Girls in Juvenile Detention Facilities: Zones of Abandonment - Women and Girls in Various Justice Settings

Gender, Psychology, and Justice: The Mental Health of Women and Girls in the Legal System - Linda Wolfe 2014

Girls in Juvenile Detention Facilities: Zones of Abandonment
Women and Girls in Various Justice Settings

Kendra R. Brewster and Kathleen M. Cumiskey

Fighting the soul of the city is hard. When you fight the soul of the city you are destroying evil. Fighting the soul of the city is dramatic. It is dramatic because you see people getting hurt and dying. Fighting the soul of the city is hurtful because you lose your most precious loved ones. Fighting the soul of the city can be a positive way to go because you can’t help prevent “forest fires.” Fighting the soul of the city can be a wonderful thing . . . because you can learn about different people, culture, attitudes, and the way they adapt to the society. That is what fighting the soul of the city means to me.

—Kimaya, incarcerated girl, 2008

Kimaya’s words above say something about her sense of isolation. They also indicate that her feelings and agency—the thoughts and actions she engages in to adapt to her sociocultural contexts (Jenkins 2001)—are not hers alone; they are shared with many other girls who emerge from urban environments that feel largely out of their control. Kimaya represents the voice of one of the hundreds of girls in confinement who participated in a course called Mentoring and Adolescent Development, between 1999 and 2012, at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY). This course took place within a nonsecure/limited-secure facility run by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.

Incarcerated girls occupy marginalized positions in society that severely restrict their access to material and social resources. The value society grants them is dependent on their perceived racial, class, and gendered statuses. These statuses are the foundation for the uneven trauma and unequal treatment that girls experience (Morton and Leslie 2005; Sangoi and Goshin 2013). Despite these circumstances, court-involved girls are agents who try to make meaning and take responsibility for their individual situations and behaviors.

Kimaya reminds us that poor girls and girls of color are not criminal personalities but agents struggling with social isolation and abandonment. They lose their loved ones, and witness or experience trauma. They also survive “the soul of the city” and need to continue struggling to survive as long as structural inequalities remain. These inequalities are at play in the daily operations of juvenile detention facilities, in the therapeutic relationships girls develop with service providers behind bars, and in the various kinds of programming that are offered to them during incarceration. It is important to note that those who work with incarcerated girls form temporary relationships that do not buffer the girls from the losses and deficits they experience. Although these relationships may be the only lifeline in a context of mass deprivation, they are not solutions to the underlying causes of girls’ displacement and social abandonment. When service providers, decision makers, and other stakeholders recognize the political dimension of their role in relation to the girls, only then can they directly address social inequality in every arena, from the interactions they have with those they serve to opportunities for social activism and civic engagement within communities and organizations.

In this chapter, we define the juvenile justice system as a zone of social abandonment and examine how it makes some girls more vulnerable to harm and further victimization. Zones of social abandonment are places where already-marginalized groups are further disenfranchised (Harvey 2014; Marrow and Lurhmann 2012). Jails, hospitals, many public housing developments, and refuges are examples of zones of social abandonment where people live a “bare life,” that is, a life focused on basic necessities (Marrow and Lurhmann 2012). Bare life is the condition of securing food, shelter, safety; however, it does not guarantee that the person will have social value, a voice, or authentic relationships (Marrow and Lurhmann 2012). People in zones of social abandonment have very little control over what happens to them and are the least respected members of society. They are often poor, non-White, female, and/or living with a disability. They struggle with mental health issues, have a criminal history, are homeless or precariously housed, may identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, may be pregnant, or may have vulnerable immigration statuses. In zones of social abandonment, people face additional physical harm because they are devalued and placed in precarious situations, where sexual abuse, familial violence, and commercial exploitation are all intensified by social inequalities and deprivation (Eisenstein, Heinigeri, and Bezerra De Melloi 2010).

