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Children's Voice Article, January/February, 2005

Growing Girls for Greatness

Arizona's girls speak up and offer insights into the state of girls in the juvenile justice system.
By Linda Volhein, Angela Luck, Maria Garin Jones, and Amanda Hirsh

Imagine an America where all girls and young women are safe, healthy, thriving, and ready to realize their full potential as productive, contributing citizens.
Two years ago, a small group of Florence Crittenton agency directors, staff from the Child Welfare League of America, and other stakeholders launched an ambitious project that would make this vision a reality. 1  Designed to increase public discourse about the strengths, needs, and potential of girls, the National Girls Initiative is a comprehensive strategy to prioritize the positive development, health, and well-being of girls and young women in the United States.
With the National Girls Initiative (NGI) as a springboard, a group of professionals working with girls in Arizona's juvenile justice system launched the Arizona Girls Initiative (AZGI). They set out to both capture the momentum of NGI and add to it by contributing to the body of knowledge about programs for girls and developing a strategy that could be replicated by other states interested in improving services for girls, with a specific emphasis on juvenile justice.

A Focus on Arizona's Girls

Teenage girls. Their favorite thing to do is hang out with their friends, they worry about how they look and what other people think of them, and they see the world in black and white. These have been universal themes for generations of girls. There is, however, so much more to the story, particularly for girls involved with the juvenile justice system.
Over the last decade, the number of girls arrested and incarcerated has increased tremendously. From 1992 to 1996, the number of girls arrested for violent crimes increased 25%, and the number arrested for property crimes increased 21%, while the number of boys arrested for the same types of crimes stayed the same or decreased. 2   The growing number of girls in the juvenile justice system has been the catalyst for a widening debate about their unique treatment needs and the best way to meet those needs.
Because boys historically have outnumbered girls within the juvenile justice system, most treatment programs and interventions are designed to meet the needs of boys. As the number of girls in the system increases, however, so does the imperative to develop programs specifically designed to build on girls' strengths and meet their unique treatment needs.

AZGI hired Copia Consulting in Austin, Texas, to conduct focus groups in each of Arizona's 15 counties. A broad group of stakeholders--including elected and law enforcement officials, private service providers, juvenile justice policy leaders, administrators, and practitioners--were invited to attend these focus groups and talk about their experiences as they relate to the needs, challenges, and resources for girls in their communities.

Focus groups were held in small rural towns and big cities in every corner of the state. Participants answered a variety of questions, some of which were designed to identify the level of awareness, knowledge, and resources that existed in the community. Other questions were based on the policy, program, and practice levels of the juvenile justice system and were designed to elicit information about barriers to gender-specific programming, existing resources and best practices, and the available infrastructure for a comprehensive continuum of gender-specific services.

What the Girls Have to Say

In addition to hearing from the experts, AZGI wanted to hear from girls themselves, so Copia created a secure link to its website in the form of an Internet web log--or blog. Girls from all levels of the system--probation and parole, institutions, and community-based programs, and ranging from ages 12 to 18--were invited to respond to 25 questions about their lives, their feelings, and their deepest secrets and wishes. Some 150 girls responded, offering insights into their needs, fears, and dreams.

The results are extensive and, in many ways, confirm current research about girls and their learning styles, emotional needs, and cognitive patterns. Their feedback extended far beyond the usual and typical, however, and revealed a dimension of their lives that must be recognized and accommodated within treatment and rehabilitation programs if we ever hope to realize the dreams of this generation of girls.

Some of the questions included:
  • What are you most afraid of?
  • Who is the most important person in your life?
  • What is the one thing about you most people don't know?
  • What do you most look forward to?
  • If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
  • What might have kept you out of the juvenile justice system?
Several key themes emerged from their answers:
  • Substance abuse has wreaked havoc on their families' and their own lives.

  • The girls have strong desires to be close to their families and to be good parents to their own children.

  • The girls are hopeful about their futures and still hold to lofty dreams about a different kind of life for themselves.

