Teen girls from the Center for Community Alternatives.
Teen girls from the Center for Community Alternatives.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– If a girl in New York State gets arrested by the police and winds up in a juvenile detention facility her horizons quickly close in.

Just ask Marsha Weissman, executive director of a group called the Center for Community Alternatives, which has locations in New York City, Syracuse and Rochester.

"Our work with adult women . . . provides the most haunting picture of girls in the juvenile justice system," Weissman told the several years ago. "Most women in the criminal justice system first appeared as girls in the juvenile justice system."

Weissman, in a recent phone interview, said increasing poverty and homelessness is causing more girls and young women to run away from home and into "not-so-good situations or the streets." That in turn, Weissman said, raises the odds of getting drawn into law-breaking behaviors and getting arrested.

The Center for Community Alternatives and other programs like it are offering young people an alternative to what happens after arrest.

Instead of incarceration, these programs allow participants to stay in their own homes and communities while accessing educational, mental health and behavioral services. For girls, the programs that are single sex are proving most beneficial.

Such alternatives to detention (ATDs) or alternatives to incarceration (ATIs) are part of a growing effort to fight the dire statistics that loom over children who enter detention and confinement facilities.

Last year, in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted $5 million for 23 such programs for adults and teens in a in New York State.

And little by little, a space in these programs is being carved for girls stuck in a system that was made for males.

Girls make up 19 percent of those in juvenile facilities in New York State and 29 percent of juvenile arrests.

More often than for boys, girls are confined for "status offenses," acts that would not be illegal if they were performed by an adult, such as truancy, rather than violent crimes.

Sixty-six percent of boys and 49 percent of girls who come out of a detention or confinement facility were rearrested within two years, according to a New York State Office of Children and Family Services study.

Decreasing Recidivism

Alternative programs appear to be lowering recidivism.

In the first 11 months after participating in one such a program, Youth Advocate Programs, based in Harrisburg, Penn., less than 10 percent of the young people enrolled were arrested after being released, according to a 2012 report.

At the New York City-based Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, known as CASES, less than 15 percent of the graduates of their court employment project have a further criminal conviction within two years of graduation.

Costs are also lower. Enrollment in between $2,500 and $15,000 a year per child, compared to $200,000 a year for those in placement, according to a .

"We need to change our lens," said Judy Yu, associate director of LGBTQ Youth Issues at the New York City-based Correctional Association of New York, in a recent phone interview. "A lot of issues teens in the juvenile justice system face don’t need to be criminalized. Instead, we need to fix a system that is too quick to punish youth of color, and we need to provide educational opportunities and better responses to poverty as a way to help these kids."

Yu’s Correctional Association of New York is the oldest criminal justice reform organization in the state. Her group and other advocacies are backing alternative programs that give judges in the state options beyond incarceration or probation for teens who commit crimes.

Most girls who participate in alternative programs are mandated by the court.

"There are judges who are eager to have evidence-based programs that have good outcome rates, ‘keep the community safe’ and show the girls’ progress," said Maris Schwartz, supervisor of an alternative program, The New York Foundling’s Families Rising initiative, based in New York City.

And for girls, who have a particularly hard time in custody, alternative programs are especially beneficial when they are single sex and provide the chance of girl-to-girl bonding and support.

In her City Council testimony, Weissman said girls with the Center for Community Alternatives have done better since the program began taking a gendered approach. The number of girls leaving the program unsuccessfully–either by dropping out or getting back into trouble with the law–dropped to 15 percent from 25 percent two years after initiating such programs.

Weissman said the percentage of girls and young women in the center has increased to 20 percent today from 10 percent five years ago. She attributes the jump to the increasingly difficult lives of these young girls and women. The organization serves 40 to 50 teen girls.

The center offers training programs exclusively for young women. Topics include leadership skills, sexualized violence, building healthy relationships with partners and reproductive health.

Receptive to Gender-Specific Programs

Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of Correctional Association of New York, says policymakers are increasingly receptive to gender-specific programs.

"It’s important that any programs that are developed for girls and young women are sensitive to the kinds of experiences they may have had before," she said. "There is a real need to build the capacity of staff to be sensitive to the issues that impact young girls and women."

She also points out the importance of programs that recognize that in their early lives many young women have been subject to trauma that can impact how they experience the criminal justice system. One major trauma is sexual exploitation.

Over the past 10 years Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, based in New York City, has helped girls and young women across the city who are commercially sexually trafficked. The organization fights to end the normalization of incarcerating victims of prostitution-related crimes by providing legal support and advocacy.