Zones of social abandonment may be characterized as continuous because they often are identified in families and spread to other social contexts where individuals undergo various types of neglect (e.g., relational, educational, legal). At the community level, this neglect is experienced as lack of resources or opportunity (e.g., unemployment, closing of community centers, poor transportation options) (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2012). Policies related to crime control and criminological theories strengthen the boundaries of these zones of abandonment. Kelling and Wilson’s “Broken Windows” theory (1982), for example, suggests that visible signs of abandonment in neighborhoods encourage crime and signal the need for more aggressive policing. In the family, interpersonal abandonment occurs when relatives hand their “troubled” ones (i.e., children with disabilities or family members with mental illness) over to institutions such as psychiatric hospitals. This results in further isolating the “troubled” person from broader social support by separating them from the outside world and from their social networks (Marrow and Luhrmann 2012). The institution itself may be built on a culture of power, predictability, and control that may impose reinforcement for rule following and an overreliance on restraints and medication. Lack of resources for state- and city-run facilities may trickle down to the consumer as the experience of neglect and abuse (Hartocollis 2009). At a macro-systemic level, professional discourses that promote the myth that independent individuals are wholly responsible for their fate mask structural inequalities in ways that compound the experience of social abandonment.

In this chapter, we examine our own experiences with incarcerated girls and student mentors, whom we came to know through CUNY’s Mentoring and Adolescent Development course. We review the relevant literature, discuss the multidimensional factors that lead to girls’ incarceration, and highlight the psychological and social concerns of abandoned girls. Then we examine “what works” for girls and discuss the key tenets of gender-responsive programming. We argue that deficits in theory and practice might be filled by the intentional inclusion of incarcerated girls’ voices. We close by highlighting the directions that research and programming can take in order to maintain a deeper commitment to serving girls in zones of social abandonment.

The voices of girls and mentors who participated in the course come from multiple sources. The girls’ voices come from art projects they completed as part of the course, and the mentors’ voices, from a study about intergroup relationships. We did not ask girls to indicate their demographic descriptions in their art projects. The mentors’ demographic descriptions were captured since they come from a formal, rather than archival, study. We are withholding all demographic descriptions in this chapter so that girls and mentors are addressed in equal terms. We analyzed the data from the girls and mentors using grounded theory practices (Corbin and Strauss 2007; Strauss and Corbin 1994). We used a start-list of words and subthemes that fit the primary areas of interest as highlighted in the literature about incarcerated girls’ social and psychological concerns and their experiences of incarceration and release. The resultant start list of codes, subcodes, and specific words was then used as a scheme for hand coding the data. In this chapter, we present data to show where girls’ voices are missing and, alternatively, where they affirm and challenge research findings, and offer insight.

Framing Our Course

The course Mentoring and Adolescent Development occupies a unique position in the history of the College of Staten Island at CUNY. The course was founded by Drs. Judith Kuppersmith and Rima Blair, who sought to provide unique, female, and adolescent-centered experiences to the girls in the facility. They also sought to provide students who were interested in becoming clinicians an opportunity to develop an understanding of therapeutic interventions with a forensic population and to examine the larger social contexts of devaluation and abandonment that had the potential to restrict girls’ opportunity and impact their self-concept. As we taught the course, we considered it an opportunity to offer critical analyses and ways of relating to others and to extend professional worldviews to include a view of the person-in-context. In the classroom, we taught students some basic counseling skills and discussed critical social-psychological approaches to juvenile justice. We coordinated the students’ weekly visits, and designed ten facility-wide workshops open to all the girls, staff, and mentors. We (faculty and student mentors) also sought to be active community members outside of the realm of the course, and therefore went to the facility to lead expressive arts and support/social groups (i.e., we led a Girl Scout troop, created a cheer/dance team, and conducted a knitting grief group). We attended Family Day when girls’ families came for routine visits, which often featured a group meal and an activity (e.g., girls showed films they made about their lives from a digital journaling class and were recognized for their school work). We also participated in the Community Advisory Board meetings at the facility.

