Impact of Roe V. Wade on Youth Involved in the Justice System

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By: Kayla Kemp, CJJ Intern

On the morning of Friday, June 24th, a decision was made that has the potential to directly impact women, young girls, and youth in the youth legal system.  The supreme court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade allows states to ban abortion. Young people in the justice system stand to be directly impacted by this decision, particularly youth who are detained.

As of 2019,  the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. was 16.7 per 1,000 girls, ages 15-19. According to the CDC(Center for Disease Control), more than 80 percent of teenage pregnancies are unintended. There are many factors that increase the risk of teenage pregnancy including young women coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and/or violent communities. Studies have also shown that young women in the juvenile justice system are at higher risk of unplanned pregnancy. Pregnancy rates among young women in the juvenile justice system are substantially higher than our nationwide rate.  While the overall rate of U.S. teen pregnancy is 1.7 percent or 16.7 per 1,000 teens that is substantially low compared to the 14 percent of young women who report being pregnant during their time of detention. It is even more alarming to analyze how this decision disproportionately affects young girls of color in the justice system. African American girls constitute 14 percent of the general population and 33.3% of young girls detained. Native American girls constitute one percent of the general population but 3.5% of girls are detained. These numbers remain alarming among young girls of color. 

Pregnancy comes with a host of challenges for young people and is even more dangerous for those who are incarcerated. A  study conducted by the Office of Juvenile Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, Understanding and Responding to Girls Delinquency, shows that girls in the justice system are at higher risk of sexual abuse and violence. They are most vulnerable to these risks of abuse both before entering the justice system and while being in the system. This happens as young victims of sex trafficking are often jailed for their victimization. Instead of getting the proper support they need, they are detained and further abused physically and/or mentally through the system. Many cases go unreported, but young girls in the justice system are victims of sexual assault from staff, probation officers, or other youth involved in the system. Like other girls, 12-year-old New Hampshire native Michela Jancsy is a victim of the heinous environment girls in the system endure. Her story is one of many, when she had gotten the results of her pregnancy test, and it read positive. She wasn't shocked, she didn't scream or cry. She hadn't yet begun to put the pieces together of how she, a young girl in a confined-state run, all-girls, juvenile detention center could become pregnant. It was later revealed that she had been raped by staff in the facility. Michela explained that it started with favoritism, and shortly the unnamed staff had sexually abused her on multiple occasions.  The appalling news surrounding how no one in the facility had raised questions or attempted to figure out how this could have happened shows how normalized the culture of cruelty and taking advantage of our most vulnerable populations: traumatized girls, has become. After finding out, Michela was taken to an off-site medical facility, where she was given two pills to terminate the pregnancy. Michela was an unfortunate victim and in today's post-Roe era her victimization would have been compounded by the trauma of being forced to birth her rapist's child. It is extremely unfortunate and devastating that young girls are put in these harmful situations. It is because they are at the highest risk for sexual abuse and assault that the overturning of Roe v. Wade will impact their lives tremendously. 

In the event that this abuse leads to pregnancy, some young girls don’t have access to contraception. This can lead to an array of problems, starting with the detrimental effects on their mental health. The process of the pregnancy as well as after the child is born can be a reminder of traumatic events, which is extremely painful for women let alone young girls, who have virtually no support system to help them cope. 

With the new Supreme Court decision, there are also more factors to consider when analyzing how this will affect young girls who are pregnant in the system. The first being the lack of resources juvenile facilities have for pregnant youth as discussed further below. Many facilities do not have the capacity to provide gynecological care, provide enough food rations to help support a growing fetus, and lack the resources to assist youth in crisis which has a devastating impact on the developmental growth of fetuses. In addition to this, there are very few if any youth facilities where young mothers can be with their children, and gain access to parenting classes, counseling, or other services to promote healthy relationships with their children. Many youths who serve long-term sentences lack familial connection and often have limited or no immediate maternal figures to look up to or be able to reach out to for help or questions regarding pregnancy, birth, or raising children.

Most juvenile facilities are unaccredited and do not provide the specific services needed for pregnant girls who have been abused. Moreover, these facilities aren't in compliance with the standards of pediatric or reproductive health care for incarcerated populations established by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and out of 1,500 facilities, only 270 of these facilities provide pregnancy testing upon entry.  Although in 2018, the ending of shackling youth involved in the justice system has made a significant impact, only 19 states have laws on the use of restraints. In states that allow it, pregnant detained youth are often subjected to shackling while being transported to and from medical appointments, and at times even during labor, or immediately after they have given birth. 

Childbearing in the justice system also comes with its own trials and tribulations. Youth motherhood has contributed to and been affected by three social trends. First, child poverty rates are high and rising. Second, the number of welfare recipients and the concomitant costs of public assistance have risen dramatically. Third, among those on welfare, there is a much higher proportion of never-married women, younger recipients, and recipients who have a long average duration of dependency.  It’s important to recognize the cycles of child welfare and how they disproportionately affect young girls involved in the system. Of the half million teens who give birth, approximately 75 percent are first-time mothers. More than 175,000 are 17 years old or younger, and this age group is the focus of the studies. These young mothers and their children are especially vulnerable to severe adverse social and economic consequences. More than 80 percent of these young mothers end up in poverty and on welfare, many for the majority of their children’s critically important developmental years. Thus creating a generational cycle of trauma-induced environments making youth vulnerable to those same adverse social and economic disparities, putting them at higher risk of encountering the justice system. 

Breaking this cycle by strengthening the JJDPA ( Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act ) is the first step to making sure young girls involved in the justice system have the necessary tools to navigate adolescent pregnancy and have access to contraceptives and bodily autonomy to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Implementing strategies to hold states and facilities accountable and ensuring they comply with health and programming guidelines for gender-specific services as well as issuing annual reports that reflect compliance with said guidelines and standards is keen in navigating the impact of Roe v. Wade on youth involved in the justice system.