Girls in the juvenile justice system need trauma support not just because they have gone through traumatic experiences, but because "going through the legal system itself is traumatic," said, Rukia Lumbumba, director of youth programs for CASES.

Girls who end up in juvenile placement in New York State facilities have often suffered physical and emotional abuse, as .

In custody, these re-traumatized girls often lack necessary mental health services, according to a . And when they try to move back into their communities, such teens can have a hard time re-enrolling in school or finding employment.

In the alternative programs, counselors often try to flip the discouraging narratives surrounding these girls. Instead of focusing on their misbehavior, they strive to identify the strengths these teens had to develop to survive amid trauma and poverty and build on that.

Girls Circle

One such program came about in 2010 through a collaboration between New York State‘s Office of Children and Family Services and an ATD program called Youth Advocate Programs, which works with youth internationally and in 18 American states, including 15 counties across New York State.

The effort arose in response to concerns about girls in detention facilities acting out physically in all directions; sometimes trying to harm themselves, sometimes directing their hostilities at staff and other girls. In addition, many residential facilities throughout the state , making alternatives to detention a necessity.

"The mental health issues these girls faced were not being addressed and were escalating, so we added programs specifically for girls," said Stephanie Hart, president of Youth Advocate Programs’ New York division.

Girls began participating in a 20-hour program called a Girls Circle designed to help participants open up about the hurt in their lives and connect with other girls in nonviolent ways.

Star Jones, 16, lives in the Bronx, attends the High School for Fashion Industries and is a member of Youth Advocate Programs.

"I was very negative and spent time around a lot of negative people who weren’t really my friends–people can break you," she said.

Star said the conflict resolution helped her prepare for her future. "It helped me . . . deal with my anger," she said. "It prepared us for society, and helped me not let others ruin my day."

Hart said she believes such programs are especially important for girls because they tend to do "very poorly" in facilities and receive little after-care once they are released from juvenile detention facilities.

The girls also each have a mentor, or "advocate," who plans how to best help the girl she is working with.

"We use an individualized approach to make sure that our mentors have more in common with these girls than that they are female," said Shaena Fazal, national policy director of Youth Advocate Programs, in a phone interview. "We build upon these girls’ strengths and interests. So if a girl is interested in cosmetology, an advocate can take them to the hair salon to learn, or even get them a job."

Star said she felt her advocate was like "family" to her. "Me and my mentor went to a lot of places and did a lot of activities together," she said. We would get our nails done, go around the city . . . She helped out a lot with school and if I had any problems."

‘Path Toward Stability’

CASES runs eight programs across four boroughs for court-mandated young people.

These programs include mental health and substance abuse counseling and educational services that provide high school equivalency exams, college prep and paid internships that give youth not just job experience but "essential" positive encounters. About 10 to 20 percent of teens enrolled in their programs are female.

Rather than focusing on punitive measures, CASES provides services that establish a relationship with the girls enrolled in their programs.

"We don’t ignore the crime, but we highlight the behavior behind it," said Lumbumba from CASES. "We’re going to focus on what we can do to put each youth on a path toward stability, making each one feel as comfortable as possible in the process."

Despite the governor’s recent funding support, finances are a chronic problem and threat to many alternative programs.

In the past few years, several programs, including at CASES and Youth Advocate Programs, have lost funding for services. One of them, , was a girls-only ATD program offered as part of CASESCourt Employment Project that started in 2002.

"When the project started, we had 30 to 40 girls enrolled. But by the last year, we had about 10 girls, so we lost funding," Lumbumba said. She added that she’s "unsure" why the numbers dwindled.

Lindsay Rosenthal is a 2013-2014 Ms. Foundation fellow whose advocacy work focuses on girl survivors of sexual and physical abuse in foster care and the juvenile justice system. Rosenthal said that although New York and many other states have made progress on many general juvenile justice fronts, there is inadequate focus on gender at every level, from the municipal to the federal.

"There are great programmatic responses, but often state and federal policy responses have left girls out," Rosenthal said. As an example she cites a that fails to address gender.

Rosenthal said more data is needed about girls in the juvenile justice system, especially to determine how alternative programs affect recidivism. "Most of the research on the juvenile justice system hasn’t included girls," she said.

"One of the greatest injustices is how invisible this population is," she added. "Having programs and services meant for girls is an equity issue–we need to give them every chance to get back on the right track."

This story is part of a three-part series about girls and the justice system supported by the New York Women’s Bar Association Foundation.

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