Hidden from View: The Plight of Girls in Juvenile Detention

Within a high-security compound, behind locked doors and inside narrow 8x10 cinder block cells sits a growing population of young American girls. Their environment consists of a narrow concrete cot topped by a too-thin mattress, and the possessions they claim as their own are merely a Ziploc bag containing a toothbrush and comb. Often, they found themselves in these Spartan prison cells for committing nonviolent crimes, such as theft, prostitution, or curfew violations.

Who are these young women, and how did they end up in such isolated conditions, sometimes before reaching high school?

The ages of the 641,000 girls who enter the maze of the juvenile justice system each year range from as young as 11 to 18 years old. After being arrested and charged with a crime, many youth are sent to juvenile detention centers, one of the first stops in the system, where they are held in locked facilities as they await a court trial. Almost 80% of girls and young women in juvenile detention centers have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse in their short lifetimes. Black females are 20% more likely to be detained than white girls their age, while American Indian girls are 50% more likely.  Young women are especially vulnerable to such abuse, and it is these cases, which occur at staggering rates for girls ages 16-19, that predicate the chain of events leading them behind the doors of these solitary cells into a juvenile system difficult to break free from.

Often referred to as the sexual abuse to prison pipeline, teen girls who are victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse make up almost 90% of those filling these bare cellblocks today. Many of these girls come from domestic scenes of physical and emotional neglect; health statistics reveal large percentages of girls who enter the detention system are in need of eyeglasses, are currently pregnant or have been pregnant, and up to 41% bear physical marks of sexual abuse. Ironically, entering the juvenile detention system is one of the few opportunities many of these young women are granted access to healthcare. The initial screening, however, is brief and consists of direct, basic questions, and is largely geared towards a male demographic.

For the increasing number of girls filling detention centers, however, the system must adapt and recognize the differences between the predicators leading to the arrest and detention of male and female juveniles.  “Girls enter detention with unique and often more serious physical and mental health problems and are less likely to receive adequate medical screening, assessment treatment, and aftercare,” Leslie Acoca, founder of the National Girls Health and Justice Institute, said. Acoca’s research reveals that girls entering detention with preexisting health issues are more likely to reoffend and return to the to the juvenile justice system.

This trend of re-offense and the disparities between male and female inmates is prevalent among girls who have been manifold victims of sexual violence. Multiple studies highlighted in the report “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story” testify to high rates of sexual abuse; compared to 7% of boys in detention who have been sexually abused, 31% of girls have. They are victimized by sexual violence at younger ages and the average duration of their trauma is longer – especially during adolescence.

Part of the inherent danger of juvenile detention is the negative identity each of the girls face upon their entry. Many have endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse from their family members; typically the first people to establish the identity of children, which shapes them into adulthood and serves as a strong factor in shaping their decisions. Photographer Richard Ross, who spent eight years photographing juveniles in detention and bearing witness to their stories, recalls girls’ testimonies of abuse by their parents, whom are often struggling with a substance addiction themselves. “We confine and often demonize a group of kids who have been abused and violated by the very people who should be protecting and loving them,” he said.  

“There is power in identity,” human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson said in his 2012 Ted Talk on the justice work needed to be done in prison reform. When young women, often from a very young age, face abuse and/or neglect at the hands of their parents and other adult figures; experience systematic racial discrimination; are raised in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods; or have been funneled through the child welfare system, they struggle to find solid ground upon which to build a positive identity for themselves.

In a report entitled “Understanding the Female Offender,” psychology professor Elizabeth Cauffman explored the effect friendships and familial relationships have upon girls, positing that “adversarial interpersonal relationships” are a notable risk factor in their emotional development. “Girls’ perceptions of others’ expectations of them have a profound impact on emotional well-being, attachment, and delinquency,” she said.

Taking these factors into consideration, it is critical to examine local, state, and federal legislation and policies in place today and whether they are aimed at restoring, not warehousing, our youth. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation,

“Creating lasting detention reform means that every decision maker must be at the table – judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, probation officers, social workers, legislators, governor’s reps.…Without committed policymakers, success for even the most effectively designed program can be derailed as support and implementation become problematic.”

