Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2009

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Responding to Girls' Needs

Improving outcomes for at-risk girls through gender-specific programming

By Sorrel Concodora

Cynthia (Cynthia's name has been changed to protect her identity) is 17 years old, but has already been subjected to many experiences that are well beyond her years. She does not speak much of her mother, other than to say that she's a drug addict who lives many states away from her. She lived with her father and stepmother until she was 14 years old. Cynthia and her older sister both endured serious physical abuse from their father, who beat them for small things like not turning off a light or not making coffee. But the last time Cynthia's father beat her, he also shaved her head and eyebrows; she says he did it so that she "wouldn't be attractive to boys." Cynthia attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. "The doctor said it should have killed me, [but] I survived," she remembers. She told her best friend that if she continued to live at home, she would attempt suicide again. Her concerned friend reported this to a school resource officer and Cynthia was placed in a foster home.

When she stole from her foster parent, Cynthia moved to a therapeutic group home for troubled girls and eventually ran away. She became pregnant by an abusive boyfriend and lived in homes for pregnant girls. She decided to give her daughter up for adoption. "I wanted her to have good parents and lots of happiness, so I made the hardest decision of my life," she says. Cynthia then lived in more therapeutic group homes for 10 months before being placed in a foster home. "My foster mom seems to understand me," she says of her new home. "I hope to stay there for a long time."

Cynthia is one of many girls who find themselves in or at risk of being involved with the juvenile justice system. At first glance, statistics show that the system is still dominated by males, who in 2007 accounted for 71% of approximately 1.6 million juvenile arrests, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. But in the last decade, as juvenile arrests decreased overall, the number of female arrests decreased less than that of males. With this disproportionate decrease, the media and the public have been turning attention towards girls like Cynthia: girls who were once victims of abuse, girls who enter the juvenile justice system with incredibly low self esteem, and girls who have special health needs.

Girls Study Group

In 2004, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention convened the Girls Study Group, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners who would work together to develop a comprehensive research foundation for understanding and responding to girls' involvement in delinquency.

Through a competitive process, RTI International was selected to lead the Girls Study Group Project. The group includes experts from the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, and gender studies, as well as legal practitioners and girls' program development coordinators.
    The Girls Study Group research consists of:
  • Reviewing literature on girls' delinquency.
  • Analyzing secondary datasets.
  • Assessing programs that target female delinquents.
  • Reviewing risk assessment and treatment-focused instruments for delinquent girls.
For more information about the Girls Study Group, see

Source: Zahn, M., Hawkins, S., Chiancone, J., & Whitworth, A. (2008). The Girls Study Group-Charting the Way to Deliquency Prevention for Girls. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The connection between child maltreatment and juvenile delinquency is especially evident in female delinquents. For example, over recent years in Delaware, 73% of the girls receiving services from the state's juvenile justice system had current or prior involvement with the state's child protection system, according to the Delaware Girls Initiative. Nationwide, various jurisdictions report similar numbers, some showing as many as 88-95% of girls involved with the juvenile justice system are victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Cynthia's life began to turn around when she received gender-responsive treatment, which takes into account the specific needs of girls. It is unlike the traditional intervention and treatment programs based on research focused primarily on boys. In an effort to provide better services and outcomes for girls like Cynthia, jurisdictions nationwide are delivering gender-responsive services. These programs and initiatives do not just respond to the "delinquent act," but also recognize a girl's unique "pathway" into the system, the context of her delinquency or at-risk behavior, and individual and developmental needs. Gender-responsive programming does not diminish responsibility or excuse criminal behavior, but rather encourages a girl to learn about herself, respect who she is, and lead towards self-love, responsibility, and accountability. Services and support are provided to ensure a successful transition out of the juvenile justice system and, eventually, into adulthood.

Cynthia has been involved with a gender-responsive program at Florida's PACE Center for Girls for the past two years. She is currently working toward earning her GED and hopes to become a graphic designer. Outside of academic and career goals, Cynthia says, "One thing I am very sure of is that I will never be shy and quiet anymore. I will always stand up for myself and never let anyone hit me again."

