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Juvenile justice faces growing crisis: What can we do about the girls?

Third of four parts

Tuesday, July 17, 2001

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- On a sunny summer day, the windowless blue hallways of the juvenile detention center here seem particularly dark and narrow. The only full light falls on a courtyard outside the gym, where a field has been laid out for playing softball. For obvious reasons, the outfield fences rival the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park in height.

Only those teens most difficult to place in programs are housed at the Youth Study Center, located on Pennsylvania Avenue near City Center. The boys and girls live on separate floors, and the census this day proportionately reflects the juvenile corrections world in America -- 90 boys, 13 girls.

A 19-year-old resident in the Danville Center for Adolescent Females, Pennsylvania's maximum security facility for girls, sits at her desk with a blanket over her head, convinced that germs are falling on her from the ceiling. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

A closer look also reveals a troubling but lesser known national trend: While girls comprise a smaller percentage of juvenile offenders, they are far more likely than boys to enter the system with serious mental health problems.

This day, explains a center official, 15 of the 103 residents have their names on a suicide watch list, either because they've threatened suicide or have made a serious attempt.

Of the 15, seven are girls.

"Girls are different. Not worse, just different," said Joyce Burrell, the deputy commissioner who oversees juvenile justice youths in Philadelphia.

"Girls require a lot of individual attention. Girls need relationships. Girls' lives depend on relationships, whether they are sick or not, and we try to fit them into institutions where that doesn't happen," often because the emphasis is more on security and regimentation than therapy.

Here's another way girls are different from boys, at least in Philadelphia: Girls, on average, spend two weeks in detention before they're placed in a program. The boys stay about eight days.

"People have decided that girls are hard to work with," Burrell said.

Growing violence

Teen girls entering the juvenile justice system are more likely than boys to have been sexually and physically assaulted, and are more likely to carry deep anger and emotional trauma because of it. Often, even as they're victimizing someone else, they're victimizing themselves, through drugs, or prostitution, or self-mutilation.

Third of four parts

Troubled teen gets the help she needs -- in Florida

Young, black and untreated

Part One:

Lack of options keeps mentally disturbed youth locked up

Part Two:

Juvenile justice and mental health: As two worlds collide, teen suffer

Part Three:

Juvenile justice faces growing crisis: What can we do about the girls?

Part Four:

Wrapping troubled teens in a blanket of support

About the series

A photo journal



At Allencrest Detention Center in Beaver County, there are usually 20 boys and 4 or 5 girls, said Dawn Thibodeau, director of medical services -- yet the girls generate eight times as many reportable incidents because of fights or other rule infractions.

One teen girl at Allencrest last year assaulted four different staff members before she was finally sent to the Danville Center for Adolescent Females in Montour County. Her psychiatric diagnoses ranged from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia.

"Unless that girl changes, through medication or something else, she's going to kill somebody. It wouldn't take any provocation at all," said Royal Hart, assistant director at Allencrest.

Cases like that are bound to increase, if only because there are more girls entering detention and other secure facilities.

In the past year, for the first time, Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center had to convert a third unit to house girls for several weeks. In all of 1999, Shuman had 30 or more girls on 27 days, and never had more than 37 at one time. In the first four months of 2000, Shuman had 30 or more girls on 76 days, and up to 50 at one time.

The number of girls at Shuman has dropped since then, but mostly because the county's juvenile courts have expanded their hearing schedule, reducing the overall number of teens in detention.

One reason Shuman and Philadelphia's Youth Study Center have begun to experience more problems is that girls are getting arrested more often. While juvenile arrests for violent crimes in Pennsylvania have decreased overall the past five years, one category has increased: girls arrested for aggravated assault.

Detention centers nationwide are seeing more girls, too. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, female delinquency cases increased 65 percent between 1988 and 1997, compared with 30 percent for males. The largest single increase for girls -- a 155 percent jump -- involved crimes against people, such as assault or terroristic threats.

A mental illness link

Last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare convened a group to look at health care services for dependent and delinquent children. The 35 members included juvenile court judges, probation officers, county mental health and mental retardation administrators and parents.

One question was on everyone's minds: Why are we seeing more aggressive girls?

Terry Moloney, a Welfare Department executive assistant, said that while there's a general impression that girls are more prone to fights and other violence than they used to be, it's only conjecture right now. He said the state is now trying to document exactly what kinds of behaviors are being seen among teens in detention, a task it hopes to complete before year's end.

Many experts believe that the new signs of violence among girls stem partly from their mental health problems.

When Georgia officials recently screened their juvenile offenders, nearly 60 percent of the girls had some form of anxiety disorder, compared with 32 percent of the boys. Self-mutilation and suicide attempts among girls far surpassed the boys' numbers.

Elizabeth Cauffman, an associate professor of psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, led a groundbreaking 1998 study while at Stanford University that found that more than 70 percent of the 96 female juvenile offenders she interviewed had been exposed to some trauma, such as molestation or witnessing violence.

