Tanya Robinson’s time in juvenile detention started with the offense of running away.
She first ran away from home when she was seven years old, having been molested by her mother’s boyfriends for a year.
Stripped naked by and fleeing a beating from her mother, Robinson hurried into the bathroom and slipped out the window before her mother could open the door, covered her body with a T-shirt from a clothes line, and ran.
When she was 14 and still running, her mother took her to a South Carolina court as a runaway, and she was shackled and taken away.
Since Robinson, now 38, was a juvenile, the share of girls in detention has spiked more than 40%. Of those girls now in the US juvenile justice system, 84% have experienced family violence, according to new research.
Almost a third of those girls have been subject to in-home sexual abuse, according to a report from the National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center that looks at data from 1992 to 2012. Girls in the criminal justice system reported sexual abuse at nearly four and a half times the rate of boys.
Many of these girls have endured abuse or lived through otherwise adverse environments, and their rising population in the juvenile justice population may not be helping them.
“The literature is really clear that as a direct response and completely understandable response to this kind of environmental trauma, girls are more likely to run away, to fight at home, to use substances,” said Francine Sherman, report author and the clinical associate professor and director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School. “And these are direct pathways into the justice system.”
Once Robinson was detained at 14, she was subjected to a full cavity search, and put in a “cinder block of a cell with a thin mattress” for a week until she was released to her mother. “No one asked why I was running,” she said. “No one was willing to go to bat for me.”
While girls are less likely than boys to commit crimes that pose threats to other people, they are detained for the most minor offenses – such as probation violation and status offenses, which are crimes that, like running away, are only illegal for youths – at rates higher than boys. In 2013, while 37% of detained girls had committed status offenses or technical (probation) violations, only 25% of detained boys had committed the same offenses.
Twenty-one percent of girls were detained for simple assault (without weapons) and public order offenses (like loitering), compared to 12% of boys, the report said.
Abuse and other disruptions in the home, including poverty, may cause girls to react with behaviors that are illegal for youths, like running away or truancy, and punishments for these girls, as well-intentioned as they may be, can do more harm than good.
Girls accounted for 53% of runaway cases in 2011, and runaways are at risk not only for their own safety, but also for acquiring additional charges that emanate from time spent on the street.
Even traumatized girls who don’t run away are likely to exhibit behaviors that get them arrested.
“I have cases where girls were arrested in school because they’re dealing with a lot of issues and they can’t always sit in a seat when they’re supposed to,” said Mona Ingram, attorney in charge at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Lowell, Massachusetts. “Girls are very verbal, too, and get in a lot of trouble for things that they say rather than things that they do.” Not going to school means risking truancy, another offense that introduces girls to the criminal justice system.
According to the report, black girls are more likely to be targeted for behaviors such as speaking out of turn in school, and although more research needs to be done on race and gender, intersectional analysis shows “significant disparities disadvantaging black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Latina girls as they move through the system process face discrimination”.
Forty percent of girls in the juvenile justice system identify as LBQ/GNCT, and “likely” face discrimination at each decision point as well. Sherman said LBQ/GNCT juvenile justice involvements, like many other cases, often begin in the homes from which they run away.
Read More on [The Guardian]