July, 20 2018

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Needs of troubled girls get new attention

Beth Collett, 21, of Tempe, spent her TEEN years moving from one shelter to another after she told state officials she was sexually abused at home.

She lived in at least a dozen from ages 16 to 18, and each time she landed in a new facility there were new counselors and new rules. She never fit in.

"I wish they would have had a group home that was specifically geared toward girls who were abused," Collett said. "I wanted something where people understood why I was there." advertisement

But the vast array of juvenile-justice, mental-health and child-welfare programs aren't designed for girls.

Boys represent the majority of children in the juvenile-justice system, and behavior-management programs, which use consequences and rewards, are better suited for them. They just don't work for girls, experts say. Girls respond better to one-on-one relationships with counselors, trust and therapy.

"Girls have been getting the short shrift for a long time," said Marie Dils, policy manager for the Arizona Office of Policy, Strategic Diversity and Equity.

Dils and other Arizona child advocates are leading a national effort to restructure juvenile-justice PROGRAMs for girls, radically shifting the way girls are treated. Arizona leaders want to peel back the layers of hurt and destruction and treat the girls for the issues that have driven them into the system.

This week, more than 400 counselors, youth advocates, probation officers and group-home operators from across the country will meet in Scottsdale to kick off the National Girls Initiative, a conference that aims to shape programs and policies that affect services for girls. The Girls Initiative is calling for gender-specific programs for girls in the areas of sex education and sexuality, vocational training and education and in mental-health services.

"Times are changing," said Maria Garin-Jones, director of youth services for the Child Welfare League of America, a co-sponsor of the conference. "The needs of girls have changed."

A girl may drink or take drugs to hide the pain of sexual abuse. She may cut herself because of depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome connected to abuse. But she is generally punished for her delinquency and not HELPed to recover from the abuse.

Arizona needs to revamp how it treats girls because it will save future generations, said Dils, who is spearheading the Arizona Interagency Girls Initiative. "Our goal is a safer community," she said.

More girls arrested

In recent years, the number of girls across the country in the juvenile-justice system is on the rise, sparking the discussion about why girls are being arrested. In 2000, girls made up 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, up from 19 percent in 1990, according to the Child Welfare League of America.

In 2003, there were 16,000 girls in the Arizona court system, and about half were picked up for running away.

Counselors, probation officers and judges say they need to get to the reason girls are getting into trouble. Researchers studying girls in detention found that more than 80 percent had a history of trauma, with at least one time in a psychiatric hospital, most likely for a suicide attempt.

At a 2003 symposium in Washington, D.C., child advocates dreamed of a system that would be fair to girls, provide them with therapy that gets to underlying issues, offer them mentors and give them education about sexuality and health.

"Gender-specific services would just exist," Garin-Jones said. "There would be a clear recognition that girls and boys have different needs."

Garin-Jones said the call to revamp an old system leaves the finger-pointing behind. The Girls Initiative is meant to fill in gaps where girls said they were missing out. Copia Consulting workers from Austin traveled around Arizona last summer and interviewed the leaders of agencies that serve girls, including those who were or had been in the system. The results will be revealed at the conference.

In a recent report by the Girls' Justice Initiative, girls in detention in five states said their biggest frustration was over "dead time" spent in detention with no access to mental-health services.

Girls know they need HELP and start acting out when they don't get it, said Alyssa Rapisarda, clinical supervisor at the Florence Crittenton group home in Phoenix.

"A lot of the issues they have when they come here stem from not knowing how to communicate in relationships," Rapisarda said.

Florence Crittenton's 40-bed facility is divided into four groups so counselors work with the same group of girls every day. It's an attempt to build relationships. But time is always limited, Rapisarda said. And counselors and caseworkers tend to focus on short-term treatment and solutions, she said.

"You don't want to open a wound you don't have time to treat," Rapisarda said.

Florence Crittenton is considering counseling for girls even after they leave the PROGRAM to address the deeper issues.

"There are not a lot of services for girls who are transitioning into adulthood," Rapisarda said.

Collett, the young woman who spent years in the system, said she felt like she was being punished for being abused. She was depressed. She cut and burned herself.

"I was confused," she said. "I just felt like I was a bad child."

She attended group counseling aimed at girls who drank alcohol and took drugs. At one facility, she took mandatory drug tests every week. But Collett never drank or took drugs.

She knew her treatment could be better.

A long, tough road

Collett finished high school while at a Florence Crittenton group home. Three years ago, she got her own apartment and attended community college. Today, she works in Tempe in the Art Awakenings program, a vocational recovery program for adults with mental illness. But the road has been tougher and longer than it needed to be, she said.

Collett considers what would have been a better option: "I would have had a regular home and not a facility or an institution. I'd want some place where you could put something on the walls to remind you of being at home."

Starting this month, Collett will take classes at Mesa Community College. She wants to be an interior designer. One day, she may be a foster mom for a girl who has suffered abuse, she said.

"It's taken me a long time to figure out that I'm not a bad person," Collett said.

There is something about teen girls and their unbreakable spirit, said Linda Volhein, executive director of Florence Crittenton. They can get kicked around. They can find themselves in the lowest of low spots, and yet when they think about their futures, they see success. About 131 girls ages 11-17 in the Arizona juvenile-justice system recently responded to a questionnaire posted on a blog, an online journal, for girls. Overwhelmingly, they wrote about seeing themselves in college, careers and with families.

The trouble is they don't know how to get from a detention center or group home to college or a job, Volhein said. "What was surprising was how optimistic they are; they want to have it all," said Volhein, another leader in the Arizona Interagency Girls Initiative. Her goal is for girls to live in less-institutionalized places and to HELP them find their path to success, she said.

Every girl who lands in the system comes into contact with dozens of agencies. It's time for a statewide and national shift in girls programs, she said.

"We're hoping we will rattle some cages," Volhein said.

For Volhein, it's a pretty simple rationale: a statewide system that HELPs girls will strengthen future families.

"If we are going to talk about what will make the biggest change in society, we need to focus on women and girls and stop the cycle," Volhein said.

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