Why DJS fails girls — and all of us

Juvenile services agency doesn't take adolescent brain science into account

December 01, 2010|By Sonia Kumar

"Mary is a seventeen year old girl. … Mary's mother died when Mary was eight years old. … Following her mother's death, Mary was placed in the custody of a family friend. She was sexually abused beginning at the age of 9 and raped when she was 11. Mary started to run away, drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. Mary first became involved with the juvenile justice system shortly after the death of the man Mary believed to be her father. … Since 2006, Mary has spent 400 days in secure detention and one year in a psychiatric residential treatment center. Her behavior has deteriorated over the three years she has been under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS)…"

The story of "Mary," described by the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, is far too typical of girls in Maryland's juvenile justice system, many of whom have experienced extraordinary trauma. Our system views the mechanisms these girls have developed to survive trauma — hyper-sensitivity to threat, the impulse to run away, and distrust of adults — as a basis for labeling them as chronically delinquent, incorrigible and in need of prison-like placements. But such placements are exactly what these girls do not need.

Group-care settings exacerbate trauma survivors' hyper-vigilance. Girls will overreact to perceived threats or run away to escape them — and be sent back to court with new charges. Thus, girls are sucked deeper into the system, building long records of noncompliance because the DJS fails to account for the relationship between their trauma and their delinquency.

Leadership changes at the DJS present an opportunity to make our current system more responsive to these girls' experiences and social realities. Girls tend to be an invisible presence in the juvenile system, denied the range of services and programs offered to boys. We need an entity within the department that will monitor how girls fare in the juvenile system and then use that information to improve services.

The system's root failure is that it drops girls into programs designed without consideration for how social forces push girls and boys into the juvenile system in different ways and for different reasons. It is symptomatic of a broader failure to respond to all children — both boys and girls — in an individualized, developmentally appropriate way.

Any parent — or anyone who remembers being a teenager — knows intuitively that adolescent brains function differently from those of adults. It is, in fact, statistically aberrant to refrain from risk-taking during adolescence. Almost all of us have stories about the stupid things we did as teenagers. And thanks to modern-day brain imaging, we know that the behavioral differences we see in adolescents are reflected in the anatomical development of teenage brains. Those areas of the brain that govern impulse control and reasoned judgment are still developing during adolescence. Brain science is reshaping the adult legal system's take on the propriety of assigning moral culpability to kids. It must be applied to juvenile services as well.

Most kids will cease troublemaking as they age out of adolescence. These kids must know where to go for help and understand that there are consequences for bad acts. Driving them deeper into the juvenile system is not the answer. For kids whose delinquency is driven by unmet needs, compounded by disabilities or trauma, we must address those needs. We will not have an effective juvenile system until every staff member, administrator and program has the capacity to meet each kid where he or she is developmentally. Getting our system to that place requires that we stop wasting its limited resources building more facilities.

Changing the department to ensure that it treats boys and girls individually and in a developmentally appropriate way will require leadership with a strong background in both juvenile justice and child welfare, the professionalization of direct-care staff, and the support of our governor, courts and communities. It's a big job, but it will be a lot easier if the new leadership starts with an honest and fair accounting of what the system is currently doing.

We don't need Superman to fix the Department of Juvenile Services. We just need someone with the courage to acknowledge the department's shortcomings and the commitment to tackle them to make our juvenile system developmentally appropriate for all children, including girls. The results — our kids doing better — will speak for themselves.

Sonia Kumar is an attorney directing the ACLU of Maryland's Juvenile Justice Initiative. Her e-mail is kumar@aclu-md.org.

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