We Must Decriminalize Trauma for Girls with Histories of Abuse or Neglect

Girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system is growing disproportionately at a time when arrest rates for boys are declining. And yet, girls’ behavior has not changed; rather, our response to their behavior has changed. This is especially true for girls in the child welfare system.

Much has been written recently about the “pathways” that lead youth, especially girls of color, from histories of childhood abuse and/or neglect to involvement with the juvenile justice system. We are starting to better understand the ways in which childhood exposure to trauma can lead to survival strategies and behaviors that are criminalized, while child welfare system involvement can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in law enforcement contact for youth who otherwise would have had none.

Our bodies are finely honed to respond to stress and danger in particular ways — through fight, flight or freeze. With chronic exposure to stress and danger, we develop survival mechanisms based on our evolutionary responses. These survival techniques include:

  • hypervigilance: constant scanning of the environment for threat;
  • exaggerated startle: moving to action quickly;
  • dissociation: a means of trying to cope with overwhelming stimulation; and
  • distrust of authority since the majority of trauma happens at the hands of authority figures.

These strategies help us survive trauma, but outside the traumatic context, they can lead to conflict with others, distractibility, noncompliance and disrupted relationships. In other words, and as described below, the very behaviors we need to help us survive can become “problematic” and criminalized.

Girls are disproportionately exposed to sexual trauma and sexual assault, usually at the hands of a caregiver or someone they know well. This type of experience can fundamentally change girls’ ideas about relationships, their bodies and the world.

For some who have experienced this type of abuse, oppositionality, aggression, self-harm and substance abuse are actually adaptive ways to protect oneself and deal with relationships, authority and the body. However, these coping mechanisms may often get them into trouble. Research has found a strong link between stimulant use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women, suggesting that women are often trying to self-medicate the distressing and disorganizing symptoms of PTSD.

[Related: Traumatized, Locked Up, LA Girls Starting to Get More Help]

Research consistently shows that exposure to one trauma increases the likelihood that a person will experience another trauma. Such polyvictimization can lead to youth’s expression of further PTSD symptoms and traumatized behaviors. We also know that polyvictimized youth are more likely to experiment with substance use, self-harm and risky sexual behavior, which may increase law enforcement contact.

Youth who enter the child welfare system due to childhood abuse face additional challenges. Involvement with the child welfare system itself can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in juvenile justice involvement.

Pre-existing traumatic stress may be amplified by removal from one’s family, disconnection from one’s community, separation from one’s siblings and frequent placement changes. Further, child welfare involvement itself may lead to juvenile justice involvement in several specific ways:

  1. Placement instability, experienced by many youth in child welfare, may lead youth to run to the streets where they are more likely to become involved in “survival crimes.”
  2. Similar to how schools often inappropriately refer youth to law enforcement rather than the principal, group home staff or foster parents often refer youth to law enforcement for normal behavior that would likely be handled through parental discipline for youth not in care.
  3. Child welfare youth are more likely to be sent to juvenile detention than community youth for similar offenses. This is particularly significant because once youth touch the juvenile justice system, they tend to get pulled in more deeply.

If we are to interrupt the “pathway” from a history of abuse and/or neglect to future juvenile justice involvement, we must consider both the impact of traumatic stress as well as the impact of system involvement. We must intervene on this pathway with a way out, rather than a way deeper in.

Our current criminalization of trauma-linked behaviors has shown no evidence of healing or transformation; instead, it serves to pull these girls deeper into systems that are inadequate to meet their needs and that may exacerbate underlying trauma even further.  We must develop alternatives that promote resiliency so that youth who experience childhood abuse and/or neglect can heal and thrive.

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