By: Paula Huber
Think about your time as a teenager. Even if you had the easiest of times, there is bound to have been a few speed bumps. Adolescence is a turbulent developmental stage, with the juggle of the onset of puberty, trials and tribulations of high school, and identity formation. Now, imagine adolescence combined with the struggles and stigmas of being a girl plus traumatic events such as abuse and involvement in the juvenile criminal justice system. This describes what many adolescent girls are struggling with in our juvenile justice system at this very moment. In fact, girls are more likely than their male counterparts to “internalize traumatic experiences, suffer from depression, mood disorders, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (Quraishi, p.1, 2015). Unfortunately, 46% of adolescent girls in Texas county juvenile corrections facilities reported staff, programs, and treatments did not help them with past traumatic experiences, while an additional 4% reported that they actually did more harm than good (Yanez-Correa et al., 2012).
Not only are adolescent girls involved the juvenile justice system struggling with higher rates of mental illness and past traumas, but they are also dealing with the gender disparities within this system. Increased rates of mental illness and trauma in girls combined with the lower number of girls in the juvenile justice system when compared with boys, creates a gap in gender-specific resources, programs, and facilities (Quraishi, 2015).
The data seems to reflect consequences of this lack of treatment and support in adolescence translating into adulthood, as Texas ranks first in women incarceration, with the greatest number of women behind bars than any other state (Linder, 2018). This leaves us begging the question:
Where do we go from here?
1) Incorporate healing-centered engagement, trauma specific programs in county and state detention centers, to increase levels of support of rehabilitation, as well as avoiding retraumatizing youth.
With trauma having been found as being one of the most pressing issues for America’s youth, it is imperative that we treat and address it. The adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system are more likely than their counterparts to experience traumatic events and PTSD, giving an even higher priority to this specific population. While trauma-informed care would be a positive asset, it has been criticized as not being complete, as presuming that “the trauma is an individual experience, rather than a collective one” (Ginwright, 2019).
Healing-centered engagement is a holistic perspective, focusing on strengths, “advances a collective view of healing, and re-centers culture as a central feature in well-being” (Ginwright, p.3, 2019).The healing-centered engagement model, while being trauma specific and holistic, would in my opinion, be a better fit for the adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system.
Using a trauma-informed perspective in regard to discipline and seclusion-based procedures is also recommended, as seclusion and higher-stress responses of a traumatized adolescence can increase traumatic symptoms and behavioral outbursts.
2) Increase Juvenile Justice staff trainings on empathy, trauma, attachment issues, and mental illness to foster more positive, respectful relationships with the youth and avoid retraumatizing them.
In a 2012 survey of girls in Texas juvenile justice facilities, negative staff interactions were reported to be the least helpful part of the system, and the number one aspect the girls wanted to be changed (Yanez-Correa et al., 2012). Keeping this in mind, while also considering the safety issues security staff face, I believe it would be incredibly helpful for the atmosphere as a whole and for the emotional well-being of the youth. I have observed this personally with my experience with the juvenile justice system, and it is pervasive and detrimental to the youth.
3) Increase funding for community mental health resources and social service programs for adolescents and their coordination with juvenile justice facilities.
With the majority of adolescence in the juvenile justice system, mental illness resources on incredibly essential. However, it has been found that once back in the community, most adolescents do not continue treatment, due to the lack of resources and the incredible cost (Yanez-Correa et al., 2012). This lack of continuity with treatment leads to higher delinquency levels as well as a higher rate of recidivism and continued involvement with juvenile justice (Yanez-Correa et al., 2012). Youth have also reported that the struggles with poverty, mental health, gangs, and other negative factors when they return home have contributed to the continued involvement with juvenile justice. Continued funding and coordination with social service programs for their families and themselves would help prevent recidivism.
In conclusion, the juvenile justice system is not serving adolescent girls the best that it could. However, this can be changed, and we can do better. Policy changes is the first step towards improvement. Community social workers, mental health professionals, politicians, and many others can come together to create positive change in the system and improve rehabilitation for these adolescent girls. Serving this population and advocating for change are firmly related to the National Association of Social Worker’s code of ethics and values, including social justice, advocacy, and many others. I know we can continue to advance the system and address these systematic failures, better serving those who need us most.
Ginwright, S. (2019, March 28). The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement. Medium. https://medium.com/@ginwright/the-future-of-healing-shifting-from-trauma-informed-care-to-healing-centered-engagement-634f557ce69c.
Linder, L. (2018). Women in Texas’ Criminal Justice: Highlights From a Two-Part Report Series by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Austin; Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Quraishi, F. (2015, May 6). Enhancing Mental Health Advocacy for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System. National Center for Youth Law. https://youthlaw.org/publication/enhancing-mental-health-advocacy-for-girls-in-the-juvenile-justice-system/.
Yanez-Correa, A., Magnuson, B., Carreon, J., Totman, M., & Wilks, K. (2012). Girls’ Experiences in the Texas Juvenile Justice System. Austin; Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Featured Picture Credit: https://medium.com/@sydneybrason/girls-in-the-juvenile-justice-system-afd67a9fc748