Why Adverse Childhood Experiences Matter for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Although juvenile arrests in the US have decreased the past few decades, arrests for girls younger than 18 are up — yet there is little focus on the context behind this trend.

Both intervention programs and the criminal justice system are tailored to the needs of boys, neglecting the fact that girls typically enter the criminal justice system for different reasons than male peers. Throughout this piece, we’ll examine the data about girls and the justice system, the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), racial disparities, and solutions that may help create better outcomes for girls.

Girls and the justice system

According to a 2016 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), almost 30 percent of juveniles arrested are girls or young women, a trend steadily rising over the past 20 years. The report notes, “often girls of color and girls living in poverty, they are victims of violence, including physical and sexual abuse. They are typically nonviolent and pose little or no risk to public safety. And their involvement with the juvenile justice system usually does more harm than good.”

According to Dr. Shabnam Javdani, assistant professor of Applied Psychology at NYU Steinhardt, understanding what factors influence girls’ behaviors that lead to arrests could help keep them out of the juvenile justice system. In a recent article by Counseling@NYU, which offers an online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt, Javdani highlighted these dynamics: “Many of the youth, both boys and girls, involved in the legal system have trauma histories, but [some] girls have much more complex and much more severe histories of trauma.”

ACEs Too High defines ACEs as childhood experiences that harm children’s developing brains and lead to changes in their stress responses later in life. ACEs can also cause damage to their immune systems, causing signs to show up decades later. A report from The National Crittenton Foundation concurs, specifically highlighting ACEs that affect girls in the juvenile justice system — with the top three being family violence; parental separation or divorce; and the incarceration of a household member. Many of these girls are also affected by other serious issues, such as sexual abuse and neglect, that often contribute to the behaviors that put them at risk for entering the criminal justice system.

The impact of race

While statistics have long supported the fact that black juveniles face higher rates of arrest — and a more severe path through the criminal justice system — the OJJDP report noted that in  2013, in comparison to their white peers, black females were:

  • nearly three times as likely as their white peers to be referred to juvenile court for a delinquency offense;
  • 20 percent more likely to be detained;
  • and 20 percent more likely to be formally petitioned to court.

Research indicates a variety of factors – including bias –– may contribute to this. In “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color & Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System,” Jyoti Nanda, a Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow, writes: “Actors in the juvenile justice system are likely to view girls of color and black girls in particular as delinquents — as social problems themselves rather than as young girls affected by social problems.”

This disturbing dynamic was validated in a recent study by the Center on Poverty and Inequality. Noted to be the first study focused on the “adultification” of black girls, researchers concluded black girls faced significant bias, starting even younger than black boys. “What we found is that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” said Rebecca Epstein, lead author of the report. Coauthor Jamilia Blake, Ph.D., Educational Psychology, said the findings show “pervasive stereotypes of black women as hypersexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob black girls of the protections other children enjoy.”

A better approach

Since ACEs and other negative dynamics are having an adverse effect on girls in the juvenile justice system, solutions must take these factors into consideration. In 2013, the National Research Council (NRC) described a developmental approach to juvenile justice reform as an alternative, identifying seven hallmarks that include:

  • accountability without criminalization;
  • alternatives to justice system involvement;
  • individualized response based on assessment of needs and risks;
  • confinement only when necessary for public safety;
  • a genuine commitment to fairness;
  • sensitivity to disparate treatment;
  • and family engagement.

Other experts are engaged in similar efforts to help address the specific needs of these young girls, including Professor Javdani. She created NYC Resilience, Opportunity, Safety, Education, Strength (ROSES), a community-based intervention program that pairs young girls with highly trained, advanced undergraduate students at NYU who serve as their advocates.

To expand peer-to-peer support, ROSES also launched ROSEbuds, that encourages women who have entered the juvenile justice system as girls to serve as peer advocates for others. ROSEbuds was created as part of the New York State Girls’ Justice Initiative (GJI), in collaboration with the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, which aims to identify gender-specific, trauma-informed best practices for working with girls at risk or involved with the juvenile justice system and to implement those practices across the state.

Solutions such as these provide more effective and appropriate support for girls affected by adverse childhood experiences, providing alternatives to a criminal justice system that doesn’t understand or address their individual needs.

Alexis Anderson is a digital PR coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs.

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