The mentors were mostly White and middle class, and the girls resided in an all-female facility that primarily housed Black and Latina girls from poor and gentrifying neighborhoods. The demographic differences between the girls and the mentors provided the opportunity to recognize inequality and to challenge stereotypic perceptions about the girls. The average age of the college student mentors was twenty-two, while the girls were fifteen years old and had on average a ninth-grade education level. Given these differences, we attempted to help the college students and the girls develop a critical consciousness and acknowledge that differences in race, class, gender, and sexuality shape everyone’s life. This consciousness often began to take shape when we had the college students theorize why they themselves or people they knew weren’t incarcerated for doing some of the same things the girls had done (e.g., truancy and theft). While we followed the institutional directive to not ask why any one girl was incarcerated, girls’ self-disclosures indicated that they entered the detention facility for various reasons, including excessive truancy, noncompliance in other residential settings, and getting caught up in rings of street gangs and related crimes. The majority were victims of sexual violence that led to their involvement in survival crimes. Often the girls were incarcerated simply because there was no other residential placement or responsible, willing adult available for their care.

Instead of focusing on girls as “juvenile delinquents,” we acknowledged them as adolescents who had sometimes made mistakes and were often abandoned by people and institutions. Rather than positioning ourselves as “saviors,” we framed ourselves as a community who sometimes shared elements of the girls’ histories. We approached the course as a journey towards mutual self-discovery that involved learning about inequality and disrupting discourses of individual criminality through self-reflection. With this frame, students were able to see girls in context and to view incarceration as a zone of social abandonment, as illustrated in the quotation below:

They [most people] should know that the girls all have a story to tell, and that they should not be dismissed from society or our minds just because they are in the facility. It should be brought to light the impact that poverty, parental neglect, education, and abuse have on their lives. (Sarah, student mentor)

Girls’ Social and Psychological Concerns in Zones of Social Abandonment

Practitioners in the field of child and family, clinical, and counseling psychology understand the importance of embracing an ecological approach when working with clients who have had some contact with the juvenile justice system. Within the ecological model, the child is in the center, and the contexts within which this child is nested are taken into consideration in attempts to address behavioral issues (Stormshak and Dishion 2002). The ecological approach moves away from a focus on the “criminal personality” to a focus on individual behaviors in context. The ecological approach also attempts to address community and societal dynamics like racism, sexism, and classism as factors that have an impact on individuals’ lives.

Ecological models explain how racism, sexism, and classism position certain girls as targets for differential treatment. Gender norms and racial stereotypes influence girls’ representations, which in turn determine the kinds of interactions they have with the legal, penal, and educational systems (Neville and Mobley 2001; Welch, Roberts-Lewis, and Parker 2009). For example, gender norms define women’s true nature as innocent, peaceful, warm, weak, and worthy of protection. Girls who are seen as breaking these gender norms are targeted for incarceration and other forms of “treatment” designed to “refeminize” them (Godsoe 2014). There is a “cost” to violating gender norms: Girls may be characterized as cold, sexually promiscuous, gender-nonconforming and, perhaps, lesbian (Carr 1998). They may also be judged more harshly within the justice system.

Gender norms influence which behaviors are seen as criminal. Status offenses are the most explicit illustrations of the way gender norms contribute to girls’ incarceration. Behaviors that would not be considered a crime in an adult court, like truancy, running away, disobeying parents, or breaking curfew, become criminalized (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera 2014). Up to half of girls’ arrests are for status offenses, and girls are punished more harshly than boys for similar offenses (MacDonald and Chesney-Lind 2001). The criminalization of girls’ behaviors has been described not only as a means of “taking care” of girls but also as a way of ensuring their conformity to gender norms (Dohrn 2004; Kempf-Leonard and Johansson 2007). Even being pregnant as a disenfranchised youth can be criminalized or, worse, be ignored as a life event that is important to the young mother. Our facility was the only one in the state of New York that allowed pregnant girls to keep their babies with them after they gave birth.

