October 23, 2001
This is an excerpt from a piece that originally appeared in Philadelphia City Paper.
Every Saturday morning, a group of teenage girls comes together to talk about problems, feelings and goals. They speak frankly and candidly about sex, drugs, politics, crime and punishment. But this is no ordinary teen rap session. When this discussion is over, these girls don't go shopping or to the movies. They go back to their cells.
The Youth Study Center sits rather unobtrusively on Pennsylvania Avenue, just off the Ben Franklin Parkway between 20th and 21st streets. If not for the stone walls and razor wire, it could be mistaken for any municipal building. Behind those walls are Philadelphia's youngest criminals, awaiting trial or court disposition for crimes ranging from petty theft to violent assault. The center, designed to hold 105 youths, housed 116 the day City Paper visited: 96 boys and 20 girls. Eight of those girls are participating in this morning's session.
Figures for 1994-99 show the city placed 9 percent of its adjudicated female delinquents into treatment and counseling in the initial year. By 1999 that number had nearly doubled. Left unchecked, the rising tide of girls entering the criminal justice system could have easily broken the back of the already overburdened courts and family counselors. Fortunately, most experts on the subject agree that it's not too late fix what ails the system, and more important, what ails these girls.
Deep in the bowels of the Youth Study Center, a half-dozen barred and locked doors from the outside world, the Saturday morning group session is supervised by Dr. Robin Smith, a noted Center City psychologist specializing in counseling and contextual therapy. Social worker Valerie Anderson and recreational therapist Tracey Smith-Diggs assist Smith in facilitating the session. Together the three women prod, cajole and needle the teenagers into opening up and talking about the attitudes and behaviors that got them here.
Mostly, the women listen. They listen to horrific tales of family tragedy and abuse, of stupid mistakes that led to crimes of passion, convenience or just wanton destruction. One girl was raped for years by an uncle, then disbelieved by her mother when she finally found the strength to tell. Another sold drugs, learning the trade from her mom. Yet another was repeatedly beaten senseless by a stepfather, and on and on and on.
One girl, though, spends the entire two-hour session without saying a word. She shakes her head, nods and shrugs, but won't utter a sound, even when asked direct questions. Ever patient, the counselors don't try to force her to speak; instead, they only ask her questions that can be answered with a nod, a shake or a shrug. Another girl hides her face in the crook of her arm and curls into the fetal position in the chair -- and stays that way for the first half-hour. After that, she eventually sits upright and claims that someday she's going to be a famous writer and a rapper -- despite that she's having a great deal of trouble reading aloud one of the questions Smith-Diggs has written on slips of paper and handed out. The girl stumbles and falters through a few words for what seems an eternity, then Smith-Diggs bails her out, saying her perfectly legible handwriting is unreadable chicken scratch, and she reads the question for her. All the girls are dressed in hospital scrubs: gray shirt and blue pants. They compare, show off and insult each other's sneakers, the only personal clothing any of them are wearing. They seem to be equal parts savvy and street smart, immaturity and naivete.
In 1999, the last year for which national statistics have been released, law enforcement agencies nationwide made 2.5 million arrests of persons under the age of 18, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While property crimes have decreased since 1994, the decline was much smaller for females (21 percent) than for males (35 percent). Burglary, car theft and arson, traditionally male-dominated, are rapidly closing the gender gap. In fact, arrest rates for property crimes for male juveniles fell a whopping 41 percent between the years 1980 and 1999, while the arrest rates for females for the same crimes grew 8 percent. According to Dr. Philip Harris of Temple University's Crime and Justice Research Institute, for the first time since these kinds of statistics have been compiled, teenage girls accounted for more than a quarter of the total juvenile arrests. Twenty-seven percent of all teens arrested in 1999 were girls; in 1981, that figure was 12 percent, says Harris.
The city's Juvenile Justice Services Division comes under the purview of the Department of Human Services and is charged with the supervision, care and rehabilitation of the city's wayward youth. It's a delicate balance, says DHS Commissioner Alba Martinez, of addressing the concerns of public safety while bearing in mind that these are children --big, mean, tough, sometimes dangerous -- but children nonetheless. And as such, they're sorely in need of counseling and rehabilitation if they are to turn their young lives around.
Martinez says that girls in the system often need special attention and counseling services, at a time when services and counselors are stretched thin because of the ever-increasing numbers of girls involved.
"The growth in numbers of girls involved in violent crimes is alarming," Martinez says, "and growing faster than anyone could have reasonably imagined. It's become necessary to realign our systems of treatment and services in order to just stay afloat. Add to that the fact that girls stay in the system longer than boys because of the lack of local services to treat them, and you can see what we're up against."
Martinez says that part of the solution is to institute more community-based treatment programs for young offenders, and more important, to target at-risk kids with programs based on preventive measures.
"Until now, we really haven't made a societal investment in prevention," Martinez says, "and it is imperative that we move from a reactive to a proactive position on this issue. For instance, truancy has traditionally been a gateway to crime, and we're addressing the truancy issue. We need to make sure every child is in school where they're supposed to be and stop making excuses for bad behavior. This applies to the parents as well. If a parent sets a bad example, you'll get a bad result."
David Fair is DHS' Director of Community-Based Prevention Services, and it's his job to help Martinez keep girls out of the Youth Study Center in the first place. He's her point man on the prevention side of the equation and says that DHS, and society in general, has a lot of catching up to do.
"There are decades of research and analysis on juvenile boys, but not girls," Fair says, "and we find that the same means of identifying potential problems with boys is not nearly as effective with girls. In the past, DHS has spent time, money and resources essentially waiting for kids to get into trouble. Now we're trying to intervene before it gets out of control. We must, absolutely must get to these kids long before they get to the Youth Study Center. We found that 80 percent of these kids have some sort of contact with the police before the age of 14. We N and by we, I mean the community at large N must organize to change people's mindsets about female bullies, truancy, sexual issues and the like. We have a lot of work to do."
