Too often, underage American girls who are sexually assaulted or exploited don't get help. Instead they get sent to prison, according to a new report. And while recent media focus has been on incarceration of black men and boys, black girls are especially likely to end up behind bars.
The report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, put together by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, documents how girls in foster care and child welfare, especially those who are abused, are often funneled into the juvenile justice system.
In Oregon, 93 percent of girls in prison had a history of sexual or physical abuse, including 76 percent who were sexually abused before the age of 13. In California, the number of abused girls in prison was 85 percent, including 45 percent who had been raped or sodomized, and 45 percent who were burned or beaten.
"Our report exposes how girls, who are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system, are arrested and incarcerated, not because girls are becoming violent or the new gang members, but because their experiences of sexual abuse and trauma are marginalized," said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Human Rights Project for Girls, one of the report's authors.
Arresting the victims
Abuse doesn't just increase the likelihood of incarceration. In some cases, the abuse leads to arrest. The most egregious example of this, says Saar, is underage girls who are trafficked for sex and arrested for prostitution, even as their adult abusers usually go free.
Underage girls accounted for only 16 percent of juvenile detainees in 2011 according to a Justice Department report, but they make up nearly 40 percent of minor "status offences" like running away and truancy. These "crimes" are the most common indicators of childhood abuse, says the report.
Children who run away are often trying to escape from an abusive parent or guardian, or someone brought into the home, like a boyfriend or stepfather, who sexually abuses them.
"What we see is a commitment on the part of law enforcement to arrest for nonviolent status offenses that include truancy, running away and loitering,” said Saar, “all behaviors that correlate with childhood sexual abuse, with a child that is being abused and is trying to protect herself.”
The report called the punishment of girls who are victims of sex trafficking and arrested on prostitution charges a "perverse twist of justice," as child victims are treated as perpetrators rather than "supported as victims and survivors." A new movement among activists and law enforcement seeks to terminate the use of the term "child prostitute" because an underage child isn't old enough, by law, to give consent.
Trafficked children who are victims of statutory rape and sodomy are "imprisoned as a direct consequence of their victimization," the report says.
Treatment or trauma
Abuse for many of these girls begins when they are startlingly young. One California study found the age girls were "most likely" to be fondled or molested was 5 years old.
Girls in the juvenile justice system have typically experienced sexual abuse multiple times, according to the report. A 2014 study examined the abuse histories of 60,000 youth in Florida's juvenile justice system, and nearly half of the girls had experienced five or more forms of trauma and physical and sexual abuse, compared to just one-third of boys.
Part of the reasoning behind detaining teen girls in potentially abusive situations is to provide rehabilitation services, but according to the Department of Justice, 88 percent of facilities for juveniles don't have even one mental health professional on staff.
The report claims that rather than helping, incarceration often compounds trauma, creating "significant psychological and physical harms."
Nadiuah Sjereff, a former juvenile inmate, told researchers that in "juvie" she met many girls like herself who were there for running away or prostitution.
“We were not violent girls. We were girls who were hurting," she said. "Being locked up all I could do was reflect on my life, but it didn’t seem to help. I became even more withdrawn and angry.”
Hope for reform
Interventions, even inside a detention center, can make a difference. Lindsay Rosenthal of the Vera Institute for Justice, and one of the supporters of the report, said in a recent trip to a detention center in California she was introduced to a girl who was a "troublemaker" and refused to sit down and fought with the staff.
But on Rosenthal's visit, the center was testing out health screening that allowed girls to disclose their concerns on an iPad rather than voicing them aloud to corrections staff. The girl revealed she had recently been sexually assaulted, and her injuries made sitting painful.
"She wasn't a troublemaker," said Rosenthal. "She was refusing to sit to protect herself from pain that no one, especially not a child, should ever have to endure."
Rosenthal and authors of the report recommend much stronger actions to destroy the pipeline for abused girls. For starters, they recommend that all states should adopt safe harbor laws that divert girls picked up for prostitution into treatment, not put behind bars.
The report also recommends substantial amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that's up for reauthorization this year. Originally, the JJDPA prohibited youth from being locked up for small "status offences" like truancy, but a loophole called the Valid Court Order exception allows for arrests if a court has specifically forbidden that action.
Through using the VCO, over the last 30 years Native American girls are incarcerated at a rate of 179 per 100,000, African-American girls clock in at 123, while whites are just 37 per 100,000.
Rosenthal said the answer to this is a paradigm shift.
"A girl that has been sexually abused and poses no risk to public safety should be connected to a public health intervention," she said, not locked up as a criminal.