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Gender Injustice in America: A Therapeutic Wake-Up Call

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It is Mental Health Awareness Month and while advocates across America and the world speak out for dignity and social justice for persons with mental illness, a groundbreaking report entitled Gender Injustice has just been released. This report reveals that girls get arrested and enter the juvenile justice system at a higher rate than boys. They are detained and sentenced more punitively than boys, particularly at a time when juvenile justice arrests are at a decline. The report specifies research findings, including a 45 percent rise in arrests, case load increases of 40 percent, increased detention at 40 percent, post-adjudication probation up by 44 percent, and post-adjudication placement up by 42 percent.

I previously wrote about the intersection of unresolved trauma and adverse childhood experiences pertaining to women in the criminal justice system. As noted in the article, Trauma and Women Behind Bars in America, President Obama who spoke in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, remarked that "...When women and children are deprived of a loving home, legal protection, or financial independence because they are in fear of their safety, our Nation is denied its full potential." Clearly, these remarks hold true for young girls who are subject to in-home domestic violence and sexual abuse and related experiences. According to the findings of "Gender Injustice", this causes many girls to be arrested and detained every day in the juvenile justice system. Largely, due to behaviors that stem from unresolved trauma and mental health problems that are viewed, as criminal.

The report presents troubling findings, in the midst of the urgency to adopt a human rights framework. This includes the need to reverse the criminalization of persons with mental illness and to work to reduce mass incarceration in America. From a problem-solving perspective, the need for juvenile courts and system to embrace a therapeutic and authentic rehabilitative approach is not a new consideration. The juvenile justice system, burdened by complex and vexing social disparities and policy shortfalls, has made progress. Court system innovations, such as unified family and collaborative courts, specialized juvenile mental health courts, juvenile drug treatment courts and dependency behavioral health (public health) courts, have grown in popularity across the United States.

Yet, the report notes that many of these "...large-scale juvenile justice reforms are leaving girls on the side-lines." In order to ensure fair treatment, the authors identify nine specific recommendations for courts to meet the needs of all girls. This includes the need to stop criminalizing behaviors that are trauma related, to divert girls to community-based services, and to reduce or eliminate incarceration of girls wherever possible.

Why is this research report of such importance? One only needs to watch the inspirational and award-winning documentary, Healing Neen, to appreciate the critical implications of this report. Released in 2010, Healing Neen illustrates the potential long term and damaging consequences of what happens to young girls when early trauma interventions are not provided. As the report denotes, the unique needs and social experiences of girls must be viewed in context. According to the data, 45% of justice-involved girls had experienced five or more adverse childhood experiences. This includes that 31% of girls were subject to in-home sexual abuse and 84% were exposed to family violence. Importantly, this does not mean that boys are not subject to trauma and adverse childhood experiences. The data, however, show that the rate of sexual abuse in girls is 4.4 times greater than boys and that particular subsets are overrepresented.

Of all legal systems, the juvenile justice system was established and intended to be rehabilitative, non-punitive, and solution-focused. The publication of Gender Injustice, in my view, is a wake-up call. The social science and public health evidence base, related to the gender- specific needs of girls, should be understood and applied across the juvenile system. Further, it is imperative to make trauma a central focus of court processes - it's time to wake up to gender injustice.

For more information on how to implement a trauma informed approach, visit the website for The National Center for Trauma-Informed Care and Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint, NCTIC.