Girls of color and poor girls stand out against dominant societal representations of femininity in ways that contribute to their targeting for policing and incarceration (Holsinger and Holsinger 2005; Schaffner 2006). Gender, class, and racialized stereotypes blend and produce different images for different girls: White girls are cast as passive and in need of protection, Black girls as sexual, independent, and crime prone, and Latinas as sexual, dependent, and family oriented (Nanda 2012). Similarly, representations of poor people suggest that they are unable to plan or uninterested in planning for their future, and are prone to laziness (Lott and Saxon 2002). These stereotypes impact girls because they communicate messages about why girls deserve to be locked up and how they might be reformed into “good girls” (i.e. feminine, “White-acting,” docile, and quiet—with the promise of entry into the dominant culture) and whether or not the origins of their crime are a result of their inherent nature or a byproduct of their primary social worlds (Nanda 2012). Some suggest that the juvenile justice system seeks to control the gender and sexual expressions of low-income girls (Goodkind 2009; Pasko 2010). Racial, class, and gender stereotypes also “justify the policy of abandonment of this segment of society by public authorities” (Wacquant 2004, 96), which is illustrated in both the prevalence of policing and the relative absence of services within poor communities of color.

Poverty is a primary determinant in girls’ incarceration, even when the contribution of race is taken out of the equation (Chauhan et al. 2010). Poverty is linked to criminal activities through concentrated disadvantage, victimization, and discrimination (Acoca and Dedel 1998; Kaufman et al. 2008). A large number of girls involved in the criminal justice system run away to escape abuse or neglect within the home (Chesney-Lind and Sheldon 2003; Sangoi and Goshin 2013). They comprise an estimated 53 percent of runaway petitions in courts (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera 2014). Girls experience active and passive forms of neglect and find themselves left alone because their parents are working, are struggling with their own mental health and physical needs, or are incarcerated. Girls may have to take care of the household, their siblings, their own children, and even their parents by themselves, and thus endure further neglect and abandonment (Schaffner 2006). Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and homelessness, which contribute to their higher rates of incarceration (Curtin 2002; Graziano and Wagner 2011; see also Irvine, Canfield, and Roa, chapter 8 in this book).

Girls often attempt to survive poverty by committing crimes in order to secure basic needs for safety, shelter, food, clothes, and medication (Kempf-Leonard and Johansson 2007). Beyond sheer need, in a class-based society that emphasizes monetary success, girls may also use crime as an instrument to obtain material goods that would otherwise be unattainable (Giordano, Deines, and Cernkovich 2006).

What Works in Girls’ Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Programming?

Ecological explanations of female crime and incarceration are an important first step towards bringing mental health and criminal justice interventions into closer alignment with gender-sensitive practices. At present, many mental health and criminal justice programs limit service providers in their ability to fully contextualize the lives of incarcerated people (Pollack 2004). Failure to take into account the contexts of girls’ lives and to adapt the delivery of services to their realities is the way the voices of incarcerated girls are silenced.

Ecological treatment models like Multisystemic Therapy (MST) have been empirically documented as effective (Evans-Chase and Zhou 2014; Latimer 2005). Only a few models, however, explicitly address the issue of systemic inequality rather than focus on the “criminal personality” (Neville and Mobley 2001; Welch, Roberts-Lewis, and Parker 2009). Addressing girls’ needs from an ecological perspective requires that mental health and criminal justice practitioners develop a more complex understanding of what defines girls’ agency. Service providers are decision makers in every aspect of girls’ incarceration, from treatment through exit planning. Although they may develop a great deal of empathy towards those in their care, and use multisystemic theories and approaches to treat them, they must still self-consciously think of their role as that of “interventionists” in order to examine the ways in which service delivery may contribute to girls’ social abandonment. The term “interventionist” refers to the ways in which service providers become involved in individual lives and communities as outsiders who dictate what the problem and the solution are from a dominant frame that may or may not take into consideration the girls’ culture and values. Below we highlight how mental health and criminal justice practitioners can pay attention to girls’ immediate and diverse needs during incarceration and to their ongoing conditions of social abandonment in ways that enhance service as well as gender and multicultural sensitivity (Sherman 2005).

Recommendation #1: Programming should be empowering.

