four and it went on for eight years. I didn’t know my mom till I was 11 and even then she was strung out on meth. I started doing drugs at 12, and drinking with my dad even younger than that. I needed to escape. Soon enough I was an addict and I got into a fight that resulted in assault charges.
It is difficult to admit but I became so depressed that I tried to commit suicide on many occasions. I was in a very dark place. I had been in several residential programs and in psychiatric care. I had to turn my life around. I knew what I needed to do but I needed a push. I found treatment and counseling—and a home–at the White Shield Center in Portland, Oregon.
Now I’m 18 years old and clean and sober. I have learned about positive relationships and I am rebuilding a relationship with my mother after many years of not having her in my life.
My father went to prison for what he did. Sometimes I wonder where my life would have been without treatment. I have people outside of family if I need support, help or clear perspective. I like the White Shield Center and the structure it provides helps me so I stay on track. No one wants to be in a program like this at first, but when you accomplish your goals and look back on it you can see what a big difference it makes. Now as I’m about to graduate, go to college and get a place of my own I see how it has changed my life.
“I choose to share my story and be a national advocate for girls because I want to make an impact on other girls’ lives. Through ‘We Are Not Invisible’ I share my life experiences and talk about the program and services I’ve been involved in with legislatures, policy makers, key stakeholders and other girls and young women. When I speak, I hope that they are motivated to do something that really support girls and young women who have experienced similar things as I have. And if what I say helps another young women in the audience, then I’m very happy with that…even if I don’t know that it has.” – Ashley
I hope this letter finds you well and enjoying the beginning of summer. We’re happy to share with you that this April marked the 130th anniversary of the founding of the Crittenton social welfare movement. While we celebrate this milestone, we are also painfully aware that an anniversary presents an opportunity to look forward, grounded in the lessons of a rich history. Today, The National Crittenton Foundation (TNCF) and the Crittenton family of agencies continue to support the same population of invisible and marginalized girls, young women, and women identified by Mr. Charles Crittenton and Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, as being in dire need of assistance.
Since our founding, the age of girls and young women entering our agencies has dropped, while the acuteness and severity of their needs has increased. Things should have improved during the last 130 years but they have not. Going forward we will need to be more innovative, to work in partnership with young women and each other, and to dig deeper and focus on root causes to “get it right” this time. The cost to girls, young women, their families, communities and our country is too great to ignore. Violence and abuse against girls and young women in our country is at epidemic proportions – any silence and inaction allows it to grow.
You are receiving this letter because you have supported us before, more than likely, many times. So, I’m going to skip the part about our great work and the needs and potential of the girls and young women who come through our doors, you know all this. At the beginning of this year I read Mr. Crittenton’s book, The Brother of Girls published in 1910 and I was struck by what he wrote in the late 1800’s:
“During my tour around the world I had been deeply impressed with the fact that in every civilized country the cause of the unfortunate girl was a ‘lost cause.’ While I had occasionally found… men and women whose hearts had been touched by the call to this needy class, I found that no well-planned movement had ever been put on foot to reach them. Why this should have been so, I have never been able to find out…It had been accepted as a necessary evil… The immensity of the problem staggered me….”
Mr. Crittenton’s words remain true to this day. The sexualization of girls, the increase in the domestic sex trafficking of minors, the high rates of abuse and violence experienced by girls and young women, are all proof that the immensity of the problem continues. As we honor the legacy of Mr. Crittenton and Dr. Barrett I ask you to join us in taking action and in breaking the silence. Enough is enough – we can no longer accept this as a “necessary evil” of our society. Today, in honor of the millions of women we have supported during the last 130 years, I’m asking you to increase your support of TNCF. This will allow us to achieve our mission of advancing the self-empowerment, health, economic security and civic engagement of girls and young women impacted by trauma and violence.
We can’t do this work without your support. Make a contribution today (no amount is too big or too small) to ensure that as our founders intended, girls, young women and their families have the opportunity to achieve their unique potential and to thrive.
All of us have a story to tell, and each is unique and powerful in its own way. I hope that some part of my story resonates with the challenges and successes in your own life. I believe that our humanity and compassion is grounded in our willingness to see ourselves through the struggle of others and because of this I’ve chosen to share my story with you.
