Justice for Who? The Intersectionality of Girls in the Foster Care and the Juvenile Justice System

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By Dawn Rowe, Founder/Executive Director of Girl Vow, Inc.

When girls are involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, they are often forgotten and left out of the economic wealth models. While navigating adolescence, girls are fighting against systemic inequalities, multiple diagnoses, and violence. Society can’t continue to ignore the gender disparities, otherwise a nation of girls will continuously face early death.

The national conversation on the challenges of girls in the juvenile and foster care systems are long overdue. There are a number of girls who have and are currently wasting away, while the very systems responsible for overseeing their care use antiquated policies that cause irreparable harm. A 2014 report published by Northwestern University noted that delinquent girls are five times more likely to succumb to premature death from violent homicide than the general population.[1] While fighting against early death, girls are consistently being railroaded by no-nonsense zero tolerance policies and structural inequalities. They are challenged by the cumulative exploitations stemming from rape, trauma, broken families, and inflexible systems, ultimately impacting their futures. Girls are marred by poor chronic decisions at the hands of adults responsible for the same structural policies embedded in our institutions, thus miserably failing our children.   

As girls are criminalized for responding to abuse in adolescent ways, they’re insensitively viewed as the “throwaways” of society. While the term “throwaway” implies that they aren’t worthy of being saved, it is important to note the needs of girls must be uniquely addressed as they crisscross between the foster care and the juvenile justice systems with multiple placements and high rates of mental health diagnoses.

In many cases, girls under the age of 21 are diagnosed with a severe mental health diagnosis such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is often a term that refers to survivors of war who have witnessed traumatic life events, but it is also highly present in young people involved in the juvenile justice system. The National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice noted that PTSD is 49% more prevalent among justice-involved girls in comparison to youth in their community.[2] This means that girls are moving between the foster care and the juvenile justice systems with severe emotional scars. Once they simultaneously experience the foster care and the juvenile justice systems, girls are known as crossover youth.

When introduced into broken systems, it is easy for system-involved girls to become conditioned to the revolving doors of the juvenile justice and foster care systems thereby, earning the crossover title. In fact, academic, social, and economic opportunities are stripped away from girls before they have reached adulthood. They increasingly become lost and forgotten. The natural progression of life or the ability to embrace the benefits of economic or social mobility remain out of reach and they do not have the opportunity to experience advancements that would challenge their world view. Instead, they are trapped by an unforgiving system.  

The narratives are worse for girls of color in the juvenile justice system. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) asserts that girls of color are three times more likely to be referred to juvenile courts and are 20 percent more likely to be detained for delinquency than their white counterparts. Girls of color are what OJJDP considers “overrepresented” in a system that has all too often misunderstood the needs of girls.[3]

It is imperative that our foster care and juvenile justice systems modify their practices and policies to better serve girls. Crossover girls face obstacles including generational family violence, a patriarchal society with structural inequalities, and trauma furthered by institutions that fail to understand the complexities of gender-responsive needs. When girls are “thrown away,” society acquires poverty and overburdened tax systems, while girls face early death. “Throwing away” girls not only dismantles neighborhoods but facilitates the deterioration of an entire nation when they are left out of the economic model of equal opportunity. Unfortunately, the finger-pointing of adolescent responsibility ignores adult and systemic failure that should hold the true blame.

[1] Paul, M. (2014). Delinquent Youth Especially Girls More Likely to Die Violently as Adults. Retrieved from: http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2014/04/delinquent-youth-more-likely-to-die-violently-as-adults.html.

[2] Ford, D. J., Chapman, F. J., Hawke, J., Albert, D. (2007). Trauma Among Youth in the Juvenile Justice System Critical Issues and New  Directions Retrieved from: http://www.ncmhjj.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/2007_Trauma-Among-Youth-in-the-Juvenile-Justice-System.pdf.             

[3] Office of Juvenile Justice Prevention (2015). Girls and the Juvenile Justice System Policy Guidance. Retrieved from http://www.ojjdp.gov/policyguidance/girls-juvenile-justice-system/.

Dawn Rowe is the Founder/Executive Director of Girl Vow, Inc., a gender-focused nonprofit for crossover youth. She was a high school dropout and slated for an education-incarceration program at the age of 16 until mentors stepped in to help her achieve her potential. Since then, Dawn has completed a bachelor’s degree in deviant behavior/criminology, and a dual master’s in sociology and higher education administration. She has been recognized for her work in the field of juvenile justice, domestic violence, and for working within low-income communities. Dawn describes her work as purpose work and vows to save as many girls the way others have saved her.