Correction: The original article contained an incorrectly cited statistic. The Survey of Youth in Residential Placement reported that 35 percentnot 44 percentof girls in custody had a history of sexual abuse. The error has been corrected in the revised article below. Article Revised 11/1/12.The daughter of drug-addicted parents, Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew spent her childhood in and out of 14 foster homes, until the age of 10, when she met a man who said he would care for her and love her. The opposite turned out to be the case.
For 7 years, she was sex trafficked in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington, and threatened with death if she did not comply. She was arrested on prostitution charges, incarcerated twice, and put into solitary confinement.
With the help of a court-appointed advocate, T was able to leave sex trafficking and the juvenile justice system behind. Today, at age 23, she is a nationally recognized youth advocate and member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Project for Girls.
T told her story at the fall meeting of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, where council members from agencies across the federal government heard testimony from young women who survived abuse and then were caught up in the juvenile justice system, as well as a range of experts in the fields of juvenile justice, health, social services, public policy, and the law. The discussions focused on the risk factors that lead girls into the juvenile justice system, pathways to success, and policies and practices at the local, state, and federal levels in need of reform to better meet girls' needs. Lawanda Ravoira, director of OJJDP's National Girls Institute, moderated the discussions.
Human Rights Project for Girls
OJJDP's Girls Study Group has found that, although a number of delinquency risk factorssuch as family conflict, low academic achievement, disengagement from school, and a lack of community-based programsaffect both boys and girls, others are specifically associated with girls. These risk factors include a history of sexual abuse, early onset of puberty, depression, and anxiety. Studies of girls who are chronic runaways document significant levels of prior sexual and physical victimization. This makes them vulnerable to subsequent victimization, including being trafficked and sexually exploited, and may lead them to engage in illegal behaviors such as theft and drug use.
"We've done a good job of clarifying the school-to-prison pipeline," said Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls. "But the school-to-prison pipeline is really a boy's story. The story for girls is located more often in sexual and physical violence. I hope that today marks the beginning of a better understanding of who girls are and what they need as girls."OJJDP's Survey of Youth in Residential Placement shows that 42 percent of girls in custody have experienced past physical abuse, as compared with 22 percent for boys; 35 percent have a history of sexual abuse, as compared with 8 percent for boys.
"We need to better understand the full context of why girls end up in the juvenile justice system," said Jeannette Pai-Espinosa, president of the National Crittenton Foundation. "Many of them need support services—and intervention as early as possible."
If they enter the juvenile justice system, many girls are further marginalized by services and programs traditionally designed for boys. The juvenile justice system often lacks reproductive health, pregnancy, and parenting services as well as trauma-informed care for victims of sexual exploitation and other forms of child abuse.
Dr. Barbara Guthrie
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs/Associate Professor
Yale School of Nursing
"If we look at how girls move through the system, and how dollars move through the system, these two things are at odds," said Dr. Barbara Guthrie, associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor, Yale School of Nursing.
Francine Sherman, clinical professor and director of Boston College Law School's Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, emphasized the importance of comprehensive data collection and analysis to quantify gender bias in the juvenile justice system and urged the federal government to encourage and assist jurisdictions in this effort. "Local jurisdictions should be required to focus their data collection activities on those areas where we know there is gender bias; and this data should be cross-referenced with racial data," she said. Dr. Guthrie cited statistics showing that African American girls are three times more likely, Latinas one to two times more likely, and American Indian/Alaska Native girls four times more likely to be incarcerated than are white girls.
Ms. Ravoira recommended that the federal government develop standards and guidelines that encourage states and localities to fully expunge juvenile justice records, which often can hamper girls' ability to pursue vocational and educational opportunities once they leave the juvenile justice system.
With the appropriate supports and social services, many girls who are victims of trauma find their way to productive and fulfilling lives. At the Coordinating Council meeting, Danielle De Land, 36, shared her success story. As a child, Danielle experienced severe physical abuse at the hands of her father. "By age 14, my life was a prison," she said. "I did not want to be alive anymore." After being removed from her home, she went to live at a National Crittenton Foundation facility, where she was encouraged to build skills, break destructive cycles, and become a powerful agent of change in her life. "If it wasn't for the nonstop support I received, I would have ended up a statistic." Today, Danielle is proud to report that she is a fitness instructor, barista, and part-time DJ.
Information about OJJDP's National Girls Institute, Girls Study Group publication series, and Survey of Youth in Residential Placement is available online. To learn more about evidence-based gender-specific programming, visit OJJDP's Model Programs Guide.
To access the Coordinating Council's meeting materials on girls' risk factors and needs, visit the council's Web site.