My name is Katie Becker, I’m 35 years old and have three sons. I’m very proud to say that in May of 2013 I will be graduating from law school. This has been my lifelong dream, but if we had met when I was a teenager you would have predicted a very different future for me. My family was poor and there was a lot of dysfunction. From the time I was two to seven years old, we had no electricity or running water and lived in an isolated rural area. By the time I was 13, my mother was gone for good and I was raising my 5 younger brothers and sisters and maintaining my father’s house while he worked 60 to 70 hours a week. My father had a long fuse, but when he reached the end of it, he could be brutal.
I got pregnant when I was 14, and during one violent episode my father slapped me so hard I could feel the bones in my spine pop. I was afraid for the baby and for me. I found out about Florence Crittenton in Charlotte, North Carolina and at the end of my 9th grade year I walked through their doors 6 months pregnant. It was there that I began to heal, discovered my inner strength, and envisioned my future. I left Florence Crittenton and was placed in foster care. Needless to say, when my foster dad put a move on me I left. Nevertheless, I graduated from high school and then from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. Today, I work full-time as a contract and lease administrator while going to law school at night. I’ll graduate next May from Charlotte School of Law, and on that day, when I look out at the crowd, I will see my three sons and my Crittenton family.
The people at Florence Crittenton have been a source of constant support. But recently my Crittenton family has become much larger through my connection to The National Crittenton Foundation (TNCF). I learned that Florence Crittenton in Charlotte and I are part of a national network of agencies, advocates and women like me from every corner of our country. Together we work to ensure that stories like mine are heard and seriously considered when Congress takes action.
Recently I spoke at a Congressional Briefing hosted by TNCF on Adverse Childhood Experiences and young mothers. It was an honor and an inspirational experience, but more importantly, I know I was making a difference.
I’ve always encouraged people to support my local Crittenton, but today I am asking you to support the national work, because without it, I would be invisible and so would thousands of other girls and young women who are survivors of childhood violence and trauma. We didn’t ask to be born into these situations and we want the same thing you do — to be safe, to heal, to thrive and to have a bright future.
Thank you for listening and for caring.
The National Crittenton Foundation was invited to attend The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s quarterly meeting. Through TNCF’s We Are Not Invisible program Dani, a former Crittenton client from Michigan, attended the meeting in Washington, D.C. She was able to share her story and lend a voice to the following topics: Risk Factors and Needs, Girl’s Pathway to Success, and the Discussion of Federal Agency Coordination.
A Letter From Dani
On September 14, 2012, I traveled and spoke with Jeanette Pai-Espinosa, President of The National Crittenton Foundation at a meeting in Washington DC. The meeting was with The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While sitting there listening to some of the topics spoken by the panelists−the treatment of young women in the juvenile system, the issues trafficking victims are forced to deal with, how teenagers currently in the foster care system are 'dealt' with when they're still having children of their own and the mountains they have to climb−alarms started going off in my head. Thoughts like 'Are you kidding me? This is STILL happening? Isn't it 2012? The answer is...yep. It sure is. As I sat there, two emotions swirled around me. The first emotion was a feeling of gratitude that engulfed me because luckily I was one of few that the system worked for. I received and RESPONDED to the services that were offered, therefore completely avoiding the juvenile system that damages so many of my younger sisters. The second emotion that was ignited was a fierce frustration to make changes and not let maltreatment and discourse happen to these young women any longer. SERVICES work. CELLS do not. The bottom line is, had I NOT gotten residential placement with Crittenton Services, had I been placed in 'Juvi', the thought of who I would be today (if I would have made it today) scares me to death and makes my heart bleed for the girls who are there and simply need to heal.
I explained to the council how I, myself endured severe physical and emotional abuse by my father, was simply not coming home at night, skipping school and began experimenting with drinking, and drugs and how I was subsequently taken from my father on two separate occasions, ultimately ending up in the hands of the staff of Florence Crittenton Services of Michigan, a residential home for girls. When I told the council this, after listening what happens to most of the girls who do go through the juvenile system, I realized how darn lucky and blessed I was…and am to this day.
To learn more about Dani, visit our website at www.NationalCrittenton.org
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