It is imperative that we stop the cruel and
Photo by Susan Madden Lankford
unjust funneling of victims of abuse into incarceration, and that we improve the lives of sexually abused girls currently in our juvenile-justice system. Recently, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Human Rights Project for Girls released a report, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” with groundbreaking new data on this problem. Among the study’s many findings are data confirming that sexual abuse is a “primary predictor” for involvement with the juvenile-justice system, and that girls of color—particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinas—are disproportionately affected.
According to the report:
Native American girls are in residential placements at a rate of 179 per 100,000; African-American girls at a rate of 123 per 100,000; and Latinas at a rate of 47 per 100,000. By comparison, 37 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic white girls are confined.
The report also finds that the sexual-abuse rate of girls in the juvenile-justice system (31 percent) is more than four times higher than the rate for boys (7 percent).
The report explains tht one in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12. Nearly half of all female rape survivors were victimized before the age of 18. And girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.
A recent U.S. Department of Justice study shows that the increased arrest and incarceration of girls over the past 20 years has not been the result of increased criminal activity or violence. Instead, more and more girls are being arrested and incarcerated because of the aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses, many of which stem from abuse and trauma. Gender stereotypes contribute to the problem, as the decision to arrest and detain girls in many of these situations is negatively influenced by whether the decision maker perceives girls to have violated gender norms—even though such deviation may actually be a response to trauma.
In fact, girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy or substance abuse. Outrageously, girls who have been trafficked are often arrested for prostitution—even when they are too young to consent to sex when they enter the juvenile-justice system.
African-American girls constitute 14 percent of the general population nationally but 33.2 percent of girls detained and committed. Native American girls are also disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system: they are 1 percent of the general youth population but 3.5 percent of detained and committed girls.
In a 2006 study of girls involved in Oregon’s juvenile justice system, 93 percent had experienced sexual or physical abuse; 76 percent had experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse by the age of 13; and 63 percent had experienced both physical and sexual abuse. Similarly, in a 2009 study of delinquent girls in South Carolina, 81 percent reported a history of sexual violence, and 42 percent reported dating violence.
Finally, a 1998 study of juvenile-justice-involved girls in California found that 81 percent of girls had experienced one or more incident of physical or sexual abuse; 56 percent reported one or more forms of sexual abuse; and 45 percent reported being beaten or burned at least once.
In the California study, of the 56 percent of girls who reported sexual abuse — which can take many forms — 40 percent of girls reported being raped or sodomized at least once, and 17 percent reported multiple occurrences of abuse. Girls in the Oregon study, meanwhile, reported they had experienced an average of over four forms of severe sexual abuse before the age of 12.
Yet when girls enter the juvenile justice system, mental health screenings are rarely administered by licensed professionals, and follow-up assessments and treatment are frequently inadequate. Some studies have found that this lack of services exists more often in facilities that serve girls. According to a recent nationwide census conducted by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), only approximately half the youth in the juvenile justice system are placed in a facility that provides mental health evaluations of all residents. Follow-up care is often insufficient even for youth who do receive evaluations. And a significant majority of juvenile justice youth (88 percent) reside in facilities in which mental health counselors are not licensed professionals
Gina Womack, executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), says:
At the nonprofit organization I head, we have seen the devastating impact of sexual abuse, including the alarming and shameful increased incarceration rates of girl survivors. This is not only cruel and unjust, it also fails to deal with the underlying trauma that results from sexual abuse. As a result, victims are further traumatized by the juvenile-justice system.
There are many parallels between the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline mentioned in the recent report and school-to-prison-pipeline issues. Rather than providing the care, counseling, and support these young people need, we are allowing vulnerable youths to be pushed out of schools and into the juvenile-justice system. We are failing at providing the safe and supportive environments young people need in our schools and communities, particularly for youths of color.
Girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy or substance abuse.
Through an initiative called the Let Kids Be Kids Campaign, FFLIC is working to address Louisiana’s failure to care for its most vulnerable youths. The initiative is raising awareness about laws in place that effectively criminalize children, and it is working to ensure that all children have the necessary support to grow, thrive, and reach their full potential.
For example, we are working to reduce the number of youths suspended from school for habitual absence, tardiness, or ‘willful disobedience’—a subjective categorization susceptible to racial bias that schools are often ill-equipped to deal with. Approximately 56 percent of African-American youths in the juvenile-justice system report a prior school suspension. Out-of-school suspensions cut classroom time for children who need it most, and research demonstrates a correlation between harsh discipline practices, dropouts, and incarceration. Students with multiple suspensions are three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than students who have not been suspended. Our group urges educators to work to ensure that children who are in crisis or exhibit challenging behaviors are kept in school, where they are surrounded by sources of knowledge and opportunity.
