Crittenton CEO and President, Kathy Szafran, and former client, Amber Blizzard, were recently featured in the November 2017 issue of the American Bar Association Journal. The story, written by Julianne Hill, discusses how advocates like Crittenton are working to keep young female offenders out of prison through early intervention.
Saving the Girls: Advocates work to keep young female offenders out of prison through early intervention
The first time Amber was arrested, she was 16 and brought in for assault and battery after fighting another girl.
The judge in Mercer County, West Virginia, placed the 5-foot-6-inch girl with sandy brown hair on home confinement for six months. She was expected to work with a probation officer and stay out of trouble.
But going back to her home in the foothills of Appalachia ignited painful memories. It was the place where Amber’s problems began as a child, where she witnessed her father attacking her mother numerous times and where years of family dysfunction took their toll.
“They were never just smacking or shaking each other. They tried to kill each other many times,” the Princeton, West Virginia, native says of her parents. “There was always blood involved: axes, hammers and knives.”
Her father, a coal miner, had a history of arrests for driving under the influence and fighting. Her mother also had a drinking problem and has bipolar disorder, Amber says.
The couple divorced when she was 9. According to Amber, she and her mom are estranged and seldom speak. (Her father died in 2013.)
To ease the pain from her troubled childhood, Amber started drinking at 11. By 15, she was using hard drugs, including OxyContin, Percocet, cocaine, crack and morphine. “I had a period where I was prostituting too” to fund the addictions, she says. “I put myself where I didn’t feel anything.”
After her arrest at 16, Amber was unable to pass the mandatory drug screenings during her court-ordered improvement period. “Before the six months were up, the judge told me I was a lost cause,” she says. She was sent to Sam Perdue Juvenile Center in Princeton.
“I stayed locked up for hours on end,” Amber says. “I got out to eat for one hour each meal; one hour for recreation. It was very scary for me.”
Into the system
For the next seven years, Amber moved in and out of the criminal justice system—first as a minor, then as an adult. Experts say her experience reflects an all-too-common pattern: A girl endures trauma at home only to face more trauma in the justice system.
“It is quite distressing. These stories about girls play out over and over,” says Michele Goodwin, a chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California at Irvine. “More often than not, it is the poorest young women who are brought into the system. And it doesn’t matter if it is urban or rural poverty—poverty is poverty.”
In pockets around the country, the movement to keep kids out of detention homes and prisons is beginning to give more focus to girls, whose experiences and vulnerabilities are markedly different from those of boys. Programs in New York and Illinois, for example, are taking a close look at how to help girls address their problems instead of detaining them.
“The way to do it is to catch the girls before entering the system,” says Francine Sherman, a clinical associate professor at Boston College Law School and co-author of the study Gender Injustice. “Give them support services on the front end and keep them out of the system.”
The problem starts with early arrests. Girls are more likely to be brought in for lower-level, nonviolent charges that wouldn’t be crimes if they were over 18. These are known as status offenses—including truancy, breaking curfew and running away.
“The question should be why. Why are they running away from home? What are they trying to leave?” Goodwin asks.
In 2013, 37 percent of girls arrested were brought in for status offenses and technical violations, compared to 25 percent of boys, according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
This means a disproportionate number of girls are funneled into the juvenile justice system for behaviors that would be overlooked if committed by boys, several experts say. Goodwin says that police are more likely to be called when girls get into fights than boys.
“People have expectations about how girls are supposed to behave: ‘Be nice, don’t act out, don’t break rules,’ ” says Stephanie Covington, co-director of the Center for Gender and Justice in La Jolla, California. “Boys will be boys. But if girls do the same things, that’s horrible and they are arrested.”
“Girls are brought into the system as criminals instead of being treated as survivors of terrors within their own homes,” Goodwin says. Four out of five girls brought into the juvenile justice system have witnessed domestic violence or sexual abuse at home, she adds.
Like Amber, many girls often act out as a cry for help, says Kathy Szafran, CEO and president of Crittenton Services Inc. in Wheeling, West Virginia, which maintains a 48-bed residential treatment center. She served as clinical supervisor on Amber’s case in 2011 when the girl was court-ordered to receive residential treatment because she was 17, pregnant and using drugs.
“Often, the judges put girls in the system to keep them safe from perpetrators,” Szafran says. “With boys, they put [them] into care so they don’t harm anyone else. It’s a very different standard.”
Like Amber, who lives with depression, anxiety, anorexia and bulimia, girls labeled with learning or emotional disabilities are more likely to be in the system, according to a study by Goodwin.
Once they’re in the system, there’s not much help for girls. Programs to help kids get out of the system are most often exclusively focused on boys, experts say.
While the total number of arrests for boys and girls has declined in recent years, the rates of girls’ arrests from 1996 to 2011 fell at a much slower pace than boys’—42 percent vs. 57 percent, according to Gender Injustice. While girls made up 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in 1992, they accounted for 29 percent in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available.
For girls, problems that begin early in life often lead them into the adult system. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332. Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment outpaced that of men by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014, according to the Sentencing Project.
To help prevent women from going to prison, some programs are focusing on reaching them when they’re girls.
EFFORT IN THE BIG APPLE
Last February, New York City launched a seven-month effort to bring the number of girls in detention down to zero by creating a task force—including city officials, police officers, nonprofit leaders and academics—to address their problems.
