Girls in the juvenile justice system exhibit more risks than do boys for problem behaviors that may lead them to serious trouble, according to new research. Girls had more problems than boys in areas such as family and peer relations, physical health, mental health, traumatic events, and accountability issues.
The results suggest that the juvenile justice system needs to devote more attention and resources to the problems of troubled girls, said Stephen Gavazzi, co-author of the study and professor of human development and family science in the College of Human Ecology at Ohio State University.
"The system has not been built to handle girls' issues," Gavazzi said. "Boys are usually detained as a response to public safety issues, whereas girls are more often detained because of problems in the home. But, by and large, detention facilities were built solely with public safety in mind and not for work with families."
Gavazzi conducted the study with Courtney Yarcheck, director of the Global Risk Assessment Device Project at Ohio State , and Meda Chesney-Lind of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The study will be published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.
The study involved 305 youth who were housed in the detention facility of a large Ohio juvenile court. The youth were assessed using a measure developed by Gavazzi and his colleagues called the Global Risk Assessment Device (GRAD). The measure is an internet-based assessment tool that asks youth a variety of questions to determine the risks they face for further problems in life. For example, GRAD asks how often they get into fights with adults in their homes, if they have friends who have been in trouble with the law, and how much trouble they have in controlling their anger.
The researchers were not surprised that boys showed higher risk levels than girls in the area of prior offenses, Gavazzi said, and that girls had higher risks for family and parenting issues, mental health, traumatic events and health issues.
But it was surprising that girls exhibited more risk for psychopathy, which includes trying to manipulate others; accountability, or taking responsibility for actions; and peer relations, which involves having friends who are in trouble with the law.
"Girls are having trouble in areas often more associated with boys, such as having friends who are involved in delinquency," Gavazzi said.
"Our results may help explain the rather widespread notion among practitioners who work with troubled youth that girls are harder to work with than boys. The reason is that girls often have more numerous and more serious problems to address."
The problems that bring girls to the court system are often different than those of boys, at least at first, Gavazzi said. Girls in this study were more likely to be detained for family-related offenses, such as showing "out-of-control" behavior at home, or getting into fights with family members.
Boys, on the other hand, were more likely to be detained for more traditional criminal offenses, such as theft or assaults on strangers, according to the results.
"Girls are being affected by their families in a much more pronounced way than boys," he said. "In many cases, girls are being detained precisely because of the dysfunction within their families."
These results highlight several problems with the current juvenile justice system, according to Gavazzi.
For one, it shows how important it is to assess juvenile delinquents early to see the risks they face. Before GRAD, few assessment devices were available to help Ohio professionals determine what kind of treatment would be most appropriate for those teens ending up in juvenile court, and none were web-based.
"Assessment should drive treatment, and if we don't have a way to assess the many problems these youth often face, there's no way we're going to be able to help them access appropriate treatment," Gavazzi said.
The results also point to the fact that "we are doing a massive disservice to girls by giving them ‘passes' early on in their criminal careers." Courts often ignore early offenses by girls because they don't take as seriously those crimes committed by females. The result is that when they do commit crimes that are too serious to ignore, they are in worse shape than boys.
"By not dealing with girls early on, we are not giving them opportunities to get services that are available to boys in the juvenile justice system," Gavazzi said.
But the juvenile justice system also needs to do more to meet the special needs of female offenders, he explained.
Juvenile detention centers were designed to handle people who have committed crimes – and these are usually boys. But girls are often in trouble for issues related to family issues, and need programs that deal with the whole family.
"Juvenile institutions aren't geared to do work with families, which is what girls often need the most," he said. "We can't provide the same treatment to boys and girls and expect that they are all going to be helped."