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4 out of 5 girls in juvenile detention have been abused, report says

New report argues arresting girls for prostitution overlooks the sex abuse that got them there

Up to 80 percent of girls held in the juvenile justice system have been victims of sexual and physical abuse, according to a report released Thursday, which recommended that incarcerated girls get screened for trauma or sexual exploitation at intake.

In “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” (PDF), the authors from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequalitythe Human Rights Project for Girls the Ms. Foundation for Women argue that many girls end up behind bars as a direct result of their abuse, in part due to laws in many states that allow police to arrest minors for prostitution.

The report says many girls who have been trafficked into the sex industry are arrested instead of being recognized and treated as victims of sexual abuse.

“It’s victim-blaming of the worst kind,” Lindsay Rosenthaal, one of the authors of the report, said in a conference call to reporters.

The report explained that “the decision to arrest and detain girls in these cases has been shown often to be based in part on the perception of girls’ having violated conventional norms and stereotypes of feminine behavior, even when that behavior is caused by trauma.”

The leading causes of arrest for juvenile delinquent girls — who are disproportionately African-American, Hispanic and Native American — are for offenses such as running away, substance abuse and truancy rather than violent crimes.

These are also the most common symptoms of abuse, according to child sexual abuse experts cited in the report.

“Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests,” the authors wrote. “More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.”

Mia Paz, a formerly incarcerated youth from Miami, told reporters in a conference call that her uncle had sexually abused her as a child. In an attempt to escape arrest for delinquency when she was 17, police fastened her hands to her legs, she said.

“For me, what the police did wasn’t different from my uncle,” she said.

Rosenthaal told reporters that police had labeled a young woman she visited at a juvenile facility in California as a “troublemaker.” Among her failures to comply with prison officials was a refusal to sit down when told.

Eventually prison authorities asked her to express herself on an iPad, where she indicated that before her incarceration, she had been sexually assaulted and sustained damages to her genitals so severe that she could not sit without suffering great pain.

“No one had asked her why” she would not sit, Rosenthaal said. 

The report recommends against arresting girls on prostitution charges and said that juvenile facilities should be required to screen children at intake for sex trafficking, trauma and abuse.

“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, said in a press release. “Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children. But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized.”

The report says that girls caught up in the juvenile justice system are often overlooked, because their numbers are fewer than boys and that the data available on girls is sparse. Studies, however, show that they experience more sexual abuse and higher rates of resulting mental health problems than boys.

One in every four American girls, for example, will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18, versus one in every 10 American boys, the report said.

Childhood trauma in the form of sexual violence appears to have a stronger tie to delinquency for girls than boys. The authors cite a 2014 study that found that a history of sexual abuse is the strongest predictor of whether a girl will end up back behind bars after she is released from juvenile detention.

“It appears to have a greater impact on girls’ reentry into the system than other risk factors like behavioral problems or prior justice involvement,” the report said. “Yet, significantly, the experience of sexual abuse did not have the same impact on boys.” 

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