Black Girls in the Delinquency System: “Defiance” or Disorder?

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Author: Shameka Stanford, Ph,D., CCC-SLP/L, Juvenile Forensic Speech-Language Pathologist, Howard University

Racial and ethnic disparities and mass incarceration of black youth has received a lot of attention in the areas of research, legislative, and political focus over the last few years. However, the school-to-confinement pipeline and mass incarceration movement has been vastly based on and for the most part solely highlights the injustices committed on black males. Despite the fact that black girls who are in the justice system and committed to facilities has become the fastest growing population in the United States (Sawyer, 2018).

Twenty-five percent of all petitioned status offense cases brought into U.S. courts annually are against girls, with cases against young black girls accounting for forty percent of all status offense proceedings (Vera Institute, 2019). Because of this, black girls, especially those with cognitive-communicative disorders continue to be a minority within a minority group. In the juvenile justice and special education arena, there is a scarcity of research and literature that addresses the social and cognitive-communicative impairments black girls exposed to low socioeconomic standing, adverse childhood experiences, and limited educational resources and experience.

The effects of a cognitive-communicative disorder can impact an individual’s interaction with society in the areas of social skills, pragmatic skills, ability to consequentially think and problem solve, regulate emotions, and effectively communicate their wants, needs, and discomfort. In black girls, cognitive-communicative disorders can manifest and usually perceived differently than in boys and girls of other races. For this reason, it has been noted that black girls are consistently suspended or expelled from school for zero-tolerance status offenses like being “disruptive” or “defiant”; without administrators, teachers, and school resource officers taking into account their developmental, behavioral, and social abilities and/or impairments (Stanford & Muhammad, 2018). Further, because of the perceptions of cognitive-communicative disorders presented in black girls, limited resources and intervention are put in place to address their needs. As a result, forty-eight percent of adolescent black girls who have been expelled from schools in the United States have never received access to educational services like speech-language pathology (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2014). Therefore, it is necessary for the professionals including policy makers in the field of juvenile justice to begin to discuss the plight of black girls experiencing diagnosed and undiagnosed cognitive-communicative disorders involved with the juvenile justice system.

Although adolescent black girls represent only 16% of the female population, they make up over one-third of all girls referred to law enforcement and subjected to school-based arrests in the United States (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2014). As recognized with adolescent African-American males, the mass incarceration of adolescent black girls also represents a disproportionality in the rate of contact with the justice system. However, we cannot use the literature and research on the experiences and conditions of black males to support the narrative of how black girls are affected and in contact with the justice system. The rapidly growing disproportionate representation of black girls with mental health and cognitive-communicative disorders in juvenile and criminal justice systems is a testament to this. It is also a testament to the inferior quality of education and educational resources black girls are provided.

What we currently know is that black girls are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for status offenses than their peers of other races (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2013). They are also recognized as being more likely to be arrested for status offenses that are at-times subjectively enforced and misinformed by law enforcement and school officials. This results in black girls being directly impacted by the implicit biases and punitive practices of a system that grossly negatively characterizes their behaviors and exacerbates their disabilities. The inadequacy and inferiority presented in educational resources and services may be the result of biased perceptions of black girls being perceived as defiant, aggressive, too loud, and trouble makers; never accounting for the possibility of the presence of cognitive-communicative impairments and how it impacts their societal interactions.

But what if these overgeneralized characteristics of black girls at-risk for delinquency are signs and symptoms of untreated and unrecognized cognitive-communicative disorders? What if their performance and “behavior” in schools are actually related to factors such as impairments in their cognitive-communicative abilities, their learning styles, the quality of intervention they receive, and the disparities and access to quality education and instruction within the classroom? Most often, the individuals responding to the “behaviors”, “tantrums”, and impacted decision making skills of black girls in schools have minimal knowledge, awareness, and training in the areas of child/adolescent cognitive development and cognitive-communicative disorders (Tuell, Heldman, & Harp , 2018). Resulting in black girls systematically not consistently receiving equal and adequate access to individualized education and educational resources like speech-language pathology assessment and intervention within the school and juvenile justice systems.

To understand how the presence of impairments in expressive and receptive language, social communication skills, executive functioning, problem solving, and consequential thinking directly impact “behaviors”, “tantrums”, and status offense and criminalization policy practices black girls are exposed to, it is imperative that juvenile justice professionals/specialists, and legal systems address; 1) the limited information about cognitive-communicative disorders available to the juvenile justice system and law enforcement, and 2) the preparation of authority who come into contact with black girls with cognitive-communicative impairments to be knowledgeable and aware of cognitive-communicative disorders. This is important because adolescent black girls criminalized and placed into juvenile confinement receive disproportionately harsher sentences than any other race in confinement (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2001). In addition, when they are placed under the supervision of the juvenile justice system where they generally experience educational challenges and limited access to intervention and educational resources, they have less opportunity for rehabilitation and intervention than their peers of other races (Underwood, Von Dresner, & Phillips , 2006). As a result, long-term detrimental effects such as reinforcement of adverse behavior and attitudes, exacerbated mental health and cognitive-communicative disorders, and increased future involvement in the criminal justice system persists (Mears & Aron, 2003).

Overall, juvenile justice professionals and law enforcement should utilize the awareness and knowledge of how cognitive-communicative disorders impact black girls’ behavior and decision-making to create informed choices related to interaction, intervention, treatment, court involvement, and court decisions of black girls with CCD at risk for delinquency. The future of positive outcomes for black girls at-risk for delinquency relatively depends on recognizing the difference between defiance and disorders.