THE CHALLENGE OF HEALING LA COUNTY’S TRAUMATIZED GIRLS
Incarcerated girls are more traumatized than boys, and less likely to get adequate treatment
by Xin Li and Phillomina Wong
Moriah, then 14, woke up to burns on her body one night along with physical evidence that she had been raped. She had been invited to a party the night before by someone she considered a friend. (We are just using Moriah’s first name to protect her privacy.)
She eventually came to realize that she had almost been looped into a human trafficking scheme. This event, among many other traumatic events, affected Moriah mentally, physically and emotionally.
“I just felt neglected,” Moriah said of her childhood.
When she was growing up her father was in and out of prison, and she turned to other kids in her neighborhood for comfort. She says she felt like she had no protection and felt lost. While she was never officially in a gang, she did hang around friends who were gang members when growing up in Fullerton, California. Many of those neighborhood friends had problems of their own.
With them Moriah started using drugs and soon struggled with addiction, she said. In high school she got hooked on methamphetamines. On one occasion, when she and her friend were trying to come up with money for drugs, they decided to steal a car.
Two days later, she was arrested for grand theft auto and spent eight months in a juvenile corrections facility. After getting out, Moriah was determined to turn her life around, but soon she started using again. She became friends with gang members and started stealing cars again for drug money. When she was 17, she was sentenced to Los Padrinos and then Camp Scott.
Girls like Moriah who experience high degrees of trauma are statistically more likely to act out than kids with fewer childhood traumas. As a result, they are also far more likely to wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to a growing body of research.
When girls come in contact with the justice system, however, new reports show it is usually for acts that present little or no threat to public safety, and for behavior that’s largely a reaction to “abuse, violence and deprivation.”
Yet, while girls are disproportionately pulled into the system, new juvenile justice reforms rarely focus on the specific needs of troubled girls or on the underlying reasons they landed in the justice system in the first place.
For example, when Moriah recalls her experience at Camp Scott, what stands out to her the most from the group counseling sessions she was encouraged to attend was how many girls in the camp revealed they had been sexually abused, or were in camp for being sexually trafficked, or both.
“I thought it was really crazy,” she said. The sex-trafficked teenagers “were basically brainwashed by people who these girls thought were their boyfriends.”
THE ISSUE OF TRAUMA IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM
The number of girls in the U.S. juvenile justice system has been rising steadily in the last decade. Trauma is now increasingly being recognized as a driving factor for pushing girls into the system.
According to a study by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), youth in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to significantly higher rates of traumatic childhood events than youth with no contact with the justice system, with rates of trauma exposure ranging from 70 to 96 percent.
The NCTSN study also shows that girls in the justice system have experienced even higher rates of victimization than their male peers.
Nationally, more than one-third of girls in the system have a history of sexual abuse, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Similarly, a 2014 study of 64,329 kids involved in the justice system in Florida found that 31 percent of the girls surveyed reported having been sexually abused, 41 percent reported physical abuse, and 84 percent reported family violence—-as opposed to 7 percent, 26 percent, and 81 percent for boys in those same categories.
There are no definitive statistics showing the degree to which girls in the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles have experienced high degrees of trauma.
But a unique program called the Girls Health Screen, which has been running as a pilot program in one of LA’s juvenile probation camps for girls, reports that one-third of the girls tested report “urgent health needs” such as a recent history of sexual assault, a chronic sense of hopelessness and recent suicidal thoughts and actions.
The Los Angeles County Probation system as a whole is making some effort to include trauma-informed programs in its juvenile camps — both the boys’ camps, and the two facilities catering solely to girls. Probation officials hope that a brand-new boys camp facility due to open next year, Camp Kilpatrick, will provide a model of therapeutic and rehabilitative programing.
However, a prominent report released last year by the National Women’s Law Center suggests that, both nationally and locally, the mental and emotional health concerns specific to females are largely ignored by juvenile justice systems — including LA’s system. And girls suffer as a consequence.
