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Marginalized Girls: Creating Pathways to Opportunity for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

By Kristi Holsinger

A few weeks ago, I participated in a meeting in Washington, D.C. entitled, “Marginalized Girls: Creating Pathways to Opportunity for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System.”  Scholars in the field, juvenile justice practitioners and administrators, and girls with previous and current system involvement came together to share ideas and brainstorm solutions.

 The “gender-responsive” movement for girls[i] is still somewhat in its infancy, with the bulk of feminist theorizing and research in this area occurring in the past 20 years.  This work focuses on gender and attempts to listen to the voices of girls rather than, as in the past, ignore them or rely on sexist stereotypes about them.  While isolated innovative approaches exist, the use of gender-responsive approaches is far from widespread. 

 The juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to address girls’ needs, a point of agreement by scholars and practitioners.  These needs have been well-documented, exist in multiple domains and are often related to girls’ socialization and gendered experiences living in a sexist, racist, classist and homophobic world.  They are among the most marginalized groups.  For example, the rates of sexual violence against these girls that are typically assessed (and then ignored) by the system are astronomical.  Yet, unfortunately, many girls who encounter the system are only re-traumatized by dehumanizing treatment, isolation and emotional abuse (sadly and shockingly, physical and sexual abuse in institutions has yet to be eradicated).

 We are making many mistakes, primary among them reducing federal funding for the prevention and reduction of delinquency while increasing budgets for policing, prosecution and incarceration.  Decisions like these about our priorities ultimately prevent the translation of good research into effective programs and policies for girls.  We aren’t listening to the girls either. 

I’ll end with these instructive words from one 14 year-old who attended the D.C. meeting,

 Because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves we don’t need a system, we need help. I think if you approach young women with a conversation and make it so it’s positive it would help. Women are very strong and emotional at the same time so therefore they need more support and not a locked door; that’s what makes things worse. We want help but don’t know how to get it. Have you all ever thought–

  • She needs love, she’s looking for love,
  • She doesn’t have a father so she’s looking for a man figure to be in her life,
  • She fights because that’s all she’s seen growing up, and
  • She sells her body ‘cause she’s trying to and wants to feel good about herself.

 You see that we have problems, so why don’t you do something to help not blame?

 What can we do when we are being mistreated and we’re children? If you ever really think about it you’d know that some girls just don’t know what’s happening.  Maybe we are just too young. I had to get through some really hard things in my life, really hard. There is a brick wall in front of you and you either stand there and wait or walk around it, and I’m trying to get around it, but I need help. I honestly think sometimes–what’s the use of trying cause who knows if I can handle more setbacks once I get into high school? I don’t want to look for something or be something that’s not me–but who am I?

 I don’t think the system knows what they are doing.  They just think we have problems, but do they care where those problems came from?  Once the system takes you in and sees that you are in a bad state of mind then they should try to help you and that’s not what happens. I’m glad to be here in Washington, D.C., but I just wanna ask all of you, what are you going to do about all this?

[i] Programming, processes and policies informed by research and knowledge on female socialization and development as well as girls’ needs, risks and strengths.