U.S. House hearing on problems for girls in juvenile justice system

Surveys from multiple states have found that girls in the juvenile justice system have disproportionately been victims of sexual abuse prior to their incarceration, according to The New York Times.

The report was prepared by the Human Rights Project for Girls with the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women.

A 2009 South Carolina study found that 81 percent of girls in a juvenile detention facility reported a history of sexual violence. A 2006 Oregon study said 76 percent of girls in their system had experienced at least one incident of sexual abuse by the age of 13.

According to the report:

These findings are particularly significant in light of a recent study that found that traumatic exposure before high school is an even stronger predictor of girls’ delinquency than such exposure during high school.

One of the problems, as noted in the report, is that mental health screenings are often not administered to girls by licensed professionals as they enter the juvenile justice system.

They cite a U.S. Department of Justice report that says half of all the youths in the juvenile justice system are at facilities that don’t conduct mental health assessments of every resident.

The report quotes Nadiyah Shereff, who was locked up 10 times in a two-year period at a juvenile detention facility:

I felt completely disconnected from my family, from friends; and the counselors inside offered no support for the real problems I was facing. I felt like nobody believed that I could actually do something positive with my life — especially the staff inside the facilities, who treated me like a case number, not like a person.

The most common crimes that girls are arrested for are also the most common symptoms of abuse. That includes running away, substance abuse and truancy, according to the report.

According to the Times story:

Among the report’s recommendations are to expand mental health and trauma services for girls in the juvenile system and to prohibit the arrest and prosecution of girls younger than 18 on prostitution charges.

Some states, including Minnesota, have “safe harbor” laws under which juveniles are not prosecuted but are instead treated as victims of sex trafficking. Police agencies in most states, however, continue to arrest underage girls.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, introduced a safe harbor law, Senate Bill 851, which was referred to the Judiciary Committee in May, where it remains.

Reach Eric Holmberg at 412-315-0266 or at eholmberg@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @holmberges.

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