New Study Finds That Sexually Abused Girls Get Prison, Not Help


A scathing new report critiques the “sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline,” in which girls under 18 who are raped or sexually assaulted are increasingly funneled into the juvenile justice system instead of receiving actual help. That’s particularly true for girls of color, who are disproportionately detained and committed, as are LGBT and gender non-conforming youth.

The report, put together by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, details the way girls are quickly funneled from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system—particularly when they’re arrested for offenses like prostitution or truancy.

The authors found that teenage girls have been detained and arrested at increasing rates over the past two decades, but not because they’re actually committing more crimes:

According to studies by the Girls Study Group of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, among others, the increase in girls’ rate of arrest and incarceration over the last two decades is not a result of their engaging in criminal activity at higher rates. Nor are they increasingly violent.
Although the reason has not been definitively determined, evidence suggests that one cause is more aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses that are rooted in the experience of abuse and trauma, as illustrated by the recent increase in arrests of girls involved in family-based incidents.
In fact, the leading cause of arrest for girls are minor offenses such as misdemeanors, status offenses, outstanding warrants, and technical violations. And the decision to arrest and detain girls in these cases has been shown often to be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma.

Girls sent into the juvenile justice system have experienced “overwhelmingly high” rates of sexual violence, the authors write, often physically and sexually abused by family members and/or romantic partners. Becoming a victim of sexual trauma is, for girls, a huge predictor that they might end up in the criminal justice system:

The US Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence has concluded that childhood trauma is associated with involvement in the juvenile justice system. For girls more than for boys, this connection is strongly rooted in the experience of sexual violence. And the link appears to continue even after girls are released: a recent study has shown that sexual abuse is one of the strongest predictors of whether a girl will be charged again after release; in fact, it appears to have a greater impact on girls’ re-entry into the system than other risk factors like behavioral problems and prior justice involvement. Yet, significantly, the experience of sexual abuse did not have the same impact on boys. Clearly, sexual abuse has a uniquely defining impact on juvenile justice involvement for girls.

The crimes for which girls are commonly arrested—truancy, substance abuse, running away— are also frequently indicators that they’re being abused. And girls who are trafficked for sex are often arrested for prostitution, even though they’re not of legal age:

Child sex trafficking is child sexual abuse. And it is abuse that is often layered over pre-existing trauma: children who have been sexually abused are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Yet many jurisdictions still view victims of child sex trafficking as perpetrators. These girls are arrested on charges of prostitution even though they are too young to legally consent to sex.

The report also found that ending up in the justice system will, more often than not, re-trauamatize girls. Rate of post-traumatic stress disorder are high for both boys and girls in the justice system, although they’re higher for girls:

Rates of PTSD and other mental health disorders are consistently higher in girls than their male peers. For example, one study by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice found that approximately 80 percent of females in the juvenile justice system met the criteria for at least one mental health disorder, compared to 67 percent of boys. Another found that major depression is four to five times more common in girls housed in detention and correctional facilities than in the general community, compared to twice as common in detained boys than the general community.The rate of major depression in detained girls was 29 percent, compared to 11 percent in boys.

Juvenile justice facilities frequently don’t have adequate psychological or medical services for girls who have been sexually abused, not to mention adequate prenatal care or parenting classes for girls who are pregnant. And juvie facilities frequently use practices like restraints and strip searches that mimic adult prisons and can be incredibly harmful for girls who are already survivors of abuse and suffering from PTSD.

The solution here, obviously, is twofold: better psychological and medical care within the justice system, and keeping vulnerable youth out of it in the first place. Among other things, the authors recommend more funding to create “safe and supportive” group homes for girls and young women.

Contact the author at [email protected].
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