  • Relationships with family, friends, and other significant adults are of primary importance to these girls.

  • The girls have suffered enormous trauma that has not been resolved, affecting every aspect of their lives.
Sadly, most of the girls felt nothing could have kept them out of the juvenile justice system. When they provided reasons, they focused primarily on wishing their families had been different and their parents had provided more discipline, expected more of them, and offered more positive support.

Responses about school and future academic plans were also significant. Girls most often indicated they were not engaged or challenged by school and that their favorite thing about school was the opportunity to be with their friends before classes, during lunch, and after school. They feared they were so behind because of their involvement in the system that they would never catch up and never graduate. When asked about their future plans and dreams, however, most girls envisioned themselves going to college, becoming doctors and lawyers, and enjoying successful lives.

The girls' responses confirmed many research-based characteristics, primarily that they were concerned about body image, that most had suffered violence and sexual abuse, and that they lacked positive relationships with good male role models. In fact, of 150 responses, only eight girls identified a male figure as the most important person in their lives.

By far, however, the most significant and surprising finding has to do with what the girls are most afraid of and what they worry about the most. Overwhelmingly, more than 85% fear death and dying above all else; they fear their own deaths, the deaths of their parents, the deaths of their own children, and the deaths of their friends. They also are terrified of being alone and being abandoned by those they love. They feel perpetually unsafe and are afraid of the dark.

Grief and loss, and the tremendous anxiety that arises from that loss, color all things in their lives, rendering them virtually incapable of moving beyond it. Girls talked about suicide, the depths of their depression, and losing loved ones in their lives. They revealed stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape--many of which they had not revealed even to their closest friends.

Interestingly, though, the girls' awareness about death, dying, depression, and grief has escaped most professionals who work with them. Asked to identify the top five things they believed girls were concerned about, focus group participants, without exception, did not name these issues.

After participants had given their answers, the facilitators shared the girls' responses. It created a new awareness and sensitivity about gender-specific programming. Many participants pledged to return to their programs and make immediate changes based on the information they learned in the focus groups.

The girls' responses provide insight into gender-specific programming:
Loss and trauma. The girls have experienced intense loss and multiple traumas in their lives, most of which have never been resolved. This is a key consideration for practitioners and program developers, who must realize that until girls get help to resolve those traumas and losses, they will not be able to master the skills that are so important to their success--social and problem-solving skills, prevocational and vocational skills--or achieve their educational goals.

Relationships. Girls' relationships are of primary importance in their own development. They need time and opportunity to develop those relationships and gain the sense of well-being that arises from them. In contrast, the trend in juvenile justice has been programs based on a 16-hour structured day, leaving little time for building relationships. This typically works well for boys, who tend to seek out activities such as basketball and other sports for their relationship-building needs, but leaves girls without the time they need for conversation and one-to-one interaction. Programs and institutions must be open to creating different opportunities for girls to meet this need for personal connection.

Education and the future. Responses from the girls about school and their dreams about future academic and personal success reveal an important gap in their thinking. Although they tend not to be engaged in school, and they fear they cannot catch up and will never complete their education, they also believe almost unanimously that they will graduate from college and move on to professional careers. This poses a significant challenge for education and programming, for although girls certainly have the ambition and the dream of attaining a college degree, the bridge between their current realities and that goal does not exist. The field must develop the tools that will enable them to bridge that gap.

Fears. The girls revealed a great deal about their fears of being alone and being in the dark. Many juvenile institutions and detention centers, however, place girls in single cells in which the lights are turned off at night and the doors to their rooms are locked. Institutions must recognize the extent to which girls' anxieties are fueled by their environmental conditions and develop programs that meet gender-specific needs, beginning with the bricks and mortar.
Also significant in the girls' feedback is what they did not say. Not a single girl discussed self-mutilation or cutting, eating disorders, or gang activities, despite the fact these behaviors are endemic among the population. Our conclusion, and our greatest fear, is that the reason has nothing to do with shame and secrecy, but rather is just the opposite. We believe these behaviors have become so normalized among girls in the juvenile justice system and within the general population that they don't view them as related to their mental health. They are just behaving as so many girls do, equating their self-hatred with popular cultural values and mores.

