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Observers seeking new approach to delinquent girls

The number of girls in the juvenile justice system is rising, and officials say intervention efforts must grow, too.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


TAMPA -- With a father in prison and a mother who wasn't around, Sherri started running with the wrong friends, dabbling in drugs, feeling suicidal. Eventually her troubles snowballed: She was sent to juvenile court and locked up in a program for delinquents.

Sherri, 16, came to a gathering of child advocates Thursday who say Florida's juvenile justice system is sending girls like her down the wrong path -- into detention centers and locked institutions, instead of programs that could keep them out of trouble in the first place.

"I know there are better alternatives out there to being locked up," said Sherri, now an excellent student at the PACE Center for Girls, a school for teenagers who have faced similar troubles. She spoke to the group on the condition her full name not be used.

Luanne Panacek agrees. She's executive director of the Hillsborough Children's Board, which sponsored Thursday's meeting. The event was designed to show that Florida should be increasing prevention efforts, in contrast to the Juvenile Justice department's current plan to reduce their budget.

It's a serious problem in Florida, where one in four juvenile offenders are now girls, according to state figures.

In Thursday's meeting, Leslie Acoca, of the San Francisco-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said statewide figures show juvenile charges against girls increased 30 percent between 1993 and 1998, and just 5 percent for boys in Florida.

Interviews and a review of 1,000 girls' case files in Duval County showed that girls who were truant were five times as likely as other girls to get into trouble. They were three times as likely if they had family members who had been incarcerated, and two times as likely if they had poor grades or had been pregnant.

Overall, data show that "school failure is more linked to entry into the juvenile justice system for girls than it is for boys," she said.

All that points to education over incarceration, or deciding "whether or not we're going to go toward handcuffs or classrooms for girls," Acoca said. She recommended that the state halt any plans to expand a prison-like program for delinquent girls in Palm Beach County and put more effort on reaching academically struggling middle school girls.

Vicki Adelson, a Clearwater-based consultant, recently completed a Hillsborough County study that says it's not uncommon for a girl to be locked up in moderate- or maximum-risk programs -- "for her own sake" -- when caseworkers think her family can't supporther.

Speakers on Thursday echoed critics who recently have charged that the Department of Juvenile Justice is backing away from prevention efforts by cutting $16-million -- or more, if necessary -- from programs aimed at preventing delinquency, truancy and other problems.

But department spokeswoman Diane Hirth said "we're on the same wavelength" with many of the speakers' recommendations. She said the department strongly believes "we need to target early intervention and services to girls and also to their families in a very strong and positive manner."

One prevention initiative cited by Juvenile Justice Secretary William Bankhead in a recent interview is called intensive delinquency diversion, which provides close supervision and family support to first-time offenders who are considered highly likely to become habitual juvenile offenders. The program works with girls and boys.

"That's the kind of female juvenile offender we're going to be helping intensively that we did not before," Hirth said Thursday.

Bankhead said his department has been forced to adjust to a difficult budget year and belt-tightening directives.

-- Curtis Krueger covers social issues and can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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