In a searing report recently produced and published through the auspices of Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, the authors expose the ways in which “we criminalize girls — especially girls of color — who have been sexually and physically abused”, and offers policy recommendations to break the links to the prison pipeline.
The report demonstrates with haunting examples and lots of statistics just how girls are not treated as the victims they are, but as the perpetrators, resulting in 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. The system is stacked against them; the report hopes to “illuminate both the problem and potential solutions as the first step toward ending the cycle of victimization-to-imprisonment for marginalized girls.”
There is no way I can summarize this report in 550 words; I urge anyone interested in knowing more about how the system we think of a protecting our youth (Child Protective Services, juvenile corrections, etc.) actually further victimizes and stigmatizes them, leading to untold trauma and dysfunction, leading often to suicide.
From the report: 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. 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.
Want more? 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.
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.
According to a study conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth report being physically abused, 38 percent report being emotionally abused, and 17 percent report being forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member. Research has consistently shown that girls’ problem behavior, in contrast to that of boys’, “commonly relates to an abusive and traumatizing home life.” Self-reports by female offenders support these findings, in which girls “are significantly more likely than males to report that victimization was a key factor leading to their offending.”
So, what can be done? There are laws already on the books at the national level — and in some states– that mandate better treatment and alternatives to incarceration for girls in these situations. However, there has been little interest in funding these programs or in training front line staff how better to respond. Enforcement of these laws is lax, perpetuating the abuse. This report tries to draw attention to the problem so we all can press our legislators to support funding for the programs now on the books, and implementation of the policy changes necessary to end the pipeline to prison phenomena.
The whole report is available on line at the Georgetown website.