Gender-responsive approaches to programming stress the value of empowering girls to find and use their voices. Girls should have the ability to provide their perspectives on their service needs and placements (Dorhn 2004). For example, they should make choices about whether to participate in individual or group therapy and what issues to address in treatment (Bloom et al. 2002a, 2002b). When girls take part in decision making, they feel validated and develop a sense of engagement and accountability. They also experience greater success in treatment. Zahn and colleagues (2009) found that 85 percent of girls reported achieving the desired outcomes they themselves had defined. Making choices and exercising agency is a crucial part of adolescent development that is often only acknowledged and rewarded when incarcerated young people choose to be compliant with the punitive aspects of living in a residential setting (e.g., deciding not to speak out if something seems unfair to avoid challenging power, withholding feelings or attempting to say what therapists want to hear in order to appear to be healing/healed) (Polvere 2014; Tosouni 2010).

In the Mentoring and Adolescent Development course, we engaged girls in the design of our program in order to decrease the sense of uncertainty they carried around with them each day. Girls in the juvenile detention facility never knew when their exact release dates were and had limited control over their aftercare planning, which often went awry for a multitude of reasons. Girls would literally feel trapped in not knowing, in asking questions and not getting answers. Uncertainty about what would happen to them intensified their sense of instability and abandonment. A few girls thought their aftercare social worker had forgotten about them, or that facility staff had forgotten about or refused to complete their paperwork. These dynamics intensified girls’ experiences of mistrust.

By contrast, our course provided girls with opportunities for control and recognition: Girls routinely voted which topics they wanted to learn about, discuss, or explore more deeply in the workshops and weekly visits with mentors (see figure 6.1). They also decided which subtopics we should address and the format of the exploration (e.g., discussion, fishbowl, talking, anonymous question box, poetry, and role play). Having choices seemed to engage girls who were enthusiastic about integrating their life experiences with what they learned. We also allowed them to guide us in what they wanted to gain from our “mentoring” relationship. This included researching college options, applying to college, studying for the GED, learning about various careers, and getting into nontraditional job training programs.

Table 6.1: Topic Selection Survey




STDs/Teen Pregnancy/OB/GYN care


Mental illness/Suicide

Bad influences

Drugs/Drinking and driving

Lack of social services

Neglect and abuse


Medical/Health services/Insurance/Overmedicating Children

Conditions of hospital/Lack of quality healthcare


Higher education

Importance of education

Career paths/Educational goals (what is a BA, MA, PhD?)

Dropping out/Being pushed out

Truancy and social promotion

Special education/I.E.P. Diploma

Safety in schools/Drugs in schools

High school diploma/OCFS education

School-to-jail pipeline

No Child Left Behind

Military recruitment

Recommendation #2: Programming should be relational.

A relational approach to treatment is gender responsive because it attends to girls’ tendency to draw their self-concept from their relationships with others (Gilligan 1982). This is essential given the high incidence of exploitative relationships in the histories of incarcerated girls (Chesney-Lind and Shelden 2003). Some suggest, however, that correctional contexts discourage positive, relational dynamics (Ashkar and Kenny 2008; Gaarder, Rodriguez, and Zatz 2004). Correctional staff may perceive girls as manipulators who tell stories to get attention and who avoid responsibility for their actions (Gaarder, Rodriguez, and Zatz 2004). Such perceptions increase their inclination to establish control over girls (Ashkar and Kenny 2008).

Relationships between girls and staff range from indifference to aggression: Girls may be shouted at, demeaned, threatened, or physically restrained (Dierkhising, Lane, and Natsuaki 2014). Girls have reported that they would be “punished” with hostility if they advocated for better treatment (Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn 1997; Tosouni 2010). Girls seem to be painfully aware that they do not have a voice, and often think it is unfair that they should have to be respectful to adults when they are not given the same regard (Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn 1997). Our experience affirms that girls feel singled out, silenced, and punished in relationships with staff. Some girls even indicated that these relationships matched their family dynamics and left them feeling scared or retraumatized.

