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Help for delinquent girls criticized

A study of the justice system says girls have unique needs that are not being served in Florida.

Published July 19, 2006

As the rate of girls entering Florida's juvenile justice system escalates, programs to help them continue to lag far behind, according to a new study released Tuesday.

Girls accounted for one in four juvenile arrests in Florida in 2003-2004; a year later, the rate jumped to one in three, according to state data.

"Very few places have really embraced gender-responsive strategies," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Girls' programs are often boys' programs painted pink."

On Tuesday, the research group based in Oakland, Calif., released "A Rallying Cry for Change," calling it the largest and most comprehensive study ever done on girls in a state juvenile justice system. The study, funded by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, concluded that girls in the system are being overlooked and not receiving gender-specific treatment.

"What Florida needs is a comprehensive blueprint on how to fix this system," Krisberg said.

Officials from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment on the study Tuesday, saying they wanted time to review the findings.

But spokeswoman Tara Collins said, "DJJ is committed to serving the unique needs of the girls in our care."

About 1,000 girls reside in Florida's juvenile detention centers on any given day, Krisberg said.

According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 17 girls and 73 boys currently reside at the Juvenile Detention Center in Pinellas County. In Hillsborough County, there are eight girls and 100 boys in the county's two juvenile detention centers. The longest stay for a girl at one of the centers is 160 days, and the youngest girl is 12 years old.

Researchers involved with the study conducted one-on-one interviews with 319 girls ages 12 to 19 in the juvenile system throughout Florida. Most, 244, were in residential programs.

"It's a very in-depth, detailed profile of who these girls are," Krisberg said.

Among the study's findings: Girls are entering Florida's juvenile justice system at young ages, with 40 percent committing their first offense before age 13.

Girls throughout the system shared common experiences, including mental health problems, family issues and conflict, and substance abuse.

"The interviews were very, very intense," said Vanessa Patino, one of the study's primary researchers. "If you sat there with them for an hour, it would be hard to grasp what they'd experienced by the age of 15."

Half of the girls engaged in self-mutilation, 34 percent had attempted suicide in the last year and 59 percent had a parent or sibling on probation or in a correctional institution in the last three years.

Sixty-one percent had committed an offense against a family member, and 46 percent had a significant drug or alcohol problem.

Krisberg said recent portrayals of women doing well in society has overshadowed those who are still struggling. "We're overlooking a significant segment of young women who are not doing very well," he said.

Despite these findings, researchers said the girls showed resilience and remained hopeful about their futures.

"These girls are down but not out," Krisberg said.

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 05:52:51]

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