clear   Chapter 1:   Female Juvenile Delingquents
Why Are Girls' Needs Different?

Adolescence is a difficult passage for many girls, even those who have a strong safety net of support at home and in school. The physical changes of puberty coincide with enormous emotional and psychological challenges (Brooks-Gunn & Reiter, 1990). During the teen years, girls begin to separate from their families, assert their own identity, identify with their peers, redefine their relationships with nurturing adults, explore their sexuality, develop their own moral and ethical sense, and prepare for the responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. It's seldom a smooth or easy metamorphosis.

Persistent sexism makes adolescence more confusing for girls by projecting mixed messages about the worth and role of women in society. Girls may measure their own looks against media images of "perfect" female beauty, for example. A lack of female role models may make their dreams of future careers in male-dominated fields seem unrealistic. The culture of adolescence "demands that while young women may achieve, they should be careful not to look too smart or they will not get a boyfriend" (Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, 1995). Girls may react by silencing their own feelings and turning to others for validation (Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995; Brown, 1991). A growing body of research documents the drop in self-esteem and lowered confidence of many teenage girls (Miller, et al., 1995; Girls Incorporated, 1996; Albrecht, 1994).

Only recently have researchers focused specifically on female adolescent development.

"Here we learn that we as women are as capable as men to achieve, and that gives me the strength to succeed. I now see being a woman as a strength and not a setback."

-Participan, Harriet
Tubman Residential Center
Dr. Carol Gilligan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has enriched the understanding of this field by pointing out that classic psychological models, such as Erickson's view of identity formation, were based almost entirely on studies of boys. Gilligan's groundbreaking studies of female development illustrate the importance of relationships in girls' lives. For example, the formation of a girl's mature identity cannot be based solely on separation from her parents, but must also include her enduring relationships with adults. (Acoca, 1995). A parent, teacher, counselor, probation officer or other adult who demonstrates ongoing commitment and caring plays an essential role in a girl's development. Conversely, the lack of a close, caring adult during adolescence could interrupt or delay a girl's development. Without a close adult, and without confidence in her own judgment or abilities, she may be more likely to turn to her peers for support and validation.

When other risk factors are added to the already daunting developmental tasks of female adolescence, the results can be overwhelming, pushing some girls into delinquency. Although research about delinquency among girls is still scarce, some researchers are focusing on a "developmental pathway to delinquency" (Belknap & Holsinger, 1998). Just as girls and boys develop in different ways physically and emotionally during adolescence, their pathways to delinquency are often gender specific, too.

The problems faced by girls and young women can be viewed as part of a developmental continuum linking early problems (such as family dysfunction, abuse, loss of a primary caregiver, and other traumas) to later behavioral problems (Oregon Commission on Children and Youth Services, 1990). During the teen years, when girls are transitioning to adulthood, unresolved issues from earlier stages of their development may come to a head. Incomplete bonding in infancy, sexual abuse in childhood, failed relationships with adults, and other problems can result in an inability to form positive relationships, lack of self-respect, ignorance of physical health and sexuality issues, and low self-image (Oregon Commission on Children and Youth Services, 1990). Substance abuse at a young age can also interrupt a girl's psychosocial development. As one researcher observed, "It is not unusual to have a 16-year-old check into a residential drug treatment program with both her ‘works' (needle and syringe) and a well-worn stuffed animal hidden in her backpack." (Acoca, 1995).

In understanding the developmental pathways that can lead girls to delinquency, it may help to consider what girls need for healthy development while also recognizing the challenges that may put them at greater risk of delinquency. For example:

  • Need for physical safety and healthy physical development
    • Challenged by poverty, homelessness, violence, inadequate health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse

  • Need for trust, love, respect, validation from caring adults to foster healthy emotional development and form positive relationships
    • Challenged by abandonment, family dysfunction, poor communication

  • Need for positive female role models to develop healthy identity as a woman
    • Challenged by sexist, racist, homophobic messages, lack of community support

  • Need for safety to explore sexuality at own pace for healthy sexual development
    • Challenged by sexual abuse, exploitation, negative messages about female sexuality

  • Need to belong, to feel competent and worthy
    • Challenged by weakened family ties, negative peer influences, academic failure, low self-esteem

Several specific factors put girls at greater risk of becoming juvenile delinquents. Seldom, however, do these factors occur in isolation. More typically, risk factors are interconnected like a web, with each risk potentially both cause and consequence of the others. Risks of special concern to girls include:

Sexual and/or physical abuse: Girls are three times as likely to have been sexually abused as boys (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). Among female delinquents, an estimated 70 percent have a history of sex abuse (Calhoun, Jurgens, & Chen, 1993). In some detention facilities, the incidence of girls who have been abused is closer to 90 percent. Most often, abuse is perpetrated by family members or close family friends who are perceived as trusted adults (Davis, et al., 1997). Sexual abuse can have a profound impact on a girl during adolescence, resulting in lessened self-esteem, inability to trust, academic failure, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, and other serious concerns. If sexual abuse is not addressed, girls may run away or turn to alcohol or other drugs to numb their emotional pain. (Acoca, 1998b) A few lash out at their perpetrators violently.

Substance abuse: Substance abuse exacerbates the other problems that might put a girl at risk of delinquency. Many girls, for instance, report being intoxicated or under the influence of illegal substances while committing criminal acts (Sommers & Baskin, 1994). If a girl runs away from an abusive or dysfunctional family and winds up on the street, she is more likely to become involved in drug use and/or drug trafficking. Alcohol and other drugs may lessen her inhibitions, leading her to take risks that may result in unplanned pregnancy and/or exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. Research shows that among female populations, substance abuse coexists with other problems such as mental illness and academic failure at a significantly higher rate than among males (Rotheram-Borus, 1993).

"PACE has opened a new door in my life. I've accomplished many things at PACE, one of which is learning to be a productive member of society."

-Participan, Harriet
Tubman Residential Center
Teen pregnancy: Female juvenile offenders engage in sexual activity at an earlier age than non-offenders, putting them at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. For many young women, teen pregnancy is a virtual guarantee of poverty and long-term reliance on welfare. Most teen mothers drop out of high school and remain single most of their young adult years. They earn an average of $5,600 annually, less than half the poverty-level income. More than 60 percent of African-American and half of all Hispanic teen mothers are concentrated in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods that have poor housing, high crime rates, and inadequate schools. Many teen mothers have been victims of sexual abuse. Adolescent mothers are more likely to raise a child who goes to prison than mothers who delay having children until their early 20s (Robin Hood Foundation, 1996).

Poor academic performance: The most significant risk factor relating to early onset of delinquency is poor academic performance (Dryfoos, 1990; Yoshikawa, 1994; Greenwood, et al., 1996). A disproportionate number (26 percent) of female juvenile offenders have learning disabilities (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994). By the time they enter the system, they may be at least a grade level behind their peers. They may have developed a negative attitude about learning and lack self-confidence about their own ability to master academic skills (Bergsmann, 1994; Girls Incorporated, 1996).

Girls who are juvenile offenders may have reacted to academic challenges in the past by skipping school or dropping out altogether (Bergsmann, 1994; Hugo & Rutherford, 1992). Or, if they stayed enrolled in schools which did not meet their needs, they may have "shut down" in the classroom, internalizing their frustration and assuming they "could not learn." Boys experiencing learning difficulties are more likely to be disruptive, externalizing their frustration (American Association of University Women, 1991). Once they enter the juvenile justice system, these girls find themselves back in the classroom. They may perform well behind grade level. Some girls who have a history of academic failure may respond with defiance or anger if forced back into the classroom. Because academic failure is so closely linked to underemployment and unemployment, it is a risk factor that must be addressed for female delinquents if they are to avoid a life of impoverished opportunities.

Mental health needs: Girls who are coping with such serious issues as sexual abuse, substance abuse, family dysfunction and/or academic failure may experience depression, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns. More than half of young women in training schools have reported attempting suicide; of those, 64 percent have tried more than once to kill themselves (Bergsmann, 1994).

Societal factors: Girls and boys don't get into trouble for the same reasons, in the same ways, or at the same rate. Nor are they treated the same by a juvenile justice system designed to deal with boys. Because community-based resources for girls are scarce and the juvenile justice system perceives the need to "protect" girls, a disproportionate number of girls are committed to state training schools, often for status offenses.