Positive interactions between staff and girls are rarely discussed in the literature, but our experience provides some examples. Nekesha’s story indicates the importance of having the staff and girls participate in authentic, caring relationships:

Some facilities is positive because there staff and other residents that are willing to work together and help another that is goin thru problems. Just listen when they need a ear, talk when they need advice. Just keep it real at all times good and bad. (Nekesha, incarcerated girl)

Nekesha focuses on the everyday support girls can receive from staff and community members (e.g., volunteers who facilitated classes in art or yoga). We observed such support when staff helped girls with homework after their workday was over, or talked to them gently about their behavior or relationships outside. Administrators also shared fond memories of former residents, kept mementos like portraits of girls that were hand sketched before they were released, or stayed in contact with them well into their adulthood. This suggests that there is room for supportive and authentic relationships between incarcerated girls and juvenile justice staff, where problem solving and positivity replaces mistrust and hostility (Ashkar and Kenny 2008).

Many of the mentors in our program witnessed girls looking out for one another, advising each other to calm down so they wouldn’t get written up, or warning each other not to play basketball too passionately to avoid personal injury. In our course, we realized the importance, for girls, of developing reliable and trusting relationships with us as well as with each other: They would loudly exclaim to other girls, “Oh look, there is my mentor!”—thus expressing their excitement as well as their sense of connection with the mentors. On the other hand, when a meeting with the mentors was missed, they would respond with disappointment. Through the course activities, we—the mentors included—strove to foster authentic relationships; we also provided structured opportunities for girls to develop trusting and reliable relationships with one another. For example, Della facilitated a cheer/dance squad with two other classmates:

Although at first it was a struggle to get them to work together, little by little egos disappeared and teamwork emerged. We were able to get the girls to trust each other enough to learn stunts and gymnastics. They were able to learn an entire routine and performed it during Family Day. The difference between the first practice and the Family Day performance was night and day. Incredible. I cried tears of joy as they performed. (Della, student mentor)

Other mentors observed a similar sense of community as they participated in mentor-initiated programs at the facility (e.g., Girl Scouts Behind Bars or No Child Left Inside—a nature exploration program), or as they collaboratively made art or completed participatory research projects.

Recommendation #3: Programming should be culturally relevant.

A culturally sensitive approach to gender-sensitive programming stresses three dimensions of girls’ experience. First, girls contend with structural disadvantages based on their racial, class, gender, and sexual identities and related social positioning (Mattews and Hubbard 2008). Second, girls of color are overrepresented within the juvenile justice system; they receive harsher treatment, and are exposed to the unconscious biases of staff and practitioners (Mattews and Hubbard 2008). Third, the needs of justice-involved girls call for criminal justice and mental health programming that affirms their identities. Addressing these considerations will allow service providers to validate girls’ experiences, to interpret their behaviors in context, to understand girls’ experience in terms of resistance rather than unruly character, and to identify how they can intervene not only in girls’ lives but also in their communities. When service providers acknowledge the importance of belonging and group membership and display an affirmative attitude towards the communities from which girls come, they foster girls’ positive identification with their gender, race, class, and sexual orientation (National Council on Crime and Delinquency 2012; Walker, Muno, and Sullivan-Colgazier 2012).

To meet the needs of incarcerated girls, mental health and criminal justice programming should attend to components that help girls (1) recognize everyday instances of racism, (2) contest biased social representations of their communities, (3) identify their cultural strengths, and (4) develop their own perspectives on society and history (Fejes and Miller 2002; Roberts and Welch-Brewer 2008; Valentine Foundation 1990). Naming inequalities can help girls discuss and “talk back to” representations that prescribe who they are or who they can be (DeFinney, Loiselle, and Mackenzie 2011).

