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Jury Out on Girls-Only Juvie Programs

Despite more than a decade's worth of attention on programs aimed at girls and crime, researchers know little about whether these programs work better than other efforts.
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Girls now account for nearly one-third of all juvenile arrests, and the overwhelming majority of these female adolescents have mental health and substance abuse problems. Girls are also arrested for violent crime less frequently than boys, but even though juvenile arrests for crimes against the person have been dropping in recent years, they are falling at a much slower rate for girls. In one category, simple assault, they have actually increased by nearly a quarter.

These figures are alarming enough that there has been an emphasis on gender-specific programs since at least the 1992 renewal of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which ensured that girls have full access to services in states receiving federal grant money.

Despite this emphasis, not much is known about the overall effectiveness of these girls-only programs. That's the conclusion of "Determining What Works For Girls In The Juvenile Justice System: A Summary of Evaluation Evidence," a study published in the April issue of Crime and Delinquency.

"Of the evidence we have, the programs for boys and girls seem to work as well as those that are gender specific," said well-known criminologist Margaret Zahn, a co-author of the study and chief of the Violence and Victimization Division of the National Institute of Justice. "But we do not have a lot of evidence on gender specific programs."

All told, more than 100,000 juveniles were serving time in both public and private facilities, according to a 2002 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, although it did not break down those populations by sex.

The study notes specific differences between boy and girl offenders that could affect treatment methodology — girl offenders are usually younger than their male counterparts; they are jailed for shorter periods of time; and their families are more dysfunctional than those of male delinquents, often characterized by serious mother-daughter conflicts.

"There is also a higher incidence of sexual abuse of girls than of boys," Zahn said, "which is why there's more depression. There is a tendency for girls to internalize their problems, and sexual assault probably does have something to do with why they have mental health problems."

Zahn's study compared the results of nine gender-specific and six nongender-specific treatment plans. These range from family-based intervention programs to those designed specifically for juvenile drug offenders, and ones that pair delinquents with adult mentors.

No matter the program and its emphasis, however, Zahn noted that "there are similar risk factors for boys and girls. What really creates delinquent outcomes for kids are dysfunctional families, who you hang out with, the neighborhood you live in. But there are specific targeted areas, such as sexual assault, where attention needs to be paid that is different for boys and girls. And the way the program is delivered may be different for boys and girls."

In addition, the role the child has in the family is important. While, for example, boys may be out on the streets getting into trouble, girls may be at home taking care of younger siblings that their substance-abusing mother is ignoring.

With all this in mind, Zahn said that for a program to be successful, "there are general factors that need to be addressed: family functioning, school bonding and school success and peer involvement. We know what factors need to be examined. The way to approach them is where the gender-specific issue comes in."

Given this, some of the study's findings are a mixed bag. When it comes to one key factor, for example, "gender-nonspecific programs ... appear to be effective in reducing recidivism for both boys and girls." But the study also found evidence suggesting that gender-specific programs have potentially positive effects on education, employment, relationships with family and friends and "other social-psychological outcomes."

Zahn said the one type of program that seems to have the most success is "multi-systemic therapy," which involves "a team that works with the family, and they work with the parents to change the parent's behavior. It's very intensive and very focused; they also go to the school and see how the child is doing. The problem is that it's terribly expensive."

There is also this: how much attention is actually being paid to the juvenile justice system. Zahn thinks not nearly enough, especially when it comes to female offenders, and points to outmoded practices still in effect like having incarcerated girls wear boys' jump suits, or shackling them during child birth.

Gender-specific programs also don't have decades of data to examine. Minnesota might have been the first state to look into the specific needs of incarcerated women, starting in 1978, while most programs arose since the 1992 renewal of the juvenile justice act.

And, added Zahn, there is still an emphasis on boys because the average citizen is "more afraid of boys, there is a higher level of serious violence among boy offenders and there are more boys being jailed.

"But these girls will be mothers some day," she said, "so you have an impact on generations."

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