The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 14 (2001-02)

What is Happening to Our Girls? Girls in the Juvenile Justice System
Anne V. Swanson

In these times of national trouble, we tend to overlook the trouble in our own backyards. In May 2001, the American Bar Association and the National Bar Association jointly issued a report on the treatment of girls in the juvenile justice system, Justice by Gender (hereinafter, Report)1. The Report raises more questions than it answers.

The Report notes that in the last two decades there has been an overall decrease in juvenile crime, but the percentage of girls being arrested and involved in the juvenile justice system is increasing. Between 1988 and 1997, delinquency cases involving girls increased by 83%.

What factors have contributed to this increase? The Report notes that the increase is partially society’s response to the girls’ behavior, not necessarily an increase in violent and aggressive behavior in girls. There has been a re-labeling of family conflicts as violent offenses, changes in police practices regarding domestic violence and a gender bias in processing misdemeanors, and, perhaps, a systemic failure to understand developmental issues facing girls today.

The Report notes that the nature and cause of girls’ delinquency is different from that of boys. Girls in the juvenile justice system tend to have histories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They often have experienced academic failure, and their delinquency is often connected to conflicts in their family or social relationships.

According to a 1998 report by Leslie Acoca & Associates, girls in the juvenile justice system share many of the following characteristics:

1. Fragmented family, including poverty, death, violence and familial pattern of being incarcerated, extending into past generations;

2. Victims of violence prior to entering the system;

3. Victims of violence within the system;

4. Serious physical and mental health problems;

5. Teenage mothers lose custody of their babies, thus continuing the cycle;

6. Academic failure;

7. Problems in the crucial ages of 12 - 15 years old; and

8. Non-violent offenses, property or drug offenses.

How do girls get to this point? According to clinical psychologist Dr. Marty Beyer, as girls move into adolescence they experience significantly lower levels of self confidence than boys, which may push them into associations with anti-social peers and lower academic achievement. Both Florida and California studies cited in the Report indicated that failure in middle school was the most significant risk factor for girls.

According to the Report, many delinquent girls have suffered physical and sexual abuse, and they use drugs to numb the pain. Depression is common and often undiagnosed. Treatments for substance abuse often focus on intervention in the abuse, not on the underlying problem.

Also, the families of delinquent girls are often more dysfunctional than those of their male counterparts. Most prominent is a high incidence of mother-daughter conflict.

The Report also notes that race is often a factor in girls being caught up in the juvenile justice system. While Caucasian girls constitute 65% of the at-risk population, they represent only 34% of the detained population.

According to the Report, girls are also disproportionately charged with status offenses, such as running away and prostitution. In 1999, girls represented 27% of the juveniles arrested, but 59% of the juvenile run-aways, and 54% of the juvenile prostitution arrests. The Report notes that this disproportionate figure may be because of decisions by police, probation officers, prosecutors and judges to handle status offenses through the juvenile justice system rather than some diversionary method.

As a corollary of the increase in girls going through the juvenile justice system, there has been an increase in girls being detained. This has led to overcrowding, poor conditions and a reduction in appropriate services for girls in detention centers.

There are few programs targeted toward the special needs of girls’ developmental, physiological and emotional needs. Many programs, such as those dealing with run-away behavior, focus on control of the behavior, not on the underlying causes. While most delinquent girls have abused substances, been victimized, had academic failure and need safe housing, most programs do not address these problems.

The Report gives the national picture, but what is going on in our own backyard? Does DuPage County follow the national trend? Has there been an increase in the number of girls in the juvenile justice system since 1990? Are there special programs in DuPage County for juvenile girls going through the juvenile justice system? If so, what are they?

About a year and a half ago, probation officers of the DuPage County Department of Probation and Court Services, Juvenile Division (DPCS), became aware of the special needs of girls going through the system. They brought their concerns to a supervisor, and collaboratively began working on the problem. When the ABA Report was issued, the DPCS went into high gear. They first had a training seminar in May with a nationally recognized specialist in the area, Paula Schaefer of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. In August, they hosted a day-long seminar introducing the Gender Specific Services Initiative in which approximately 90 governmental and community services participated.

A sample of the demographics of girls in the juvenile probation caseload in DuPage County shows that we are not the national norm.2 Girls on probation in DuPage County have the following traits:

  • Are Caucasian (68.3%; African-American 11.7%; Asian 5%; Latino 15%)
  • Are at medium risk to re-offend (79.3%; maximum risk 20.7%)
  • Do not have a history of sexual activity (68.3%)
  • Have not been physically abused (65.6%)
  • Have not been sexually abused (68.8%)
  • Do not physically abuse others (58.3%)
  • Are not teen mothers (86.7%)
  • Do use substances (80%) (which may be one time to habitual use)
  • Do not have pro-social peers (78.6%)
  • Are not socially isolated (93.4%)
  • Are not gang affiliated (70.5%)
  • Are not wards of DCFS (86.9%)

Since 1997, when statistics were first available, the rate of girls being detained, while remaining in the low 20th percentile, has actually dropped. There were 26% in detention in 1997, and 23% in 2001. The same is not true of girls on probation. While hovering around 20%, the percentage did actually increase between 1997 (19%) and 2001 (21%), with a large increase in 2000 (24%).

According to Pat Hayden of DPCS, the most useful part of the August symposium was having the girls who are currently in the juvenile justice system here in DuPage County talk to those attending. The girls emphasized that they needed someone to listen to them, to hear and try to understand their needs and problems. One of the key factors the girls mentioned was that of relationship. They need to feel comfortable with someone who cares about them and what they have to say. Indeed, the studies show that females, in general, are relationship oriented.