Specifically, 74 percent said they'd either been badly hurt or had been in danger of being hurt, 76 percent had witnessed someone being severely injured or killed, and 60 percent said they'd been raped or nearly raped. Some will continue to experience that trauma over and over again, a process known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

One young woman particularly stood out, Cauffman said. She'd been found delinquent for a carjacking in which she put an ice pick to a man's neck and then forced him out of his car.

During her interview with the 15-year-old, Cauffman learned that she'd been gang-raped in a grassy field five years earlier. After that, the teen relived that trauma when she smelled fresh-cut grass. "When you're reliving a traumatic event, you may act out or you can become completely withdrawn," Cauffman said. This teen grabbed an ice pick.

Fewer programs for girls

With more girls getting arrested, and fewer mental health placement options, detention centers have become catch basins for society's most troubled girls.

Almost desperate for options, James Rieland, juvenile court administrator for Allegheny County, sent out a request to local residential treatment centers last year, encouraging them to create a local program for aggressive females. But with no money to offer to help set up such a program, Rieland said, "we didn't get much" response.

In fact, the trend has been the other way. Southwood Psychiatric Hospital in Upper St. Clair, for instance, stopped admitting girls to its residential treatment program three years ago. "The girls' market waxes and wanes," said Southwood CEO Lynne Struble. One week she might have had a waiting list to get on the 16-bed unit; a few weeks later, there would only be five girls. The wide variation made it difficult to staff or make financial plans.

But there was another reason, too, she acknowledged.

"Girls are tough to take care of. Lots of girls have a borderline personality disorder. In my opinion, there's something wrong chemically there. There's something gone awry."

Yet, despite their clear need for secure mental health treatment, teen girls have fewer options than boys.

Male juvenile offenders who are mentally ill may go to special programs such as Project 5 at the New Castle Youth Development Center in Lawrence County or the new mental health unit at Loysville, Perry County. In the most severe cases, there's the 16-bed Allentown Secure Treatment Unit in Lehigh County.

For girls who are mentally disturbed, the final stop in the state system is Danville, north of Harrisburg in Montour County.

Sitting on the grounds of Danville State Hospital, the Danville Center for Adolescent Females has room for 58 teens in six units within an H-shaped building surrounded by high cyclone fencing and razor wire.

Hearing the histories of Danville's residents, some might wonder whether the fence protects society from these girls, or protects the girls from society.

One 15-year-old, sent there for aggravated assault, was herself an assault victim: She arrived at Danville with scars from her head to her ankles. Her parents were drug addicts and she herself was hooked on heroin before she was 10. A few years later, she saw first her father, then her mother, die of AIDS. Officials suspect the abuse occurred after that, when she was placed in foster care with a relative. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and takes two anti-psychotic medications and one anti-depressant.

Another resident, 19, was in Danville for two counts of aggravated assault. She also showed symptoms of schizophrenia and spent much of her day at her desk with a blanket covering her head. She said the blanket quieted the voices she heard in her head, and protected her from the germs she was convinced were falling from the ceiling.

A third young woman, 16, was raped at age 8 and had been sent to Danville after threatening to kill her mother. She had been hospitalized twice in the previous two months following suicide attempts. "I felt like I had no reason to live. I didn't want to live at all," she told a visitor.

One year ago, Danville officials began putting new girls with major mental health problems in "A Unit," where the program focuses less on regimentation and more on therapy. A psychologist, a counselor and a treatment supervisor each sees the girls once a week. A psychiatrist visits once a month.

Out of necessity, everything from suicide attempts to psychotic episodes gets taken care of in-house, said Jeff Giovino, former director of the facility. "We have nowhere to send a kid. No psychiatric hospital will take them."

On the day a Post-Gazette reporter and photographer visited last summer, there were 64 teen girls at Danville, six more than capacity. Of those, 23 had undergone at least one psychiatric hospitalization. At Danville, where officials try to wean residents from medications, eight of the 64 were still taking antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, or some combination of the three.

One official estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the girls were at Danville for domestic assault, such as attacking a parent. Another 30 percent had been in foster care because of family problems and had then assaulted someone in the foster home. Although nearly all the girls admit to a history of drug and alcohol abuse, few are in Danville for drug offenses such as dealing.

During interviews done when they first arrive, about 60 percent of the teens reported that they'd been sexually abused -- a number Danville officials believe is conservative.

That alone should prompt juvenile justice officials to reconsider their approach to girls, said one national expert.

"When they use restraints, and those type of things, it tends to retraumatize the girls in a way that may not be the same for boys," said Gary Christ, senior director for juvenile justice at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va.

"It's a kind of problem related to juvenile justice, in that we've modeled it with boys in mind. It's kind of caught us a little bit by surprise to find out that we have this increase in girls. It's really caught the whole system by surprise."

Post-Gazette Staff Writer Steve Twedt can be reached by telephone at (412) 263-1963 or by e-mail at

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