Girl Problems

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

Tanesha White, who's 17 years old, can be effusive, even charismatic. She is the girl in the group who, with a quick toss of black curls, speaks up loudest and throws the quickest comeback. And if, on good days, she has the outgoing personality befitting a student body president or a homecoming queen, there are also other days. On those days, Tanesha can come across as a girl with a whole lot of attitude, an in-your-face honesty, and an intimidating physical build.

Back in 1995, Tanesha decided to let the kids at her new school know that she just "didn't give a damn." While waiting for the bus after the second day of class, she attacked a random passer-by.

"I see this lady walking," Tanesha says, her voice hushing, as if she were telling a story around a campfire. "And I was like, 'I'm fit to go beat her up.' And the other kids were hypin' it up, and they dared me. So I just ran over and beat her up. And I was hella beating her up, just out of the blue. And then she's saying, 'I'm pregnant, I'm pregnant!' and I was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' And I ran and caught the bus and left.

"I still, to this day, don't know why I did it."

Tanesha (a pseudonym used in this article at her mother's request) has been in and out of San Francisco's juvenile hall a half-dozen times; the charges have involved shoplifting, physical assault, or a combination of those two offenses. She has attempted suicide three times, and she spent the first few months of this year locked up. She is still on probation.

Tanesha is, frankly, one of the better-adjusted members of the country's fastest-growing population of criminal offenders -- teenage girls. In San Francisco, the number of girls booked into juvenile hall has nearly doubled over the past decade, even as the number of boys in the juvenile system -- and juvenile crime as a whole -- continues to decline.

Girls are, obviously, different from boys. Girls become involved in crime for different reasons than boys do, and far more female teens have a background of physical or sexual abuse and exploitation than do their male counterparts. The juvenile justice system has never been equipped to deal effectively with the difference.

Like most cities across the country, San Francisco does not have enough slots in rehabilitation and residential programs for delinquent girls, so the girls end up sitting in juvenile hall longer than they should, waiting -- and waiting -- for placement. And when they are placed, it often is in programs that do not deal with the underlying causes of the girls' troubled, and troubling, behavior.

The failure to deal appropriately with girl crime has already exacted a social cost that comes in the form of a burgeoning population of adults who could be mothers and workers, but are, instead, hookers, crack addicts, and worse. Juvenile crime experts say that without basic changes in the way female delinquents are treated, that cost will increase. Perhaps exponentially.

The trend of female involvement in the criminal justice system is almost frighteningly clear:

" Percentage increase in the arrest rate for girls in the U.S. between 1981 and 1997: 103. (Violent Crime Index)

" Percentage increase for boys over same period: 27.

" Number of girls sent to S.F. juvenile hall in 1990: 448. (S.F. Juvenile Probation Office)

" Number sent in 1998: 841.

" Percentage increase in the number of women in the California criminal justice system over the last 20 years: 750. (California Department of Corrections)

" Current annual spending in California to imprison women: about $240 million. (California Department of Corrections)

" Annual spending in 1982: $29 million. (California Department of Corrections and Criminal Justice Institute)

" Percentage of San Francisco women criminals who became involved with crime as juveniles: more than 50. (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice)

" Percentage of delinquent girls in California who have mothers in jail or prison: 54. (National Center on Crime and Delinquency)

If the statistics seem compelling, the response to them, both in San Francisco and nationally, has been ineffective or nonexistent. Even though the number of girls sent into the juvenile justice system has been increasing for decades now, criminal justice authorities say that delinquent girls continue to be either ignored or shortchanged when it comes to services that might help them fundamentally alter the behavior and attitudes that led them into delinquency. In San Francisco, for example, a comprehensive list of girl-specific programs does not exist. Probation officers are often unaware of the female-targeted resources that are available, and therefore are unable to assign girl offenders to the proper rehabilitative programs.

There are many reasons that juvenile justice programs have historically focused on boys, and all but ignored girls. Chief among them is a simple reality: Boys commit more crimes -- and far more violent crimes -- than do girls. The arrest rate for boys is still five times higher than for girls nationwide, which is why Jack Jacqua, co-founder of San Francisco's Omega Boys Club, a respected group that has long dealt with young people involved in gangs, believes that the cry for girls' programs is nothing but the current "Baskin-Robbins cause of the month."

"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.

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.

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.

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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