Ethnic minority female offenders are treated more harshly than white girls. For boys and girls alike, black offenders are more likely than white offenders to receive a more severe disposition at their arrest, intake hearings, and in court (Bergsmann, 1994; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Belknap, 1996; Lindgren, 1996). African-American, Asian, and Latina girls who are poor and addicted are more likely to be incarcerated than referred to treatment (Girls Incorporated, 1996; Sarri, 1983). African-American girls make up almost 50 percent of all girls in secure detention, and Latinas make up 13 percent (Bergsmann, 1994). White girls are more likely to be referred to mental health facilities than juvenile justice facilities (Federle & Chesney-Lind, 1992).

In addition to the risk factors affecting many young female offenders, some girls have additional special needs, including:

Pregnancy/parenting teens: Teen pregnancy, often the outcome of early sexual experimentation, creates special needs for both the adolescent mother and her child (Maynard & Garry, 1997). For the young mother, parenthood at an early age may interfere with the normal challenges of adolescence, such as identity development (Corley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Apfel & Seitz, 1996). Teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school, limiting their future chances for employment and increasing the likelihood they will live in poverty (Robin Hood Foundation, 1996). Additionally, at least half of first-time teen mothers become pregnant again within a year of their first birth. The child of a teen parent is vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Children of teen mothers are twice as likely to become victims of child abuse and neglect as children of adult mothers (Robin Hood Foundation, 1996). Because at least 70 percent of girls in the justice system have a history of abuse themselves, this becomes an issue that spans generations. Finally, the sons of teen mothers are 2.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of adult mothers (Maynard & Garry, 1997).

Gang membership: Because boys and young men have long dominated the gang culture, researchers have been slow to consider why girls become involved in gangs and what risks they face because of gang membership. Researchers have seen females as playing a primarily sexualized role or one of only peripheral importance in relation to male gang members (Chesney-Lind & Brown, in press). Although the number of girls involved in gangs remains relatively small (3.6 percent of youth identified by law enforcement agencies as gang members are female) (Chesney-Lind & Brown, in press), gangs do pose specific risks for young females (Family and Youth Services Bureau, 1993; Spergel, 1992).

Girls seem to be attracted to gangs out of a desire for safety or power, and a sense of belonging (Molidor, 1996; Campbell, 1990). Studies of female gang members show that many have come from homes with a high incidence of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and family dysfunction (Molidor, 1996). Growing up in poverty, isolated from the economic mainstream, marginalized because of race, class, and academic failure, girls most likely to affiliate with gangs tend to feel hopeless about their future (Bjerregaard & Smith, 1993).

Far from offering girls a safe haven, however, gang membership puts adolescent girls at an increased risk of victimization and violence. Girls are often treated as the sexual property of male gang members. During initiations, girls may be beaten, sexually assaulted, or gang raped. As gang members, girls face increased risks of unsafe sex, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and suicide (Morris, Harrison, Knox, Tromanhauser, Marques, & Watts, 1995; Family and Youth Services Bureau, 1993). In addition, gang involvement complicates or interferes with a girl's ability to complete the developmental tasks of adolescence (Chesney-Lind & Brown, in press). Staying in the gang may require that a girl tolerate ongoing physical or sexual abuse, suppressing her anger, resentment, humiliation, and shame. Some girls eventually become perpetrators of violence themselves.

Early onset of puberty: Girls who hit puberty earlier than the norm may feel awkward, alienated, or "different" from the peers with whom they want to belong. Some may act out by engaging in early sexual experimentation, substance abuse, or delinquent behavior (Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt & Silva, 1991).

Alternative lifestyle: The issues facing lesbian girls within the juvenile justice system have not been adequately researched (Savin-Williams, 1995). However, the limited research that is available suggests that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are vulnerable to mental health problems (D'Augelli & Dark, 1994; Rotheram-Borus & Fernandez, 1995). Additionally, lesbian girls may feel ostracized because of their sexual orientation, at a time in their adolescent development when they have a need to belong and to be accepted. They are at increased risk of substance abuse and suicide. Risk of suicide for lesbian adolescents is three times greater than for their heterosexual peers (Gibson, 1989; Women's Action Coalition, 1993). Some girls who are open about their sexual orientation report increased conflict at home and at school (Rofes, 1994). Some girls run away or are forced to leave by family members who disapprove of their lifestyle. Lesbian girls who become delinquent also report feeling alienated within the justice system. In addition, they are vulnerable to hate crimes or other violence because of their orientation (Savin-Williams, 1995; D'Augelli & Dark, 1994; Herek, 1989).

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Guiding Principles for Promising
Female Programming
October 1998