Girl Problems

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

As an abused child, Valentina turned to gang life and was bounced through the juvenile system for shoplifting and running away from home. She turned to older boyfriends for self-esteem and love. When she was 14, she dated a 20-year-old. When she was 16, she dated a 23-year-old.

She says she used to hold drugs and guns for her older boyfriends. When the couple were pulled over by police, her boyfriend would have her put the drugs in her bra or down her pants. "They didn't check me because I'm a girl," Valentina, who is now engaged to a 22-year-old, explains. "But the cops have figured that out. They're checking more now."

Like many of the girls she has worked with, Valentina says she did as her boyfriend asked because she didn't want to lose him. "I would tell myself, 'Oh, he's older and he likes me.' You think you're cooler and mature. You feel special. At the time, I swear I wasn't getting played. But now, I'm like, 'Damn, he made me do all these things?'

"It's straight manipulation."

More than 50 people crowded into the cafeteria at juvenile hall for the June meeting of the For Girls Coalition. Since its 1996 inception, the coalition's focus has been on girls in the juvenile justice system. But until only recently, girls' advocate groups like the coalition have been ignored and excluded from policy discussions. Organizer Julia Posadas, who was hired in July to oversee the girls' programs in the hall, says she considers it a victory that the group was able to hold the meeting at juvenile hall.

"We've been working on this for years, wishing, hoping, and trying to bring attention to this," Commissioner Schaffner says. "We've been before so many commissions, making testimony. When we issued that report in 1996, people didn't know what we were talking about. We went to Delancey Street and demanded a girls' program. We were told no. Now we are seeing the beginning of reaching out. We need five years of this. There is no end to this story; we haven't fixed it."

Schaffner believes that even if the Juvenile Probation Department does take steps to improve the situation for girls, the community also needs to do its part. "The Juvenile Probation Department cannot fix this stuff alone," she says. "It has inherited all these failed social and economic programs. The solution comes from the community. If juvenile hall is overcrowded, then the community needs to run better after-school programs and foster homes. It's up to the community to solve it, to keep banging on the mayor's door and the chief probation officer's door demanding better and more services."

Some community organizations -- among them Sisters Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), and the Center for Young Women's Development -- have begun to address exploitation of and job training and anger management for girls, but they can serve only a limited number of clients. And, these organizations say, without more funding for on-staff therapists and residential treatment, they will continue to lose clients to crime.

Meanwhile, public defenders and district attorneys continue to be frustrated with the lack of options that they can provide for girls, some of whom languish in juvenile hall while waiting for their names to move up the waiting list.

And in reality, girls have been waiting for nearly eight years for San Francisco to take the lead in tackling girl delinquency. And some continue to wait, while the manifestation of decades of the system's shortfalls continues, and the rising tide of incarcerated girls shows no real signs of ebbing.

Without an urgent effort to deal with delinquent girls, this growing population will continue to contribute to a staggering increase in the numbers of adult female criminals. Who will have children. Who will be much more likely to become criminals than other kids.

Tanesha says that she is done with crime. She has decided to clean up her life on her own. After all, she wasn't assigned to any rehabilitative community programs until her last stay in juvenile hall earlier this year. The first few times she was in the hall, Tanesha says, she was released without any mention of rehabilitative programs. "When they let me out at first, I was going home to my mother, and as long as I went to school, then that's all they expected," she says. "'Don't get in trouble, and go to school.'"

Despite the lack of outreach throughout her criminal career, Tanesha says, she's gotten closer to understanding her anger. She has never been in therapy, though, and refuses to go.

"A lot of young people, they be angry about growing up," she says. "I didn't know two years ago that the reason I did what I did was because of something that someone did to me. I try not to make excuses for stuff, but in reality, the only thing I can say is if I didn't grow up the way I had grown up, I wouldn't have been so upset. And you know, happy people wouldn't go around beating up people."

Tanesha hasn't violated probation since she was released from juvenile hall in March. But she's still hanging out with girlfriends who fight, and who leave their babies for Tanesha to watch. Her temper still flares, and she and her mother still have lung-busting screaming matches, during which Tanesha insists that she knows what's best for her own life. "Now I'm too busy to get into trouble," Tanesha contends. "It's not just the program. I choose not to get into trouble. I chose to get my life together, and keep busy.

"Because stuff happens every day."

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