Girl Problems

The juvenile justice system is ignoring delinquent girls -- and creating a social time bomb

"Getting funding and getting programs for girl delinquents is currently politically correct," he says. "Girls do have girls' problems, and boys do have boys' problems. But both have bad attitudes. Both have bad habits, both are living bad lifestyles, both are in love with the material world. We need programs for girls, but what about the boys?"

But if boys still constitute the larger juvenile crime problem, the girls are gaining on them. Two hundred fewer boys were booked into San Francisco's juvenile hall in 1998 than in 1990; over the same time span, the number of girls booked rose by more than 400. And girls who commit crimes grow up to be women who commit crimes. Already, there are about 10,000 more women locked up in California than 20 years ago, a 750 percent jump compared to a 540 percent increase for men over the same time span.

Criminologists say that to be effective in cutting female crime rates, girls' programs need to deal with root causes. The factors that cause girls to jump into crime don't apply to boys, and aren't dealt with in delinquency programs designed for males. For example, a growing body of research links delinquency among girls to physical or sexual victimization or exploitation. Delinquent boys, in comparison, are more often witnesses or participants in violence, rather than victims.

A 1998 study of girls in the California juvenile justice system by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that 92 percent of the girls had been physically or sexually abused. This early violence, therapists say, leads to unexplainable feelings of anger, which girls then take out on others. Also, because girls are more "relationship-based" than boys, who are "peer-based," girls are vulnerable to being used by boyfriends, often finding their way into the system because they held drugs or guns for their boyfriends.

Traditional programs, designed with boys in mind, simply won't work for girls, these criminal justice authorities assert. A standard anger-management class, for example, teaches kids how to hold their anger in. But unlike boys, girls already have a tendency to suppress their anger, which is why they engage in self-destructive behavior that includes drug use and entrance into exploitative relationships. Placing a girl in a coed program also tends to fail, because girls often are intimidated or ignored in a roomful of boys.

The system's failure to tailor programs to deal with girl delinquency has already exacted a cost from society, girls' advocates say. With more women being incarcerated (albeit mostly for drug and other nonviolent offenses), many juvenile delinquents come from what are now being called "zero parent families" -- that is, families where parents are absent, often because they are in jail or prison. Studies also show that children with imprisoned parents are six times more likely to end up in jail than other children. Seventy-six percent of California women inmates are mothers.

There may be a need for increased spending to deal with male juvenile delinquency, which has a direct, often violent, impact on the quality of urban life. But recent trends suggest that female delinquency is the growth market of crime, and because it is all but ignored in the juvenile system, a culture of female criminality is being created -- a culture with potentially disastrous implications.

Tracy Brown of the Mission Girls Services says that she has personally seen a cycle of criminal life as it was being created. "I'm getting the kids of girls that I served more than 15 years ago," Brown says. "And these parents may still be on drugs, or into gangs -- that's the lifestyle that is promoted, and it's hard to break that cycle. Fifteen years ago, there wasn't services for that bracket [girls], and now I'm dealing with their kids."

Tanesha is tired. Tuesdays are busy days; she gets up at 6 a.m., showers, catches the bus, and arrives at work by 8 a.m. She spends six hours at Juvie Java, the coffee shop in juvenile hall, where she serves coffee and Coke and works the register. Now, at 4 p.m., she sits with a glass of water in the cafeteria of W3, the last bungalow on the juvenile facility on Woodside Road, waiting for a court-mandated program for exploited girls to start.

"This is one day that I know nothing will happen," Tanesha says. "I go to work, I come here, and I go home to bed. I'm not going to die on a Tuesday."

Since childhood, Tanesha has been the victim of physical and sexual violence. Growing up, she says, she got angrier and angrier about it, until she began behaving violently herself. In that sense, Tanesha's story seems typical; according to several studies, a majority of girls in juvenile halls nationwide have been victims of violence.

"A lot of girls are molested or beat by whoever," Tanesha reflects. "After so many years you grow used to it, you try other ways to let it out. A lot of those ways are illegal."

Tanesha is now able to talk about her childhood nonchalantly. Half-joking, she says that she has "seen it all." "I've been to hell, I spit on the devil, and left," she says.

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