In the Mentoring and Adolescent Development course, we strove towards culturally relevant programming by inviting the girls to explore a variety of topics related to race and gender. For example, we focused on Afrocentric rites of passage and autobiographical exploration exercises. We organized a unit on gendered violence that addressed relational and sexual health. We also led a research project where girls and mentors examined and analyzed images of Black and White women using a protocol designed to foster their interpretation of symbols of power and their understanding of women’s placement relative to men in the images. In another participatory action research project, girls and mentors interviewed one another. They asked questions about social support, community resources, and basic goods available in their neighborhoods. They also discussed why there might be differences in the resources available to girls and mentors. The project engaged the girls in a roundtable discussion about the relationship among schools, policing, and incarceration. The aim of this discussion was to address the racial dimension of girls’ experiences of being profiled. We found that unless race and culture were the explicit focus of the conversation, girls and mentors rarely addressed their cultural differences. By contrast, they acknowledged cultural similarities (e.g., “we’re both Latinas”) more readily. Therefore, we strove to create a safe environment and provided ample opportunities for mentors and girls to embrace both differences and similarities. Last, it is important to note that we looked primarily towards the girls for their perspectives on the discussion topics, before adding our own to the conversation. Our objective was to avoid imposing our meanings and interpretations before the girls had voiced their own.

Recommendation #4: Programming should be comprehensive.

Community-based and residential interventions with a comprehensive and ecological approach to the needs of at-risk girls have the most promise. They often share the same definition of desirable outcomes for girls—reduced recidivism, increased education, and improved relationships. Among them are residential treatment models with positive results that offer individualized intervention planning, case management, educational programming, and relational and life skills training (Zahn et al. 2009). AMICUS Girls’ Restorative Program, Southern Oaks Girls School, and Girls and Boys Town USA, for example, are interventions that have been found to enhance family reunification, to reduce disruptive behaviors, and to promote maturity and compassion (see also Gordon 2004). Community- and school-based programs for formerly incarcerated girls, such as Reaffirming Young Sister’s Excellence (RYSE), Working to Insure and Nurture Girls Success (WINGS), and Practical Academic Cultural Education (PACE), aim to strengthen girls’ social, academic, and vocational skills as well as familial and community connections (National Council on Crime and Delinquency 2012; Roman et al. 2006; Zahn et al. 2009). They also provide assistance with transportation and emergency financial support. SafeFutures, a five-year demonstration project implemented in several cities in the United States, provided girls with individualized services, life and parenting skills training, mentoring, mental health treatment, and basic and vocational education (Roman et al. 2006). The effectiveness of the program varied across sites; however, SafeFutures was found to reduce girls’ justice involvement and to increase their school attendance (Roman et al. 2006).

Recommendation #5: Girls need multifaceted mental healthcare.

Access to mental-health and substance-abuse treatment inside juvenile detention facilities is limited, and when programs are available, they have been described as too impersonal or too superficial (Tosouni 2010). The girls who participated in our course confirmed the one-size-fits-all nature of mental health programming in the detention facility:

The negative effect that can occur is that facility usually have groups and programs that they use to serve different types of behaviors at one time. Facilities usually use it as “the cure” to all behaviors. Which means that one child behavior can never get the right attention they need or right care. They have to be half-assed with they problems and get consequences for not doing things the “right way.” (Tracee, incarcerated girl)

Girls also critiqued the use of psychiatric medication as ineffective or harmful (Polvere 2014). For example, Tracee indicated that medications did not address core issues, but caused other problems:

They label the residents and diagnose them with problems and give them meds that they think is going to heal them. Which they don’t pay attention to is that most meds heal one thing and has more dangerous side effects and causes other problems. One main side effect of most drugs is suicide. How is that helping youngins and teens? (Tracee, incarcerated girl)

Cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) hold a position of prominence in correctional programming. CBT has been documented to decrease negative emotional and behavioral responses and to reduce juvenile recidivism and substance abuse by changing the thoughts that are linked to problematic feelings and behaviors (Milkman and Wanberg 2007; National Mental Health Association 2004). CBT interventions for justice-involved youth include Anger Replacement Therapy, Moral Reconation Therapy, and Thinking for a Change (Mahoney et al. 2004; Milkman and Wanberg 2007; National Mental Health Association 2004). Despite evidence of their effectiveness, these CBT programs have been heartily critiqued for focusing on the “criminal personality” as the target of treatment (Pollack 2004; Van Wormer 2010) and for not considering how classism, racism, and sexism affect girls’ mental health (Myers 2013; Pollack 2014). For example, critics have argued that CBT is inappropriate for use with diverse clients because it emphasizes dominant cultural worldviews like science, logic, and rationality, while claiming it is value neutral (David 2009). Others have also noted that the implementation of CBT often places emphasis on intrapersonal factors, and discounts the external, oppressive dynamics that non-White, non-Western clients experience, ranging from micro-aggressions and differential treatment to structural and institutional barriers (David 2009; Sue 2015).