At one point in the group counseling session, Dr. Smith asks each of the girls in turn, "If you could live your life over, what would you change?" Not one of the girls mentions the crimes they committed or the surrounding circumstances. Instead, everything they say they would change begins with their home life and parents. One girl says she would have been closer to her mother, another that she wishes she'd remained a virgin. One 17-year-old, agreeing that she also would like to have maintained her virtue, makes a profound statement: "If I had only known how sacred my sexuality was, I wouldn't have kept doing it after I got raped on my 14th birthday." She says that even though the rape experience was terrible, she thought that having sex was the thing to do, and since all her friends were sexually active, it was just her time.
Sex is openly and frankly discussed in the raw language of the streets, but the facilitators never bat an eyelash. Statements like "He came too fast" and "I get tested [for HIV] every time I have sex with somebody new" and "I wish I could go home right now and sexually abuse my baby's daddy" are bandied about, with Smith interrupting only to ask a follow-up question or gently correct bad grammar. The girls become insightful and introspective, showing intelligence they were reluctant to display earlier in the session.
The red flags that experts say people should watch for manifest themselves in ways other than sexual promiscuity. Bullying, a long-accepted schoolyard tradition with girls as well as boys, is a symptom of deeper emotional issues and can no longer be ignored, says DHS' David Fair.
"The system should view incidents of bullying as a signal of real problems in the household," he says, "not just turn a blind eye and say 'kids will be kids.' And while it's certainly true that the system is overwhelmed, we must re-prioritize and take a hard look at the programs we have in place and what additional programs are needed."
One of the more controversial programs already in place, says Fair, is disciplinary schools. He says it's often appropriate to send troublemakers to a school where supervision is stricter and security is tighter, but many parents balk at the idea. They say special disciplinary schools unfairly stigmatize kids, labeling them as unfit for polite society, therefore forcing kids to act out further in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But the point of the special schools, Fair says, is to allow maximum educational opportunity for the kids who want to learn, without the disruptions of those who don't.
"All too often, the kids who are loud, disruptive or even violent in school are the ones with poor grades and poor learning habits. So for the borderline kids, maybe the structure and individual attention they'll get at a disciplinary school will be enough to turn them around. True, many kids will not do well at the disciplinary school either, but I think their chances are better. I know the chances are better for the good kids in the school they're taken out of."
Officials say the real issue here is not so much the girls' bad behavior, but the underlying reasons for that behavior. And those reasons can almost always be found in the home. Recently departed DHS Deputy Commissioner Joyce Burrell, by all accounts one of the most respected local people in the juvenile justice arena, has a lot to say about girls in the system, a subject she's been focusing on for several years. Burrell left DHS last month to care for an ailing parent in Washington, D.C., and she says leaving Philadelphia's kids was a difficult decision. She says girls, especially girls at risk, need special attention at a very early age.
"These girls are running from something, and that something is usually emotional or physical abuse,"Burrell says. "They internalize their anger and hurt, get involved in drugs, prostitution or petty theft. And what happens? When they're caught the first time, the judge usually sends them home. But home is where the problem started, so now they lash out at society. In the past four or five years, we've really seen an incredible increase in the numbers of girls arrested for assault, attempted murder and other serious violent crimes."
Burrell says that not only DHS, but neighbors, relatives and church organizations need to get involved with not only the lives of the girls, but also the parents. And she says weOve done a pretty poor job as a society of making sure that parents have the necessary social skills themselves to properly raise children.
"So many of these kids lack even the basic social skills. You'd be surprised at how many of them were never even taught to say 'please,' 'thank you' or 'excuse me.' They have no idea what's expected of them out here in society, because no one ever taught them. What politicians call 'family values' were never stressed in these families."
One of the DHS programs Burrell helped establish before her departure is the Family Collaborative. Here, parents are taught social skills like how to deal effectively with anger or how to establish a working relationship with teachers, and life skills like shopping for cost-effective nutritious meals or how to balance a checkbook. There are even classes on table manners and common courtesy. The idea is that only the parents who possess these skills themselves are able to pass them on to their children, and the parents who don't are only setting their children up for failure.
"Six thousand kids will come through this system that we'll never see again," Burrell says. "They're going back home, and back to their neighborhoods. The question is, Will they be given the opportunity and the skills to become productive members of society? If the answer is no, then we're not doing the kids or the neighborhood justice."
And justice is what the community at large is looking for. Family Court is at 1801 Vine, only a stone's throw away from the Youth Study Center, and the place where the girls in the Saturday group session will eventually wind up in front of a judge. And make no mistake, the judges are not cream puffs. They let the little angels know that they're here to see that the cause of justice is served. But if you're expecting a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, you won't find it.
Family Court Judge Esther Sylvester has been hearing juvenile cases since 1986, and she's acknowledged the increase in the numbers of girls who appear before her. According to Sylvester's records, female juvenile offenders in Philadelphia rose 58 percent between 1996 and 2000, with a staggering 91 percent spike in girls aged 10 to 13. The judge is concerned, certainly, but confident that it's not too late to stem the tide, and she's implementing the programs to make that happen.
"There's a frightening trend involving girls and crime here," Sylvester says, "and even though we couldn't have predicted the rise in crime among girls, we can do something about it. There's a tremendous new spirit of cooperation between the court, DHS and treatment providers, with the ultimate goal of providing the proper counseling and treatment so that the vast majority of them do not re-offend and become productive members of society."
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