Girl Problems

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

She says her journey to hell began when her mom, who has been sober for nearly two years now, got hooked on crack. Tanesha's childhood was also broken by regular beatings from a stepfather who hit her with chairs and belts. On her 14th birthday, she was raped while coming home from a friend's house. A few months later, when she was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped after a suicide attempt, she learned that she was pregnant with her rapist's baby. She says she aborted the baby, but regretfully, and only because she was afraid she would have a son who resembled her rapist.

Among these traumatic events, Tanesha has sold crack in the Tenderloin, attacked random strangers, and shoplifted on a daily basis. She's been arrested 12 times, and has been detained in juvenile hall six times.

At least in her view, Tanesha's path through the juvenile justice system has been charted by anger and poor economics. She says she beat people because she was angry, and she was angry because she was being beaten. She stole and sold drugs because her mom, who was strung out on crack, wouldn't pay for her clothes, shampoo, or a backpack for school. "I was fighting and stealing and being angry, not knowing why I was angry," she says.

Tanesha's first trip to juvenile hall came when she was 11, the year she says she began selling crack in the Tenderloin to make money. She had gotten into a fight. She was released to her mother. It was her first contact with the juvenile system, so she wasn't put on probation, or offered services.

But the violence in her life continued. "My cousin used to beat me up every day, and I started fighting back," Tanesha explains. "She would make me ask people for a quarter, and if I didn't do it, she'd beat me up. I'd get her $20, and I never got to spend any of it. I was sick of her bullying me around."

Tanesha began fighting people she didn't like more regularly; she stole cars for joy rides, and then set them on fire. She and her friends would sometimes hop onto a Muni bus and attack all the other riders. Tanesha says she was often the only girl involved in these attacks.

Like many abused girls, violence was no longer a big deal to Tanesha. She saw her assaults as normal. "They were just regular fights, and I happened to win," Tanesha says of the incidents that led to her assault arrests. "I was not about to be humiliated in front of my friends. You just fight until you know you're going to win. They were people I knew, or people would dare you to hit her. We would go after anybody. We didn't care."

In 1996, Tanesha ran away from a group home a court had ordered her to attend. After running away, she was homeless for about three years, sleeping on Muni buses because she was afraid to sleep on the streets. Late last year, Tanesha was taken to San Francisco General Hospital after her third suicide attempt. She was transferred to juvenile hall, where she stayed until March. She is on probation.

Community groups in San Francisco have been crying for additional services for delinquent girls since 1992. Back then, a coalition of women's groups issued a report that spelled out a "lack of diversity of placement options and program referrals" and a "tremendous lack of information on the sources ... of delinquency." It was noted that girls in the juvenile justice system tended to be victims of abuse, and the city needed services to address that issue.

The report made suggestions on how to create better girls' programs: If the city needed more services for girls, it also needed programs that dealt with victimization and exploitation -- the major issues leading girls into crime. More therapists and mentors were needed. Girls needed to be taught about healthy relationships. There needed to be better training for probation officers, and more female ones. There needed to be more job training for delinquent girls, who tend to get pregnant, and then tend to sell drugs to feed their families. And the new programs needed to deal with pregnancy, early motherhood, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Four years later, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice published the Plight of Adolescent Girls in the Juvenile Justice System in San Francisco. The criticisms cited in the 1996 report were almost identical to those in 1992.

When that report was released, San Francisco's juvenile justice system was in disarray. The system's failures were being regularly aired in the press, and Mayor Willie Brown called for a juvenile justice action plan to revamp its ailing services. But when a group of girls' advocates asked specifically for a girls' program to be included in the plan, they were refused. "We were told no, because then everyone will want one," Juvenile Justice Commissioner Laurie Schaffner says. "We were stunned."

In the end, $853,857 was earmarked for the Hidden Valley Ranch for girls. The girls' ranch never materialized; instead, the Life Learning Residential Center for Girls was created. The center was designed to treat 20 girls who need long-term and comprehensive residential care. But four years later, the center has yet to officially open because the city has had trouble finding an organization to run it. The center is expected to begin operating at full capacity later this year; a temporary setup currently serves only six girls.

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