However, the American Psychological Association’s policy statement on evidence-based practice in psychology suggests that it is possible to deliver CBT programs for justice-involved youth with multicultural responsivity by matching treatment to clients’ characteristics and culture. The therapeutic process of matching opens an avenue for addressing oppression and privilege in treatment (David 2009; Kelly 2006) because it calls for a conceptualization of clients’ distress and therapeutic change in the social environments where they occur. Additionally, emphasizing clients’ strengths with a view to empowerment is a core clinical process of multicultural counseling that is equally important to gender-sensitive programming in juvenile justice settings. Strengths-based treatment contrasts with traditional justice interventions in several ways (see for example Van Wormer’s model; Van Wormer 2010). First, it emphasizes the self as resilient, rational, and situated in social contexts, rather than focusing on the criminal personality. Second, it defines women and girls as active participants in a collaborative therapeutic process, rather than as people who are either resistant to or compliant with treatment. Third, it targets women’s and girls’ fulfillment and well-being rather than recidivism. It also considers the structural factors that contribute to women’s and girls’ participation in criminal activities, and supports women’s and girls’ initiatives to become effective and supportive community members. Contextual and strength-based approaches to justice interventions for girls are in line with the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women, which call for practitioners’ attention to oppression and privilege, gender socialization and stereotypes, and institutional and systemic bias in clinical practice (American Psychological Association 2007).

Girls’ Last Days in the Detention Facility: Reentry or Social Abandonment?

This is my last day in here. In one way I’m happy and in another scared but it’s my time to go and leave but now it’s all about me and what I need to do. I do want to cry cuz I been with them . . . six months and I’m out the door. So the ball is in my court. (Charlene, an incarcerated girl)

On her last day in the facility, Charlene suggested that she alone was responsible for herself when she stated, “it’s all about me and what I need to do.” While this is a statement of autonomy, it also speaks to the dearth of personal, social, or institutional support that girls have after incarceration (Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn 1997). Upon discharge from detention facilities, girls are concerned with large and small issues, “fears about how to handle everyday occurrences they had missed or forgotten, such as what it would be like to drive, attend a regular school, take a bus, cook, buy groceries, date boys, and get along with people” (Belknap, Holsinger, and Dunn 1997, Key Finding Number Five). Programs that seek to help girls expand their sense of agency may inadvertently intensify their sense of social abandonment: When girls return to their communities with the belief that they, and only they, are responsible for their lives, they are ill equipped to recognize and deal with the structural inequalities that remain intact outside of juvenile justice facilities (Myers 2013).

An ecological approach to juvenile justice interventions is a good first step to help girls address their everyday concerns in ways that also acknowledge systemic disadvantages. Treatment for incarcerated girls must integrate the personal and the social and foster girls’ ability to address everyday injustice. Treatment should also foster mental health and justice practitioners’ understanding that girls’ needs emerge from contexts of deprivation (Polvere 2014; Smith and Romero 2010).

The principles of scientism have predominated in the field of psychology in ways that have prevented practitioners from producing complex multidimensional analyses of systemic oppression (Sue 2015). Scientism is the overvaluation of post-positivistic scientific methods as a way to find solutions to problems, while lived experience is undervalued or invalidated as a base for knowledge production. Scientism is often regarded as a reductionist approach with a focus on individual variables as the cause of problems (Fox 1996). Practitioners can minimize the likelihood that they will reproduce oppression by widening their therapeutic worldview from scientism to a complex and multilevel understanding of individuals in contexts, by engaging in critical self-reflexive practice, by sharing power and voice with court-involved youth, and by working together with incarcerated girls to build on strengths and hone tools for social change (Chesney-Lind and Shelden 2003; Dohrn 2004; Goodman et al. 2004; Van Wormer 2010), so that no girl continues to be abandoned.


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