A harrowing new study finds that young girls' responses to sexual and physical abuse are systematically criminalized in the United States, with survivors funneled into juvenile detention centers where they are exposed to further trauma, replicating cycles of gendered violence that disproportionately impact children of color.
Jointly released by the Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women, the title of the study suggests this trend is so pronounced it deserves its own term: The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls' Story.
"Girls, especially marginalized girls, are rendered invisible when we talk about juvenile justice and mass incarceration, which is often in the context of men and boys of color," Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and director of law and policy for the Human Rights Project for Girls, told Common Dreams. "Our hope with this report is to illuminate the hidden lives of girls behind bars and recognize that many are survivors of sexual abuse, violence, and rape."
According to the study, a history of abuse is not just a predictor of future incarceration for girls—it is a cause.
"When we don't talk about what's happening to our girls, it's often implied that they are doing OK. It's important to know from this report that girls and girls of color not doing OK."
—Yasmin Vafa, the Human Rights Project for Girls
"The common justifications for girls' arrests are minor offenses such as running away, substance abuse, and truancy—all of which are common responses to abuse," states the study. "The connection between the sexual abuse of girls and their ultimate incarceration is not coincidental; sexual abuse is a direct, contributing cause of their detention."
Girls of color are disproportionately locked up within the U.S. juvenile system. While youth of color comprise 45 percent of the general population of young people, girls of color account for roughly two-thirds of girls who are incarcerated. African Americans constitute 14 percent of the youth population, but account for a third of incarcerated girls, the study finds.
Juvenile detention centers are filled with girls who have survived trauma and abuse. According to the report, 31 percent of girls in juvenile justice report being sexually abused, a rate four times higher than boys. Furthermore, 45 percent of girls in juvenile justice suffer complex trauma.
In many states, the level of sexual or physical abuse is stunningly high—over 80 percent. In South Carolina, 81 percent of girls locked up in the juvenile justice system are victims of sexual violence, and in Florida this number is at 84 percent. In Oregon, 93 percent of girls locked up are survivors of sexual or physical abuse.
Once inside, girls face a system that is not equipped to deal with their trauma. More than that, the report states that the children face the "significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls' trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse."
But the injustice doesn't stop there.
"When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: Girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed," the report states.
"We must see what is happening to our girls at the intersection of race, gender and poverty," wrote media mogul and activist Russell Simmons in a Huffington Post article published Thursday. "The terrible truth is that if you are a poor Black or Brown girl who is victimized by sexual or physical violence and trauma, your suffering is denied. Instead, you are punished for it."
According to Vafa, the study's findings underscore the importance of the growing nation-wide racial justice movement, particularly the call that "Black Women and Girls Matter."
"Girls and women have been at the forefront of so many of these movements. When we don't talk about what's happening to our girls, it's often implied that they are doing OK," she said. "It's important to know from this report that girls and girls of color not doing OK."