This feedback creates a snapshot of 150 girls talking about their experiences in their young lives, and their challenges in creating a different reality for themselves. Amazingly, despite the traumas they have endured, the girls are very hopeful--they have big dreams and a strong desire to do the right thing. They want to be good mothers and learn from their mistakes.

Do we dare imagine an America where all girls and young women are safe, healthy, thriving, and ready to realize their full potential? An entire generation of girls depends upon our willingness to engage our heads, our hearts, and our hands to respond to their needs appropriately. We must raise our awareness about the unique needs of girls, develop innovative means to meet those needs, and engage the support and commitment of communities, from policymakers to families themselves, in the effort to establish the value of the lives of girls.

Linda Volhein is Executive Director of Florence Crittenton of Arizona. Angela Luck is a partner in Copia Consulting LLC. Maria Garin Jones is Director of Youth Services for CWLA. Amanda Hirsh is Crittenton and Youth Services Program Manager at CWLA. For information on AZGI, contact Linda Volhein at lvolhein@flocrit.org. For more information about NGI, contact Amanda Hirsh at girlsinitiative@cwla.org.

The National Girls Initiative

Girls and young women develop in unique and powerful ways. They have distinct strengths and needs that require a specialized focus when working in their behalf. Recognizing this, CWLA developed the National Girls Initiative (NGI), a comprehensive strategy for promoting the positive development of girls and young women in the United States.

In 2003, CWLA convened a symposium in which professionals from a variety of disciplines came together with young women to share their insights and expertise and identify issues, gaps in services, and effective practices. The proceedings from that symposium identified current issues and highlighted recommendations to improve the work of professionals and stakeholders who work in their behalf. These recommendations were critical in shaping NGI's direction.

NGI's activities include
  • convening a national conference, the National Girls Initiative/Florence Crittenton Roundtable, January 5-7, 2005, in Scottsdale, Arizona, to bring together professionals and stakeholders across multiple child- and youth-serving systems to promote gender-competent policies and programs for young women;

  • creating a national network of stakeholders who work with and for girls and young women that provides a vehicle to inform the field about promising programs, effective practices, and current research;

  • developing an advisory board of experts from different specialties that will work with CWLA to develop proposed action steps from the symposium and national conference and help guide NGI's direction;

  • establishing a web-based clearinghouse with information about federal and state resources and effective practices and promising programs;

  • developing a national and local advocacy agenda that increases the dialogue and educates policymakers and the public about the strengths and needs of girls and young women;

  • developing a position statement on policies, research, training, programs, and practices that support the optimal development of girls and young women;

  • increasing training and education for communities, practitioners, policymakers, and elected officials, and developing and enhancing curricula and networks to provide gender-competent training and resources;

  • convening a girls study group of experts from various child- and family-serving fields to examine existing research and define new areas for research.
Notes
  1. The National Florence Crittenton Mission (NFCM) operates under a U.S. congressional charter and is responsible for administering the endowment funds established by Charles Crittenton. Founded by Crittenton in 1895 to help adolescent females who lived on the streets and teen mothers who lacked resources, NFCM is committed to providing financial and other support to organizations, especially historically named Florence Crittenton agencies, that empower at-risk girls, young women, and their families to become healthy, contributing members of society. Adolescent sexuality education, pregnancy prevention, parenting services, and family and individual counseling are just some of the services Florence Crittenton agencies provide. NFCM provides direct support to CWLA to serve as a resource and advocate to the Florence Crittenton agencies and the field.
  2. Kimberly Budnick and Ellen Shields-Fletcher. (1998). What About Girls? OJJDP Fact Sheet #84. Available online at www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles/fs-9884.pdf and www.ncjrs.org/txtfiles/fs-9884.txt. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.Focus groups were held in small rural towns and big cities in every corner of the state.

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