The One Thing Almost Every Girl In The Justice System Has In Common

Photo: Danese Kenon/AP Photo.
Some of the most vulnerable and victimized girls in America aren't getting enough help and many end up in the juvenile justice system, thanks to a broken process that badly needs fixing.

According to a new report, as many as eight in 10 girls in the juvenile justice system nationwide have been victims of sexual abuse; in some states, that number is even higher. The report (from the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women) is based on interviews and state and federal records.

How bad is it? A South Carolina study found that 81% of girls in the state’s system had been victims of some kind of sexual violence. In Oregon, 93% had been sexually or physically abused. Black, Latina, and Native American girls are also far more likely to end up in the system. Unfortunately, this isn’t a surprise for juvenile justice advocates.

“We’ve known it for a long time, but it’s helpful that this report publicizes this on a larger scale,” Mishi Faruqee, the ACLU's juvenile justice policy strategist, told us. It’s especially important, she said, to connect sexual abuse to the types of offenses that lead girls into the justice system; girls are far more likely to end up in facilities for “status” offenses like running away or truancy — forms of acting out that are also symptoms of trauma.

“This is so important because it really points to the need, early on, to respond to the trauma young people experience,” Faruqee said. “More information is really critical.”

As with too many elements of the juvenile criminal justice system, there have been virtually no national studies to learn more about the backgrounds of girls and young women who are entering into state juvenile facilities. Part of the problem is the wide range in how states deal with juveniles. Some, like Minnesota and New York, have safe harbor laws designed to protect minors involved in sex work from prosecution, as the New York Times reported. But dozens of states still haven’t passed similar legislation, which means thousands of girls (and boys) can be criminalized for their own exploitation.

While this research looked at sexual abuse before girls enter the justice system, the risks don’t end there. According to a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 9.5% of young people in juvenile facilities reported being sexually abused within the past year.

The report issued a long slate of recommendations, from better enforcement of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (a law that is supposed to protect vulnerable incarcerated populations) to passing more state safe harbor laws. But, as Faruqee emphasized, this should also be a call to increase resources for community mental health services, reform the child welfare system, and rethink school discipline.

“The hope,” she told us, “is that recognizing that the best way to have a trauma-focused approach is to keep young people out of juvenile facilities — because juvenile facilities are a place where young people are really re-traumatized, particularly girls.”

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