What Girls Need

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Compelling testimony at a hearing last month about girls in the juvenile justice system was nearly overshadowed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers’ anger about the acting head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention missing the hearing.

That diatribe was followed by Conyers’ strong criticism of his colleagues at the House Education and Labor Committee for their failure to act on the pending reauthorization of OJJDP.

“What’s going on over there … that he [Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski] can’t be here?” Conyers (D-Mich.) asked. A short time later, he took a call, apparently from the missing Slowikowski, which seemed to cool his temper.

OJJDP bashing did not stop there. Eileen Larace, the director of homeland security and justice for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), presented the findings of a GAO report on OJJDP’s Girls Study Group. The group has been criticized by some in the field for its declaration that no existing girls programs stood up to evaluation, Larace reported. She credited OJJDP with starting to assist some existing programs with evaluations, but also said OJJDP had “no set plan that is documented, is shared with key stakeholders, and includes specific funding requirements and commitments and time frames for meeting its girls’ delinquency goals.”

And she pointed out that OJJDP basically did away with evaluations several years ago.

When testimony actually focused on juvenile girls, these areas were highlighted as problems:

• Lots of unnecessary incarceration: “We are … particularly concerned with the fate of status offenders, who are disproportionately girls, and often incarcerated for technical violations,” said Jackie Jackson, executive director of Girls Inc. of the Greater Peninsula in Hampton, Va.

• Abhorrent practices in facilities: Subcommittee members appeared disturbed by testimony of National Center for Girls and Young Women Director Lawanda Ravoira, who reported that male guards are frequently present as girls shower, and that male guards often participate in strip searches. Ravoira ran Florida’s PACE Center for Girls for 14 years, and now frequently visits girl-serving facilities for the center.

• A lack of programs that listen to girls. Ravoira said she prepared for her testimony by asking girls at a Florida facility what they would tell Congress. She relayed the words of Maria, a girl who had been abused and ignored by her family and eventually found her way into drug use.

“She said, ‘Tell them to do what our parents didn’t do. I have nobody to talk to. I have no one. I’ve tried to be good, but I have always messed up.”

• Need to retask Girls Study Group. Advocates for the girls said what they really need is information on what works, or programs worthy of replication or adaptation; attention to inappropriate staff practices at facilities; and better information on how many girls in the system are pregnant.

There were indications that the House may include some stronger language on girls in its version of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization.

The staff of House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) has told Youth Today he intends to finish reauthorization in this Congress. It is his committee that traditionally oversees juvenile justice issues on the House side.