County Jails a Bad Place for All Children, Especially Girls

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Imagine a group of young girls who suffer from depression, severe neglect, sexual and physical abuse and are in the care of a government agency. 

Now imagine that these girls’ caretakers have little or no experience working with children, little or no familiarity with the medical and mental health needs of emotionally and physically battered girls, little or no support for formalized training on child development and no supervision by professionals with child-specific experience either.  Then consider extremely limited resources for the care, health services and education of these particularly vulnerable and needy children. 

This scenario sounds like it would lead straight to public calls for vastly improved child protection and investigations into government agencies’ poor management and improper use of taxpayers’ dollars.  Unfortunately, it accurately describes legislation that was rushed through by the 2011 Florida Legislature (Senate Bill 2112) and signed into law.

Ostensibly motivated by officials with a desire to save money, the new law allows children to be housed in county jails outside the oversight, supervision or even inspections by anyone experienced with the care of children, like the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. [Note: For more on the new law from Youth Today, click here.]

Specifically, the children affected are those who have been charged with a juvenile offense and are awaiting for their case to be heard and acted upon in juvenile court.

While critical for all children, highly prescriptive, child-specific detention standards and settings are especially important for young girls:

-Girls enter the juvenile justice system with higher rates of trauma and abuse – research suggests 7 of every 10 have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

-Girls enter the juvenile justice system at earlier ages than boys.

-Girls are detained for significantly less serious crimes than boys.

-Girls remain in detention longer.

Girls are in special need of gender-specific mental and physical health care, including gynecological care and health education that addresses personal safety, self-care, and the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

Both common sense and research tell us that children housed in adult jails are at increased risk.  Girls are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility. 

Overall, youth housed in an adult facility are 34 percent more likely to return to jail – an outcome that does not save money.

The NCCD Center for Girls and Young Women and The Children’s Campaign oppose the detention of children in county jails.    While far from perfect, detention centers operated by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice are a better alternative.

-Ravoira is director of the Center for Girls & Young Women in Jacksonville, Fla. Miller is president of the Children's Campaign in Tallahassee, Fla.