Still, the LA-based Girls Health Screen is one promising new program that many local advocates hope will make a difference in outcomes for the county’s justice-involved girls.
THE VALUE OF SCREENING
The Girls Health Screen (GHS) is a gender-responsive medical health screen that assesses the physical and emotional health needs of girls entering juvenile justice facilities. It was developed by the Girls Health and Justice Institute and its founder Leslie Acoca.
The GHS, given on a laptop, requires girls in camp to respond to 117 questions that cover multiple areas of their lives. According to Acoca, the GHS is designed to be non-intimidating. The questions are worded simply, and require only Yes/No answers that the girls self-report. Even the look of the test, which includes inviting graphics, is designed to prevent an institutional appearance. Because of the test’s design and the way it is administered, said Acoca, girls are able to share their experiences privately, without feeling that they are being judged. Even the act of simply taking the GHS has its own therapeutic effect, she said.
Since 2012, Acoca said, approximately 400 girls at Camp Scudder, the second of LA County Probation’s two camps for girls, have been given the health screen. But the GHS has yet to move beyond the pilot stage in LA, due to bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of funding, she said. All that is due to change this year thanks to a much-needed $20,000 cash infusion that LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has managed to shake free from the county’s probation department.
“We are hoping the $20,000 will allow the program to roll out in all the juvenile halls in LA,” said Kuehl, who is one of the program’s strong supporters. The idea, she said, is that the information will connect girls to programs and health services they need while in camp or in juvenile hall, and that the information, while private, will also follow those same girls as they return to their communities, so that they can also be connected to needed programs when they come out of lock-up.
“The ETA for the Girls Health Screen to be ready to screen every incarcerated girl in LA is June/July of 2016,” Acoca said.
GIRLS AND GANGS: CAMP TO COMMUNITY
When Moriah was at Camp Scott, she said there were a number of programs that helped her work through her emotional issues, including writing workshops and counseling groups. One of the programs she said influenced her the most was run by an organization called Girls and Gangs.
“I just loved the support,” Moriah said. “The impression [the Girls and Gangs staff] gave me was that they genuinely cared.”
Girls and Gangs provides rehabilitation and transition services for girls who become involved in the juvenile justice system. Their model, which operates under the nonprofit umbrella of the Youth Policy Institute, focuses on pairing girls with mentors starting from their stay at the probation camps all the way through re-entry into their community. According to the Girls and Gang staff, matching each girl with a caring adult makes the program effective and positive for young women transitioning from camp to home.
Moriah was paired with mentor Vanessa Gutierrez while she was still in camp. Then, after Moriah left Camp Scott, she explained, Gutierrez helped her with getting clothes and generally provided support.
“I just got so much support from her and she did so much for me. I didn’t really know why,” Moriah said.
According to Ana Aguirre, program director of Youth Policy Institute’s YouthSource & Education Department, Girls and Gangs works because it encourages girls to share their painful experiences in a safe place where they don’t feel judged.
“They want to be heard. They want to express how they feel,” Aguirre said. “They’re carrying a lot of weight,” yet they often don’t understand the emotional weight they carry. “They might not understand that it’s trauma” they are dealing with, “but we’re able to identify that this was a traumatic experience that has shaped who [they] are.”
The next step in helping the girls heal, Aguirre said, is to ask them, “How can we use this to make you grow and make you stronger?”
Belinda Walker, who serves on the board for Girls and Gangs, said boys in the juvenile justice system have a high degree of trauma too.
Yet, in her observations about the nature of girls’ trauma, Walker echoed what Moriah and Acoca had described. “If you were to drop into any girls’ probation camp,” she said, “you would find that 70 to 90 percent of those girls have been sexually abused in their early adolescent years by trusted adults. In the conversations I have had with probation officers, they’ve said that every girl [they work with] has experienced some form of trauma or abuse. It can be emotional, physical or sexual.”