 It is vitally important that policies and practices consider the critical role that gender plays within the factors leading to the upward trend of young women filling detention centers. They must also consider how gender oversight negatively affects health care and emotional support. Juvenile detention cannot remain gender-neutral.

Within a high-security compound, behind locked doors and inside narrow 8x10 cinder block cells sits a growing population of young American girls.

The Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy report, Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls, identifies five key elements to gender-responsive programming: it must be a comprehensive program which weaves together family, community, and systems; it serves as a safe place that provides opportunities for healing from physical and psychological trauma; it is empowering; it is community and family-focused; and it is relational. As seen in the research regarding this issue, the lack of each of these elements is often named by girls in the juvenile detention system.

Increasingly there has been call for reform. The state of Connecticut is often upheld as an example of gender-responsive reform efforts. After a court trial brought to light the startling conditions within its juvenile detention centers, the state of Connecticut created a Court Supportive Services Division (CSSD), which is responsible for providing alternatives to detention for young adults in an effort to break the detention cycle before it begins. In addition, the CSSD received a grant which required the state to begin developing gender-specific resources for girls under 16 within the detention system. This required making a deliberate and sustained effort into examining the unique factors which contributed to girls entering the detention system, as well as what can be done to provide the adequate physical and emotional care girls require within it. Funding for this research initially came from the federal government, then as it progressed, the state of Connecticut assumed responsibility.

Connecticut's story demonstrated the recognition by the federal government of this gender-based issue within the juvenile detention system. This provided the initial funding for research which resulted in sustained action taken to curb the increase in population of girls entering the juvenile detention system and “prioritized gender-specific reform efforts at the highest levels of government.” Research, advocacy, public investment in reform, gender-responsive legislation, the development of new standards within the gender-responsive system, and new programs which focused on gender were all key elements identified by the Georgetown report which contributed to this transformation in Connecticut.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, reauthorized in 2002, also demonstrates the influence of federal funding upon state and local juvenile justice programs. Operated as an arm of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention operates under the mission statement of equipping states and communities with the leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to juvenile detention and delinquency. It runs an ongoing Girls in the Juvenile Justice System program, also known as the National Girls’ Initiative. Its serves to provide the critical funding for community-based programs to address the specific needs of girls vulnerable to becoming part of the juvenile justice system, as well as school-based programs and mentoring programs for high-risk girls in elementary and middle school. As the statistics demonstrate, it is never too early to reach out to a young girl to encourage emotional growth and empowerment in an effort to uphold and respect their dignity, for this is not an issue that government alone can solve.

Indeed, establishing interpersonal, positive relationships with girls beginning at a young age is one of the strongest influences it will have upon her self-esteem. It begins within the structure of the family, but it certainly does not end there. Teachers, youth pastors, additional family members, and other adult role models each have an opportunity to build into young women through the power of mentoring and relationships – especially for girls more at risk of delinquent behavior due to parental neglect, family instability, abuse, or patterns of family criminality.

Bryan Stevenson theorizes in his Ted Talk that these issues within our justice system stem from an inherent disconnect between the emphasis our society places on the progress that has been made in innovation, technology, and creativity and the suffering, abuse, and marginalization that takes place alongside this progress. It is necessary for each of us to recognize our own responsibilities within this dichotomy and the part we play in either fostering progress through connections with others or perpetuating disconnection by resorting to easy labels of “us” and “them” and leaving these girls in the margins.  

“We are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence because, as we say in our African idiom, a person is a person through other persons,” Desmond Tutu said in No Future Without Forgiveness. “To dehumanize another inexorably means that one is dehumanized as well.” Dehumanization can be as simple as choosing to ignore the marginalization of a girl who is showing signs of neglect or abuse. Inversely, honoring her humanity can begin by acknowledging her individuality and demonstrating the inherent hope connected to her existence in her school, at home, and among her peers.

We must choose hope and commitment in recognizing and addressing these issues of marginalization and abuse faced by girls and young women. By acknowledging that the degradation of their dignity is inextricably bound up with our own humanity, we will begin to reverse this trend. Advocating for community-based alternatives to detention, choosing to be a mentor to a girl, volunteering at an after school tutoring program, or teaching empowerment through sports are all ways in which we can uphold the dignity of girls in our communities. Providing a safe space for young women to grow and flourish is a high calling that we must respond to. We all depend upon it.

- Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC.