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At-risk girls prone to social withdrawal before acting out through crime

Why the most vulnerable aren’t getting help they need, according to recent research

When asked if she remembers feeling safe in her home while growing up, Laurie replied, “Never.”

Raised in rural Washington state, her father cut her off from contact with any adults who might have been able to intervene to stop the sexual, physical and emotional abuse she and her siblings suffered.

“He would go into rages over really small things and scream at us, call us names, hit us, psychologically torture us,” said Laurie, who is being identified only by her first name in order to protect her identity.

After running away when she was 17, Laurie said she stole to survive, shoplifting haircutting scissors so she could trim her own bangs and pilfering soup packets easily concealed in coat pockets.

But anyone who met her during her troubled childhood would not have guessed the traumas she was suffering. She said she was shy and withdrawn in her teens. She is not alone. Recent research suggests that such quiet and calm behavior, which often slips under the radar of teachers and counselors, might be a red flag that a girl could become self-destructive as an adult. Researchers are only just beginning to grasp the differences in how girls and boys react to similar traumas.

A recent study published in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that girls who experience physical abuse as children tend to internalize their feelings and are often quiet and withdrawn, whereas abused boys more often tend to act out aggressively, getting into fights and trouble at school. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the girls who were withdrawn as children who were most likely later to exhibit antisocial behavior — reporting a pattern of abusive relationships and engaging in criminal activity — as adults.

What’s more, the researchers found that contrary to previous research, troublesome or criminal behavior during girls’ teen years didn’t show the same correlation. Young girls might act out temporarily during adolescence, but it won’t necessarily lead to illegal behavior in adulthood, said study lead author Hyunzee Jung, a scientist in the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington. Childhood internalization appears to be the better predictor.

Put another way, the behaviors most indicative of later problems and the girls most in need of intervention are the most likely to be ignored, she said. Now some advocates for vulnerable girls say that some of the strategies being used to help them are ineffective and might even make matters worse.

Consequences of abuse

The results of Jung’s study didn’t surprise Laura Brown, a Seattle therapist who specializes in treating adult survivors of childhood trauma.

“It’s not unusual for girls who have been abused to dissociate. It’s a disconnection between themselves and the experience,” she said. “If you can dissociate and focus extra hard on school, then you look like a kid who’s achieving. But you’re not going to be doing well in relationships and don’t have emotional bandwidth that correlates with your peers.”

Female gender roles invite internalizing and conformist behaviors, Brown said, adding, “It’s not normative or supported for girls to be aggressive.” Therefore attracting professional attention is less likely for the close to 5 percent of girls 14 to 17 who said they have been sexually abused or for the 15 percent of girls who reported maltreatment (physical, sexual or emotional) by a caregiver in the previous year, according to statistics published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this year.

Thus some advocates believe that better intervention strategies could help keep a lot of girls from getting sucked into the justice system, as the connection between girls’ childhood abuse and later incarceration is well documented. Forty-five percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced five or more adverse childhood experiences — serious traumas that can provoke toxic stress — according to a 2015 report by the Human Rights Project for Girls. Farther along in the pipeline, more than half the women serving time in state prisons reported they experienced sexual or physical abuse, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

Advocates for girls say they’re learning better what works and what doesn’t to keep vulnerable girls out of the system. It starts with recognizing the long-term impact of abuse.

“Girls might look compliant and shy, but it’s often because they’ve been traumatized,” said Katherine Peatross, the clinical program director at Youth Villages, a nonprofit based in Memphis, Tennessee, serving at-risk youths. Chronically stressed kids often can’t tolerate face-to-face therapy sessions, she said, so sessions might occur while a girl is drawing, playing basketball or crocheting, in the case of a recent client. 

Breaking the cycle

Treatment strategies have evolved, said Tim Goldsmith, the chief clinical officer of Youth Villages. This is part of “trauma-informed care,” he said, “where you recognize that having environments that support healing and nurturing are more impactful than punitive environments that try to make kids do things.”

Building resiliency and self-esteem can be tough for abused girls. It takes patience in addition to compassion, said Patricia Lee, an advocate for girls and the managing attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. She recalled meeting a young client several years ago who started screaming when Lee tried to tell her that returning to her abusive home situation might not be her best option.

“I waved the counselor away and just let her scream, which went on for like a minute, although it seemed like five,” Lee said. “Then I put my hand on hers and said, ‘Are you done? Are you OK?’”

“I said, ‘You know what I do instead of screaming when I’m really upset? I do 10 jumping jacks,’ and made her get up and do them with me. She started laughing when she saw me doing my jumping jacks in my suit,” she said.

Lee said that in the 1990s there were no dedicated trauma-informed resources for gender-specific interventions for girls but that’s changing. Along with Lee, Lawanda Ravoira, a longtime advocate for girls and the president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, based in Jacksonville, Florida, is involved in girls-only youth courts, which can help avoid potentially triggering situations like waiting to appear in courthouse hallways packed with men.

“Trauma is not something that’s healed. It’s managed,” Ravoira said.

Now an educated, successful, married mother of two, Laurie credits her foster mother and some of her teachers as role models who taught her what caring, healthy relationships looked like. But it is an ongoing effort.

“I used to deny that anything that happened to me before I was 12 had anything to do with the kind of person I am now,” Laurie said. “I used to think I had overcome it. But it will always be part of me.”

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