Girl Problems

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

Juvenile Probation Chief Jesse Williams, head of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, says the city has been working on addressing the needs of girls since he came aboard in 1997. He points to an increased budget for girls, and the recent hiring of probation officers who work only with girls. Five heralded community programs are also allowed into juvenile hall every week to hold group sessions. And a victims' advocate from the District Attorney's Office was hired earlier this month to oversee the girls' services in juvenile hall.

"We have made changes over the last fiscal year, and we're setting the stage for additional programs and services for girls," Williams says. "But will we ever have the ideal amount of resources for girls? I don't know if we can ever accomplish that. It's a dream and a vision that I might not see in my lifetime."

Still, it has been eight years since the city identified the lack of girls' services, and if progress has been made, it is far from dramatic. "It is well-documented that when girls remain in custody, that time in custody is longer than that of boys," says Deputy Public Defender Patricia Lee. "Girls are sitting here waiting for placement. One girl has been sitting here for over three months on her first-time offense, an indication that there aren't enough group homes or therapeutic homes for girls."

Girls are sent as far away as Colorado for long-term rehabilitation because San Francisco -- in fact, the entire state of California -- doesn't have such a program. A 1996 report noted that there was only one suitable residential treatment center for sexually abused girls. It was located in San Jose. It has since closed.

Now, more community organizations are stepping up, saying they are, or have been, willing to work specifically with girls. But disorganization pervades the system, and girls still aren't receiving services. In fact, the city's Juvenile Probation Department doesn't even have a master list of programs targeted to girls. Referrals of girls are made on an ad hoc basis, to the programs with which a particular probation officer is personally familiar.

"We really don't know how many programs there are for girls now," Juvenile Justice Commissioner Schaffner acknowledges. "And that's a problem. Because, if we're saying there are not enough services, how can we say it if we really don't know? Some agencies need girls, but they can't get the Probation Department to refer girls to them. We don't know how many beds there are and how many are empty, or how long the waiting list is.

"None of that information is available."

San Francisco girls are most often arrested for selling drugs, shoplifting, prostitution, or assaulting other girls, Juvenile Probation Department statistics show. Professionals running delinquency programs -- including those who conduct weekly sessions for girls in juvenile hall -- say they have never been given access to the official statistics acquired by SF Weeklyfor this story, statistics that juvenile probation officials released only grudgingly. These therapists and counselors complain that their lack of access to data has made it difficult to craft better girl-specific programs. But they say experience has taught them that when the charge is drug sales or prostitution, there is often a boyfriend in the background.

Valentina Garcia, a 21-year-old office manager at the Mission Girls Services, knows what it's like to be exploited by her boyfriend. She's been there. But now she knows better, and can often be found going beyond her clerical duties and counseling one of the organization's 20 to 50 clients.

"A lot of girls in there [juvenile hall] started because of abuse through their family and boyfriend," says Valentina, who didn't want to use her real last name. "They get caught up because of older boyfriends, selling D [dope] to make money, fighting people, or holding dope. They keep returning because they're fighting other girls over their man, or because it's gang-related."

Valentina says many of the girls she works with think that in order to be a good girlfriend, they should hold drugs or guns for their boyfriends. And they say they do it because they love their men. "The older boyfriends, they convince the girls," Valentina says. "They say, 'You're a juvenile and you're a girl so they'll let you go.' It's a lot of manipulation. ... They say, 'Oh, he just cares about me, that's why he always wants to know where I'm at.'"

A petite woman with striking features and a silent toughness cultivated from years of fending for herself, Valentina is candid about the crime and tragedy she witnesses on a daily basis. She says that the experiences of the girls she has worked with, as well as her personal experiences, show the connections between childhood abuse and the tendency for girls to turn to exploitative relationships.

When she was a teenager, Valentina says, her drugged-out father regularly called her a whore, and threw her against the wall when he was angry. Once, she was sent home from the Mission Girls Services because her boss thought she had hickies on her neck. Actually, they were bruise marks from her father's stranglehold from the night before.

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