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Programs for Girls in Juvenile Justice

As in the previous three editions of this book (dating back to 1992), there is still a lack of many innovative, effective programs for girls in trouble. A national survey by OJJDP back in 1998 indicated that there were just a few successful programs, most of which are very small and have little funding. Many evaluations of particular approaches do not deal with gender issues, and frequently the evaluated programs do not even serve girls. Further, programs that have been evaluated are often run in training schools – not the best setting to try out a particular strategy. Readers also might hope to see a more extensive consideration of promising, community-based programs for girls, but these have been few and far between.

Given recent increases in girls’ referrals to court, one might expect a parallel growth in programs to prevent girls from breaking the law in the first place, to divert them from penetration deep into the juvenile justice system and to respond to their needs and the causes of their illegal behavior. The increased use of detention, however, signals the lack of appropriate alternatives either before youths are adjudicated or after adjudication while they wait for community placements.

Multiple studies show that girls in the juvenile justice system search for adults to act as proxy family members who would provide care, safety and “someone to talk to,” on a continuing basis.

For this reason, as Francine Sherman reported, girls were most disappointed with probation officers (and others) who only paid attention to them when they failed to observe some rule or condition or made mistakes, who “just kept telling me what to do” but “didn’t help me,” and who threatened to lock them up. Based on what girls said in multiple states, Schaffner concluded that being listened to was the resource that girls most often requested.

The girls whom Sherman interviewed identified places where they did and did not find “someone to talk to.” They felt that mental health services in their communities were “safe” and staff treated “everyone like family.” But many girls cannot access such services. Girls who Schaffner studied also talked about the unavailability of counselors to discuss priorities with, to discuss control of temper, and to generally know “what is happening.” Mental health services may be available in some communities, but whether girls are locked up in facilities or not, the desired resources appear to be unattainable for many.

Girls specifically point to the lack of counseling for abuse, education about sex and sexuality, and services relevant to childbirth and parenting. Sherman’s multistate study showed that girls (along with judges and attorneys) felt that one of the most significant gaps in probation and community services for girls in trouble is education about sex and sexuality. The girls Sherman interviewed also talked about the lack of placements for girls with babies, and the lack of education on parenting.

There is often a mismatch between services needed and services delivered. An Arizona study found that probation officers sometimes just could not deliver or recommend resources that matched girls’ needs. For example, a pregnant girl with no stable place to live was referred to community service work and parenting classes. Another girl whose family was homeless had probation violations for not attending drug treatment and for not staying in contact with her probation officer. The probation officer suggested counseling. A probation officer explained that the “lower middle-class or working poor make $20,000 and don’t qualify for welfare or have medical benefits. They can’t pay $50 per hour for a counselor.” Minority neighborhoods were often located at too great a distance from services. Thus, a system of eligibility rules related to income, along with the location of services, created uneven availability of programs.

We continue to look everywhere for something new and different in girls programming, but often to no avail. However, there are a few innovative programs in existence. I will report on this in a subsequent blog.

This blog is taken from a chapter in a 4th edition of Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice by Meda Chesney-Lind and Randall G. Shelden (forthcoming from Wiley-Blackwell).

Keywords: girls, Juvenile justice, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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