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As noted in Part I of this series, running away and sexual abuse are much more significant in the lives of girls than boys. Sexual abuse is particularly salient for girls and may well propel girls into behaviors such as running away from home or other status offenses. As already noted, girls are much more likely than boys to be the victims of childhood sexual abuse: it has been estimated that roughly 70 percent of the victims are female.

Girls’ sexual abuse usually starts earlier than boys’, is more likely to be perpetrated by family members (usually the father or the stepfather), and consequently lasts longer than that of boys. All these factors are associated with more severe trauma, causing dramatic short and long term effects in victims. The effects often noted by researchers include fear, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, and inappropriate sexual behavior,” as well as behaviors of greater familiarity to criminologists, such as running away from home, difficulties in school, truancy, and early marriage.

A recent detailed study used the Sexual Abuse Checklist and a modified version of the Sexual Experiences Survey (SES) for a survey of 391 women in a prison. The study found that 70 percent of the women reported at least one case of rape while half reported that they had been sexually abused as a child.

Another study of the backgrounds of adult women in prison revealed that most female offenders were victims of physical and/​or sexual abuse as youngsters: over 60 percent had been sexually abused, and about half had been raped. Their situations prompted them to run away from home (three fourths had been arrested on this and other status offense charges) and to engage in prostitution and petty property crimes for survival. Many also began what became lifetime problems with drugs. As adults, the women continued these activities because they possessed little education and almost no marketable occupational skills.

Research on girls in the juvenile justice system spanning four decades has consistently found a strong correlation between both physical and sexual abuse early in life and repeated appearances in juvenile court as they age.

A study of youth in a Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility found that girls are more likely than boys to have histories of neglect, sexual abuse, and also foster care placement; they also had more parents involved in the criminal justice system and relationships with older men, in addition to more drug use and self-injurious behaviors.

A profile of girls in the Illinois youth correctional system found that: Over half of these females had experienced either physical and/​or sexual abuse at least once in their lifetime. Over 95 percent of the females who reported physical, emotional, or verbal abuse and nearly three-quarters of the females reporting past sexual abuse reportedly knew their victimizers (e.g., family members, boyfriends, other relatives, etc.).” Not surprisingly these girls had many of the problems normally linked with abuse, such as school troubles (the report noted that 45% had been suspended at least once and 23% had dropped out), mental health issues (about 75% had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder), and suicide (38% had reported suicidal thoughts and more than 25% had attempted suicide). 

Finally, a report by Human Rights Watch on girls in the New York youth prison system also found the exact same background characteristics, noting in particular that their history of abuse may be the most significant underlying cause of behaviors leading to girls’ delinquency.”

Part III of this series will deal in some detail with the issue of girls who runaway.