Responding to victimization and creating safe places

In Delaware, there was a growing concern among youth stakeholders about the unmet needs of the increasing number of girls entering the juvenile justice system. In 2005, a task force prioritized at-risk and delinquent girls and began the formation of the Delaware Girls Initiative (DGI); the task force developed a plan to implement a gender-responsive continuum of services. The coalition now includes numerous child advocates (including judges, public and private providers, legislators, and educators) and fulfills DGI's objectives and goals through advocacy, trainings, system collaboration, increasing public and community awareness, and implementing data-driven services and programs for girls.

Denise Bray provides consultation, training, and technical assistance for DGI and has worked within gender-specific treatment and programming in more than 30 states. Through Bray's experience, she knows that "you have to look at a girl's story." Bray encourages professionals working with delinquent or at-risk girls to be trauma-informed and responsive to the root causes of a girl's behavior, remembering she is "having a human response to the horrific things she has endured." The way a girl may respond to neglect, maltreatment, and abuse can also be a precursor to behaviors that put her at-risk of endangering herself and potentially entering the juvenile justice system. "The critical element is building trust, viewing them as courageous, listening to their stories, and giving them opportunities to heal and grow with time," Bray explains.

Girls' responses to victimization vary, but can include disruptive behavior, low academic achievement, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, or leaving home to get away from an abuser. These reactions not only make girls susceptible to endangerment, but also put them at risk of committing status offenses-criminal acts that are only relevant to minors-such as truancy, underage drinking, and running away, or criminal offenses, such as assault, prostitution, and drug possession. (In 2007, girls only outnumbered boys in two juvenile arrest categories nationally: "prostitution and commercialized vice" and "runaways," as 77% and 56% of these cases, respectively, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.) Bray has worked with many girls who entered the juvenile justice for status offenses. "Status offenses are not detainable charges, but violation of probations are," she says. "Girls enter detention this way and subsequently penetrate the system more deeply by being placed in male-model programs that do not address their complex issues."

In 2007, DGI developed a reference guide, A Care Management Guide for Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Professionals, of best practices for all professionals who provide care management services to girls. To meet girls' unique needs, the practices are based around six "developmental domains" as described by DGI: physical, sexual, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual. However, all of these best practices begin with creating a "safe place," both physically and emotionally. A conflict with a safety issue can easily hinder the therapeutic process. DGI best practices suggest single-gender programs that offer girls "space that is physically safe, removed from those who depend on them, and removed from the attention of adolescent males" are the most effective. An important part of creating a safe place is having caregivers who are aware of their roles in such an environment. "Caregivers must be mindful of how they use their personal power," Bray says. "Programs that utilize 'power and control' approaches are counterproductive and reinforce dynamics of abuse."

Building relationships through self-esteem and empowerment

In San Francisco, the Center for Young Women's Development (CYWD) offers several programs to young women who are incarcerated, engage in criminal or delinquent behavior, or are transitioning out of the criminal system. This program's unique structure serves women age 24 and younger through peer-led intervention and treatment. CYWD also encourages young women to "move beyond survival" and to become leaders, advocates, and sources of support for others involved in the criminal systems. The majority of the young women who now work for CYWD had personal experience in the juvenile or criminal justice systems and began their relationship with CYWD as clients receiving support or services.

Pathway of Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

1 Have experienced one or more forms of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse
2 Experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder
3 Have current or past sexually transmitted disease
4 60-80% of girls need substance abuse treatment

Source: Ravoria, L. (2008). Fact Sheet: Girls in Juvenile Justice. Oakland, CA: National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Available online at

Through CYWD's Girls Detention Advocacy Project, incarcerated girls can voluntarily receive a variety of services. CYWD conducts workshops in the young women and girls unit of a San Francisco-based youth detention center. The curriculum, called "Lift Us Up, Don't Lock Us Down," covers topics including self-care, self-advocacy, political education, and cultural history. This curriculum reoccurs on a three-month basis and encourages young women and girls with long detention sentences, or who have cycled back into detention, to become mentors and teachers of the curriculum along with CYWD staff. CYWD provides one-on-one support, court accompaniment, and case advocacy for young women facing California Youth Authority commitment or trial as adults.

Cassaundra James, Coordinator of CYWD's Girls Detention Advocacy Project, says that while the hundreds of girls who participate in the program have unique experiences, many of them are suffering from low self-esteem and depression. In response to this commonality, CYWD services are embedded with healing components that address low self-esteem and encourage healthy self-growth. "We get to the root of the problem. We don't stay at the surface," James says. She goes on to say that many girls may not be receptive to services "if they haven't even dealt with some of the issues that brought them to the point they are at now."

