Chapter 1:   Female Juvenile Delingquents
Who Are They?

Vanessa, 16, grew up with her mother and three younger siblings in an inner-city housing project. She never knew her father. Her mother was often angry and physically abusive. Vanessa can never remember feeling safe not at home, not in school, not on the city streets where gunshots and violence have always been within earshot. She can't imagine a life without danger. She's been carrying a gun since she joined a gang a year ago.

* * *

Courtney, now 15, thinks she was about five when her father began calling her "Princess" and fondling her. He raped her the first time when she was 10, and continued sexually abusing her until she ran away from home a year ago. She was living on the streets, trading sex for food and drugs, until she met an older boyfriend who invited her to move in with him. He's 22 and shares his drugs with Courtney.

* * *

When she was in elementary school, Juanita loved to learn. Since she started middle school two years ago, though, her grades have been falling fast. Her parents always seem to be on her case. She's overheard other girls gossiping behind her back. They think she's stupid, but Juanita suspects they're just jealous. At 13, she already has a woman's body. She often cuts class to party with her friends. They get loaded and make out. Lately, her boyfriend has been pressuring her to have sex.

No single path leads girls to trouble. Rather, as these composite stories illustrate, a combination of factors may collide just as a girl is hitting adolescence, leaving her at risk of delinquency. Although girls constitute about one-fourth of the juvenile offender population, their problems are profound and reflective of wrenching social issues such as poverty, racism, and family dysfunction.

The factors most likely to put girls at risk of delinquency are being identified by researchers, social service providers, and agencies that work with juvenile female offenders. Although every girl in trouble is unique, she is likely to share elements of this profile with other female juvenile delinquents:

  • She's now 14 to 16 years old, although she may have started acting out a few years earlier

  • She's poor and has grown up in a neighborhood with a high crime rate

  • She's likely to belong to an ethnic minority group (50 percent of female juveniles in detention are African American, 13 percent are Hispanic, 34 percent Caucasian)

  • She's had a history of poor academic performance and may be a high school dropout

  • She's been a victim of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse or exploitation

  • She has used and abused drugs and/or alcohol

  • She has gone without attention for medical and mental health needs

  • She feels that life is oppressive and lacks hope for the future

These risk factors do not always lead to delinquency, and not every girl in trouble has the same background. Some resilient girls survive these early life challenges without running afoul of the law (Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1996). But as statistics on female delinquency show, an increasing number do fit this profile. Although girl offenders have been called "the forgotten few" (Bergsmann, 1989), they are fast becoming too numerous-and their problems too serious-to ignore.

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Guiding Principles for Promising
Female Programming
October 1998