By Jeannette Y. Pai-Espinosa
This post is part of the JJDPA Mattersblog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA MattersAction Center, powered by SparkAction.
At the National Crittenton Foundation, we believe in the potential of all girls and young women, particularly those whose childhoods have been marked by persistent violence, abuse, neglect and family dysfunction. The obstacles they face can seem overwhelming, and yet we know that with the right combination of support, services and treatment, they can heal from complex trauma and break destructive generational cycles of poverty to build positive, safe and healthy lives.
Sadly, the responses of the systems with which these girls and young women are typically involved, particularly the juvenile justice system, can either “make” or “break” their chances of turning their lives around.
Approaches that assess and treat girls early in their involvement with juvenile justice, identify the root causes of the problems they are facing, and create interventions that are gender and culturally responsive and trauma-informed, go a long way toward supporting girls in their success. These girls have a chance to learn how to address their complex childhood trauma so they can become productive members of society.
The truth is that involvement with the juvenile justice system – for girls and for boys – is a wake up call for help. But the reality is that different factors drive girls and boys into the system.
In contrast, systems that treat girls as criminals and blame them for their behavior can do much more harm than good, as these behaviors are typically symptoms of the abuse, violence and neglect they experienced as children. This treatment re-traumatizes girls and places them in a downward spiral from which it is very difficult to recover. Girls whose trauma goes unaddressed become invisible to society, and marginalized from the American dream.
For girls, running away is quite often an attempt to escape sexual abuse by a parent, relative, family friend or foster parent, and yet it often leads to the girls being arrested. Similarly, truancy is often a symptom of a chaotic home environment in which survival must be their priority, which often leads to poor school attendance that can lead to arrest. It is true that some young women end up in the juvenile justice system for aggressive behavior – but this is the exception not the rule. For girls, early assessment and holistic services and supports that address the factors that drive girls into the system, build their resilience, and support them in healing from trauma would keep the vast majority of girls out of the juvenile justice system.
What We Can Do Now
This year, Congress may reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), the nation's landmark juvenile justice law. This presents a critical opportunity to take what we know about helping system-involved girls and make it a reality. While the importance of gender responsiveness has always been a hallmark of the JJDPA, there is very little evidence of this at work in too many states and communities. Much more can be done to ensure that girls get the right help at the right time and in the right place in all communities across the country.
Fortunately, there is strong consensus in the field about how the JJDPA can be strengthened to insure that all youth, including girls, get the help they need to heal and thrive. Together with the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy and the Human Rights Project for Girls, we have organized a series of meetings on marginalized girls, one of which was focused on state efforts to meet the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system. This meeting resulted in a comprehensive report – Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States – on the issues facing girls and recommendations to strengthen the juvenile justice response.