CYWD's 'sister circles' are offered to young women exiting detention and reentering the community. By combining weekly healing circles and community-building activities, formerly incarcerated young women are able to build a community of support that helps keep them off the streets and out of the criminal system. Conversation about the issues young women face trying to stay out of the system also guides each woman toward "loving herself and loving other women," James says, "because often enough, girls walk through the door saying, 'I don't get along with other females' or, 'She deserves that, she shouldn't dress like that,' and have a lot of internalized oppression."

Helping girls find their 'spirit'

The PACE (Practical Academic Cultural Education) Center for Girls is celebrating nearly 25 years of community-based services. In 17 locations throughout Florida, PACE provides gender-responsive prevention, diversion, and early intervention services to girls who are at-risk or involved with Florida's Juvenile Justice System. Girls voluntarily enter and participate in the program, but involvement is often highly recommended by the juvenile justice and school systems as an alternate to more drastic alternatives, such as expulsion or incarceration. Nationwide, PACE is recognized as a leader in helping girls achieve academic success, while also decreasing their likelihood of entering or re-entering the juvenile justice or adult criminal systems. Among other accolades, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Girl's Study Group recognizes PACE as the most effective program in the nation for keeping adolescent girls out of the juvenile justice system (see sidebar for more on the Girl's Study Group).

PACE Centers are not residential and operate in cooperation with local school boards to provide fully accredited academic education to girls, ages 12 to 18, while also providing individualized attention, counseling, and gender-specific life management curriculum. Sally Zeh, Executive Director of PACE's Pinellas County Center, says the majority of the girls are "struggling at school and often having family issues." Last year, almost 40% of the girls served had already had some involvement with the juvenile justice system, but most girls are at-risk of criminally offending or dropping out of school. All girls have been identified as dependent, truant, runaway, delinquent, or in need of academic services.

Every girl at PACE is actively involved in setting her own educational and social goals, such as earning a high school diploma or GED, re-entering public school, attending college, getting vocational training, joining the military, or entering the private workforce. But in addition to academic services, Zeh says that PACE "creates an environment where girls can make positive life changes." All girls in the program are assigned a counselor and an academic advisor, and specialized therapy is pro-vided to victims of sexual, physi-cal, or emotional abuse. All girls in the program also receive a gender-responsive life skills curriculum, called Spirited Girls.

The Spirited Girls curriculum is divided by various gender-specific issues intended to create successful experiences daily, which will carry into a successful adulthood. Health and wellness topics cover important issues such as healthy eating, pregnancy, sexual health, body image, sexual identity, stress management, and the importance of quiet personal time. Interpersonal aspects of the curriculum review components of healthy relationships, the dangers of gossip and bullying, and how to effectively communicate and be heard in a way that is respectful to the girls and to others. Other Spirited Girls topics include cultural education and appreciation, balancing a checkbook, and how to create a resume. But Zeh finds that one of the most powerful components interlaced throughout it all is hope. "We offer girls hope for the future we believe in them until they can believe in themselves," she says. "They learn that success is possible, that change is possible, and that every day is a new beginning."

Building relationships and believing in each girl

Perhaps one of the most important common elements among gender-responsive programming is the opportunity to give girls a chance and believing in them. Zeh has asked girls in the PACE program what they have enjoyed, and they often report that it's building a personal relationship with at least one staff person who "looks forward to seeing them every day-whether or not they come to school-and cares that they are there." Zeh continues that through "the relationships our girls develop with staff and community partners, they learn they are someone special, they are valued, and they are loved." PACE's philosophy is to provide support for girls into adulthood as long as it is needed. "Once a PACE girl, always a PACE girl," Zeh says.

This philosophy carries over into many gender-res-ponsive programs. Janisha, a 20-year-old now in training to become a dental hygienist, benefitted from CYWD's services while she was incarcerated in her teens. Her future is bright, but her past is laced with memories of criminal acts and multiple incarcerations. Remembering the ups and downs she experienced before finally turning her life around, she advises people working with young women at-risk or involved with the juvenile justice system to have patience. It took several years for Janisha to fully take advantage of CYWD's services and turn her life around. "You might work with some girls who are hard to work with, but don't give up on them," she says. "There will be a breakthrough sooner or later."

Sorrel Concodora is Program Coordinator of CWLA's Juvenile Justice Division.

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