Another approach we stress is ‘positive behavioral interventions and supports,’ ‘a rehabilitative practice focused on developing and nourishing support structures for students to help improve their lives, both in and out of the classroom and strengthen positive behaviors. Rather than centering exclusively on reactive disciplinary approaches, it uses modeling and positive reinforcement to foster a good learning environment for young people.
Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.
This report exposes the ways in which we criminalize girls — especially girls of color — who have been sexually and physically abused, and it offers policy recommendations to dismantle the abuse to prison pipeline. It illustrates the pipeline with examples, including the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking, girls who run away or become truant because of abuse they experience and girls who cross into juvenile justice from the child welfare system.
Tfhe report recommend the following changes to improve conditions for girls in the juvenile justice system:
• Implement accountability mechanisms to ensure that states to comply with standards and guidelines for gender-specific services, including issuing annual public reports on progress towards compliance with standards and guidelines.
• Increase funds available to incentivize states to create gender-specific, trauma-informed prevention and treatment programs and services.
• Require at least one State Advisory Group member to have expertise in gender-specific issues, such as sexual abuse and domestic child sex trafficking, as well as knowledge of effective interventions.
• Require states to employ validated, comprehensive screening and assessments to evaluate all children entering the juvenile justice system for trauma and to develop appropriate treatment plans and programming in response to identified needs.
• Require states to screen children at intake for commercial sexual exploitation and divert identified victims away from the juvenile justice system whenever possible.
• Explicitly prioritize funding for the development of programs to train law enforcement officers and other juvenile justice system staff to better identify and respond to trauma.
• Require states to evaluate the effectiveness of juvenile justice programs that address the needs of girls; develop plans to remedy identified gaps and deficiencies; and report on progress annually.
We should require the collection of data on girls in the juvenile justice system and their outcomes disaggregated and cross tabulated by race and ethnicity, including the following information: The number of victims of commercial sexual exploitation involved in the juvenile justice system; the conditions of confinement for girls, including frequency of solitary confinement or isolation, strip searches, shackling during childbirth, inappropriate use of restraints, or other practices that may exacerbate girls’ trauma; the number of pregnant and parenting girls in the system and the treatment they receive, from pregnancy testing through postpartum care and new parenting services.
In addition, the report recommends that institutions fully enforce — and strengthen — the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA is a powerful tool that can help prevent abuse against girls in juvenile justice if effectively enforced. Under the law, facilities must screen inmates for a history of sexual abuse and provide appropriate medical and mental health care within 14 days of intake. Youth who are victimized while in a facility, meanwhile, must have timely access to emergency medical and crisis intervention services. PREA standards also limit procedures that are likely to trigger re-traumatization, such as pat-downs by officers of the opposite sex, strip searches, and solitary confinement. And the law requires state facilities to collect data on allegations of sexual abuse, aggregate the data at least yearly, and make that data publicly available.
Although these provisions represent progress, enforcement mechanisms are weak. There is no private right of action to enforce PREA’s standards.
Additional recommendations from the report: a) Provide Gender-Specific Physical and Mental Health Care In Justice Settings, b) Implement Gender-Specific Health Screening and Assessment, c) Require Facilities to be Accredited for the Provision of Medical Care, d) Provide Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care and e) Include Trauma-Related Health Treatment in Re-entry/Aftercare Plans.
Dismantling the Pipeline: Policy Recommendations to Keep Victims of Sex Trafficking Out of Juvenile Justice: a) End the Arrest and Detention of Youth for Prostitution and b) Enact Effective and Universal Safe Harbor Laws. States that continue to allow the arrest and detention of children on prostitution charges should enact safe harbor or immunity laws to ensure that trafficked youth are treated as victims, not perpetrators.
Laws that criminalize the act of sex with minors are too rarely enforced in the context of child sex trafficking. In many cases, child-sex buyers escape with little or no accountability, despite the traumatic effect of their acts on the victims. To help put an end to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, advocates and lawmakers should: • Educate the public on the role of buyers in perpetuating systematic violence against underage girls and other vulnerable youth; • Increase training of law enforcement and prosecutors on investigations and prosecutions of child-sex buyers and redirect resources to scale up operations against buyers rather than criminalizing victims; • Instruct federal and state anti-trafficking task forces throughout the country to target buyers of child sex in their operations; and • Encourage the use of federal anti-trafficking statutes and state laws that criminalize sex with minors to prosecute buyers of underage girls.
Finally, Policy Recommendations to Reduce Foster Girls’ Crossing Over Into the Juvenile Justice System: • Implement screenings upon entry into the child welfare system to identify a history of trauma. • Develop cross-system collaboration between the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Add gender-responsive components to improve services and outcomes for dually involved girls, and • Limit providers’ referrals to law enforcement to manage challenging behaviors.