A judge's sad complaint

Our view: Girls in trouble require different treatment

May 05, 2008

Nakita McDaniels knew herself better than anyone. As she told a court psychologist: "If I fight somebody, I really try to hurt people." And when she led a group of fellow students in beating an MTA bus passenger, someone was seriously hurt. Ms. McDaniels is the latest poster child for the failings of the juvenile justice system. The 15-year-old had been involved in four previous school-based assaults and was on probation with the juvenile court at the time of the Dec. 4 bus attack. She had completed an anger management program and attended "healthy relationship" classes. But neither helped her hold herself back that day.

Juvenile authorities badly misjudged what this girl needed, and the same could be said of the school system. Now she's heading to a juvenile treatment facility where she could remain until she's 21. She has been ordered to individual therapy with a psychiatrist, an unusually specific request that reflects the judge's lack of confidence in the system.

Girls represent about a third of youthful offenders who are charged as juveniles in Maryland. But unlike boys, a majority of girls who enter the juvenile system - as many as 85 percent - have experienced some form of abuse. That makes them more complicated to treat, state officials say, and girls are supervised exclusively by female caseworkers.

Like boys, most female offenders remain in the community where they are treated; only 31 girls a month, on average, are in a secure detention facility in Maryland. But they see a counselor once or twice a week; the remainder of the time, they are with friends, relatives, foster families and others, exposed to the same influences, good and bad.

Although the number of girls found delinquent in Maryland has declined over the past six years, girls have recently been involved in some sensational cases - the stabbing death of a young teen at a light rail station, a beating at a birthday party, a taped assault of a teacher. In sentencing Nakita, Judge David W. Young recognized the influence of the pack mentality in the bus attack and its viciousness, lamenting, "What has gone so wrong, so wrong. In our families, in our community, in our churches, in our schools?"

Department of Juvenile Services officials recognize, too, the lack of good role models; they say they need mentors for their girls, more therapeutic services for the most traumatized, and a cadre of social workers who could work closely with small teams of caseworkers.

The investment should pay off: Girls are traditionally less likely to commit more offenses than boys and, with a little more help, the chances that they would stay out of further trouble would be even greater.

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