One of the main ideas, which Ms. Schaefer brought to the symposium, is that of restorative justice. This is an idea that has been used in Minnesota for several years with some success. According to a paper issued by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in January 1998, one of the reasons it works so well for juvenile girls is that it builds on the idea that girls are relationship oriented. Restorative justice emphasizes the ways in which crime harms relationships in the context of community. Crime is viewed as a violation of the victim and the community, not of the state. As a result, the offender becomes accountable to both the victim and the community. Restorative justice helps the offenders take responsibility for their actions and take corrective measures to repair the harm to the victim and the community caused by their actions.

The restorative justice model helps the victim to heal by allowing him/her to speak his/her feelings and become involved in determining how the offender should repair the harm done. The community becomes involved by supporting and assisting the victims and by providing opportunities for the offenders to make amends. The offenders become involved in the process because they become directly accountable to the victims. As stated in the Minnesota Department of Corrections paper, "[i]incarceration by itself may be considered a relatively easy sentence compared to the restorative justice approach that holds offenders directly accountable to victims, confronts them with the personal harm they have caused, and requires that they make real amends to the victim and the community."

Restorative justice is based on three basic assumptions: a crime results in harm to the victim, the community and the offender; all parties should be included in the response to the crime, including the offender, the community and the victim, if he/she desires; the victim is central to the process of defining the harm and how it can be repaired. DuPage County is still working on how to implement restorative justice into its juvenile justice system.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Detention Prevention (OJJDP) has issued a report3 addressing the developmental differences between girls and boys. The OJJDP report also emphasizes the relationship orientation of girls. It also notes that girls in the middle school years tend to lose self-esteem. This tends to cause girls to become quiet and withdrawn, losing their self-confidence, especially in school. The report also notes factors that help to mitigate this loss of self-esteem. First and foremost is at least one positive, non-exploitive adult relationship. Second is achieving some measure of success in school. Third is some form of spiritual connectedness, if not in the form of organized religion, then in journaling or meditating. The final factor is living in a family where there is a low level of stress.

Obviously, a department of corrections or probation office cannot provide all these factors. The OJJDP report suggests the following five guidelines when establishing female-based programs:

1. Whenever possible, young women should be treated in the least restrictive environment.

2. The program should be close to their home so as to help maintain family relationships.

3. Programs should be consistent with female development and stress the role of the relationship between staff and girl.

4. Programs should be prepared to address the needs of parenting and pregnant teens.

5. Programs should be all female whenever possible.

Rebecca Maniglia, Director of RLM Associates and Co-Director of the Institute for Gender Responsive Services, emphasizes in her paper that "equality does not equal sameness." In other words, females are different from males and their problems, their development and their rehabilitation. Therefore, services for young women should be equal in funding and education of staff, but not be exactly the same services as those provided for males. In order for the programs to be effective, the programs need to take into account the specific needs of the gender for which it is designed.

The DuPage symposium held in August 2001 stated the following as part of the vision of the DPCS:

1. Offering a "girl friendly" environment in the detention center by creating separate visitation rooms, a female-specific orientation/handbook, and an overall safe and clean environment;

2. Serving the females within one pod while in detention and selecting specific teams or officers who will oversee their probation;

3. Developing programs to address domestic violence, sexual abuse and training young women on personal safety;

4. Enhancing young women’s self-expression by hosting annual talent shows and increasing opportunities to participate in creative art programs and creative writing programs.

The DPCS hopes to implement these visions by developing the following programs:

1. Offering open forums and panel discussions on various topics such as relationships, parenting, media communication, and societal expectations;

2. Training male staff on "what works" methods in working with young women;

3. Creating a teen advisory board;

4. Strengthening working relationships with community service agencies that will aid DPCS in diversifying services for young women;

5. Developing female-based cognitive behavioral programs;

6. Supporting young women in their scholastic endeavors by researching female-specific academic scholarships;

7. Increasing the communication between probation staff and detention staff with the possibility of creating a "joint case management;" and

8. Offering education and support to the parents of young women on probation.

The DPCS has set up committees to help implement these programs, and has prepared a booklet of services in the area that are available to girls in the juvenile justice system, A Guide to Resources for Juvenile Girls in DuPage County.

As some of the results of the symposium, Family Shelter Service developed a training program on dating violence for the probation staff. DPCS has determined that the best programs will be those that encompass both detention and probation. They are also trying to bring girls into the process of developing these programs, but nothing formal has developed yet. There is a long-term goal of having a mentoring program at least for the girls on probation.

The DPCS is at the brink of new and exciting things. What it has done so far in such a short period of time shows great sensitivity to the problems of girls in the juvenile justice system and forward thinking in trying to address this problem. Many things are in the planning stages, and there is a great commitment to the youth of DuPage County.

1Available from the ABA at

2The DuPage County Department Probation and Court Services, Juvenile Division, generated all facts and statistics regarding girls in DuPage County.

3 Available at

[The author would like to thank Pat Hayden of the DuPage County Department of Probation and Court Services, Juvenile Division, for all her help, insights and comments.]

Anne V. Swanson is working as an independent contractor for R. Edwards Bates doing veteran benefits and Margaret Bennett doing real estate and domestic relations. She also teaches a course in mediation at North Central College. She graduated from The John Marshall Law School and Augustana College cum laude.

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