The Vera Institute of Justice pulled together the various agencies that are now looking at what brings the girls into the system, such as low-level status offenses, and how best to disrupt those well-worn pathways to detention.
Funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the task force hopes New York’s project will become a national role model, says Lindsay Rosenthal, a Vera senior program associate and gender justice fellow.
Two months after the task force’s creation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Raise the Age reform bill, which will move cases for 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult system and into family court by October 2019. Of that age group, more than twice the number of girls enter the adult system, compared to those 15 and under, Rosenthal adds.
As a result, the task force extended its work by two months until November to address the anticipated influx of girls’ cases, Rosenthal says.
In 2016, 479 girls were admitted into family court in New York; 307 were unique to the system, according to Rosenthal. “We are working to better understand why the girls come back multiple times,” she says. “Are there 10 girls coming through eight times or are many coming in twice?”
The task force found that 53 percent of girls were coming from the child welfare system. Two-thirds were in foster care. The other third were from families being investigated by child welfare or receiving preventive services. “That means the girls are usually still at home with the family,” Rosenthal says. “It is a really good opportunity to think about prevention and what strategies at the different points can be used to prevent arrest.”
Support from all aspects of the child’s life—ranging from family members to teachers to various social service agency personnel—will be part of the solution, but there will not be cookie-cutter approaches, she adds. “We also know there is a lot of diversity, different types of interventions; some girls have significant psychiatric issues, as opposed to others who are struggling for other reasons, and the family needs support,” Rosenthal adds.
Strategies in Illinois
Illinois is taking its own approach to keeping girls out of detention. In March, the state received a $267,000 federal grant through the DOJ to examine how girls get into the system and then develop strategies, policies and programs to keep girls brought in for domestic abuse out of confinement.
The idea is to bring stakeholders—domestic violence advocates, law enforcement, probation officers and others—together to figure out what can be done differently. “We do not want them brought into the system unnecessarily,” says Lisa Jacobs, program manager for Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice, Research, Policy and Practice.
The new statewide project examines the context of the girls’ arrests, including family dynamics and previous traumas. One scenario includes a girl defending herself from an abusive parent or adult.
Girls who are defending themselves can be arrested because the state’s criminal codes apply to juveniles just as they do for adults, including mandatory arrests for domestic abuse. The law was designed to protect women in abusive intimate-partner relationships, but it also applies to children who fight with their parents, even if the parents are the abusers, Jacobs says.
“Say a girl and her mom fight. No one is hurt, but the police come,” says Wendy Nussbaum, executive director of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission in Chicago. Police then determine who is the primary aggressor—mother, child or both—and arrest them.
If the daughter is arrested, she could go to detention. “Often, these kids are not causing serious injuries, but in some counties the policy of mandatory arrest brings more girls into the system than anything else,” Nussbaum adds. “The number of kids brought in for domestic battery with trauma in their background is off the charts. We need to make sure we have trauma services for them and not create more trauma with an arrest.”
In Illinois, 13 percent of all girls in detention were brought in for adolescent domestic battery, compared to 5 percent of all boys, according to a 2015 study by the Juvenile Monitoring Information System at the University of Illinois and the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Of those detained, girls of color accounted for 62 percent.
“The more we talked in Illinois, the more we realized we’re applying adult models developed for adults and intimate-partner violence,” Jacobs says. “We were getting it wrong in two ways. Now we are taking the time and resources to look at girls.”
The grant-funded project builds on policies created in suburban DuPage County. There, if a child is arrested for domestic battery and the parents say the child must leave the home, the minor is brought into a detention center for no more than 40 hours before appearing before a judge. If it’s a first arrest, the child and parent will meet to determine whether home is a safe environment. If so, the social worker will offer the youth a diversion program to keep the child out of detention. If the youth does well, all charges can be dropped.
The goal is to first divert girls at the police station and avoid detention altogether. “It’s a lofty goal and, of course, we have to determine which kids really are a risk,” Nussbaum says.
“Some cases don’t need to be in the juvenile justice system at all,” Jacobs says.
The road back
Amber’s experience has proven that help is better than incarceration. “Communities need to come together and start something for girls—programs that help them instead of locking them up,” she says.
Amber says her incarceration in West Virginia didn’t help at all. “I knew in my heart that if someone had intervened, if someone had given me patience, love and tolerance for me at that age—things would have turned out a lot differently. I wouldn’t have been so lost.”
Today she is clean and sober. Detention and jail did not scare Amber straight, she says, but the therapeutic intervention she received along the way did. She credits support from counselors and recovery groups for pulling her out of her darkest moments: losing custody of the baby boy she had at 17 and an almost fatal overdose.
During her journey toward sobriety, support services forged her path toward receiving a GED and then community college. “What worked is finding someone willing to hear me out and not judge me and not lock me up,” Amber says.
Now she’s studying criminal justice at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, where she serves as a peer counselor; and she’s working as a waitress. She’s raising her baby girl with her long-term partner, who is also in recovery.
“When we lock away these girls, it is a disservice to them and a disservice to our society,” Goodwin says. “These are individuals with potential.”
Julianne Hill is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Saving the Girls: Advocates work to keep young female offenders out of prison through early intervention"