THE BROADER VIEW
Discussions surrounding trauma and trauma-informed practices are relatively recent, according to Dr. Marleen Wong, the associate dean for field education at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, and a nationally known expert in the field of psychological trauma and recovery.
All service sectors have begun looking at this issue of trauma and how to factor it into their services, she said.
“You can look at the national scene and see the Department of Labor talking about traumatized environments. How do you create a trauma-informed workplace? U.S. Department of Education is talking about trauma-informed schools,” Wong said. “Health and Human Services is talking about trauma-informed services. This is how our research is coming into its own, forming the foundation and the basis for thinking about ways to change the way we provide health and human services.”
A landmark legal settlement for which Wong served as the subject matter expert is helping to precipitate one of the most significant changes to how schools treat trauma.
In May 2014, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Compton Unified School District by Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The suit was filed on behalf of five students and three teachers, charging that the school system had not properly educated students who have experienced repeated trauma and violence. Their argument was based on research showing that exposure to trauma and repeated violence harm a child’s abilities to learn and function in school properly.
(WLA wrote about the lawsuit here.)
“All of the studies show that the kids with PTSD can’t concentrate because they have flashbacks, they think constantly about their safety, they never feel safe, they’re always anxious,” Wong said. “It’s generalized anxiety, even when they’re not in a dangerous situation.”
In October 2015, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled that students who experience traumatic events while growing up in poor, turbulent neighborhoods could be considered disabled. (However, this does not mean any exposure to trauma can guarantee a child will have a disability and be afforded the protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.)
The settlement sought mandatory trauma-informed training for teachers, adequate mental health and counseling services, and classes teaching students how to cope with anxiety and their emotions.
According to Wong, looking at how trauma affects children is a way to address why some schools may have huge dropout rates and how those rates factor into the school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s time for us to step up in the right way,” Wong said.
A PATH TO HEALING NEEDED
On Nov. 3, 2015, the National Crittenton Foundation published a toolkit to help identify children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Crittenton’s mission is to help girls and young women affected by violence and adversity become stronger, healthier and more engaged. The foundation has published a series of studies and reports relating to girls and trauma (the most recent in September 2015).
They found that girls and young women in the justice system had disproportionately high ACE scores, but were often marginalized and overlooked by that same system. The consensus is that young girls should not be given the same treatment as boys if they are to successfully heal from emotionally toxic experiences of their childhood and adolescence, according to Crittenton.
As for the Girls Health Screen, once Leslie Acoca gets the GHS to all the girls entering LA County’s juvenile facilities, she intends to take it nationwide.
Supervisor Kuehl said she is very aware that LA’s juvenile facilities are not doing all that is needed for girls.
“One of the interesting things I heard from women I’ve spoken to who’d been released from prison, who had also been in juvenile camps, and then had offended again as adults,” Kuehl said, “they said there were much better programs in prison for women than they ever had in camps. So they felt like they had a better chance to turn their lives around in prison. That really told me that we’re not seeing a lot of what is possible to really help our girls.”
Accoca went still further. “It’s impossible to do trauma care if you don’t know what traumas the girls have experienced,” she said. “With the level of injury we see with incarcerated girls, both emotional and physical, it is immoral to do anything less than identify those injuries so we can address them.”
Nevertheless, for Moriah, getting some of the proper care and guidance she needed through Girls and Gangs and her own mentor has helped her move forward. She is currently working full time and has plans to go back to school. She is also an ambassador to the Road to Success Academy at Camp Scott.
“A lot of girls got the same extended hand, but I grabbed it,” Moriah said. “You could have all the same things but if you’re not ready, it’s not going to happen.”
Moriah has come to realize that admitting the effects of trauma is not easy. Now that she has taken her own concrete steps into a better future, Moriah’s advice to girls is this: “Never quit on yourself. Your past does not define you.”
This story by Xin Li and Phillomina Wong is the third in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
The photo of Leslie Acoca is by Jenny Gold/Kaiser Health Network