New York City’s child welfare agency is teaming with advocacy groups to launch the first city-run diversion program for girls and gender-expansive youth at risk of going into the criminal justice system.
Girls Justice — a placeholder name, officials say — was born out of a task force started in 2017 by the Vera Institute of Justice that brought together government agencies and nonprofits to study how to alleviate the impact of New York’s justice system on girls.
“We believe that if a young person does need some type of intervention, those interventions can be provided outside of any type of incarceration, said Ashley Sawyer, policy director at Girls for Gender Equity, an advocacy organization that works extensively with girls and gender-expansive youth of color. “And that’s the goal: to eliminate that.”
Under a $2.4 million, three-year contract with the city Administration for Children’s Services set for approval Monday, Girls for Gender Equity and another nonprofit, Rising Ground — whose STEPS to End Family Violence program will run the program — are aiming to start early in the fall, and will initially focus efforts in Brooklyn.
There was only one girl in the city’s juvenile detention centers as of the end of July, and 10 more in “Close to Home” residences that allow kids to be held near their home communities. The overall number of locked-up youth in the city has also been reduced in response to the pandemic.
But Girls Justice seeks to help at-risk youth from a variety of sources, including the child welfare system, schools and courts.
The aim is to have no girls in juvenile lockups — by supporting youth “in articulating the things that they need in order to live their fullest lives beyond survival,” said Michelle Grier, Girls for Gender Equity’s director of programs.
Teaching Life Skills
Organizers say the program will accept girls and gender-expansive youth from around 12 up to 18 years old, but girls who want to stay longer may be allowed. The organizers are looking to teach life and “coping” skills that will keep teens from ending up behind bars in the future.
Among the goals, according to Grier: “Learning advocacy. Having access to political education. Being able to identify coping, but really healing, strategies for themselves and how to navigate relationships.”
“I think the bulk of this will be relationship building and supporting them ... in a moment where connection is constantly being compromised,” she said.
Most so-called alternative-to-incarceration programs for youth are designed “for cis straight men,” said Anne Patterson, senior vice president for STEPS at Rising Ground.
“What’s paramount for boys and girls is to be in a place where they can be seen, and a place where they can be free, especially for girls of color … a place where they can just be, outside of racial and gender stereotypes,” said Shawnda Chapman, a former task force member who is the director of the Girls Fund at the Ms. Foundation for Women and was incarcerated as a teen.
In 2018, over 60% of girls admitted to juvenile detention in New York City were Black and nearly 38% were Latina, according to the Vera Institute. Black girls are 2.7 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system and 1.2 times more likely to be detained than white girls nationwide, according to a 2017 report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality that looked at 2013 Department of Justice data.
The Vera Institute, citing an ACS analysis and other national research, estimates that some 40% of youth in the girls’ juvenile justice system in New York City likely identify as LGBTQ or gender non-conforming, compared to about 13% of boys.
“After consulting with national experts, the project will help girls and gender-expansive youth develop competencies and skills that promote self-sufficiency, self-reliance and personal growth, and will include civic education, workforce development and economic empowerment,” said an ACS spokesperson.
Working on the Path
Girls are often survivors of violence — especially family and sexual abuse — and youth and administrators say family conflict can lead many to incarceration.
Chapman, 42, told THE CITY that she was swept into the juvenile justice system when her family was going through a difficult time after her parents’ divorce.
“I would go out with my friends, and skip school and steal things,” she said. “Sometimes it was out of need, sometimes it was because of want. But I knew my parents couldn’t get me things, so I would take them from the store.”
When she spent time in detention and under probation, alternative programs weren’t available, Chapman said. And now, she and others say, current programs are inadequate for issues Black girls in the justice system are facing.
“I’ve heard it said again and again and again that Black men and boys are the most impacted by violence,” said Chapman. “And that’s absolutely bull---t, because we don’t even really have a full understanding of how much violence these girls face on a day-to-day basis.”
As cited in a 2017 report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, a collection of local and national studies showed that across various states 32% to 81% of girls in the juvenile justice system had been victims of sexual abuse. The studies also showed girls in the system had experienced high rates of physical abuse.
“Once inside,” read the report, “girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests.”
The goal of the 2017 task force, which began as a partnership between then-ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión and the Vera Institute, was to bring girls’ incarceration to zero.
That year, said Carrión, there could sometimes be as few as five girls detained in juvenile detention centers at one time across the five boroughs. She told THE CITY that at the time, she was struck by the low number of girls in the system and the reasons behind their lockup.
“How expensive is that, to incarcerate girls because you can’t find a program to serve their needs in the community,” she said. “I mean, you know, it’s ridiculous to have facilities for five girls. We should be able to wrap our arms around these five girls.”
According to a July report by the Justice Policy Institute, New York state currently spends more than any other state on juvenile detention — nearly $900,000 per year for one child.
“A lot of the girls have histories of trauma and abuse, push-out from school. Some of them there’s suspicion of or confirmed that they have experienced sex trafficking, which drives the system to incarcerate them for their own safety,” said Mahsa Jafarian of the Vera Institute.
“In general, their incarceration is more for their safety than for public safety, which is where we really push back.”
She added, “young people need support, and punishment only exacerbates what they are dealing with.”
In 2016, 20% of all juvenile detention admissions in the city were girls. Last year, the number fell to 16%, according to the Administration for Children’s Services.
Disparities Start at Arrest
On Tuesday, Girls for Gender Equity also released a report showing that girls and non-conforming children are overlooked victims of abuse by police before they are ever booked.
The analysis of NYPD complaints gathered by ProPublica showed that girls as young as 11 were put in chokeholds without ultimate punishment for officers.
“There’s a hostility that’s often there. If you are deferential and submissive you get a little better treatment,” said Chapman. “But anytime you question or you demand or you challenge you get treated with an extreme hostility and brutality. I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve experienced it.”
The authors of Georgetown’s 2017 study stated that “the perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like may contribute to more punitive exercise of discretion by those in positions of authority, greater use of force, and harsher penalties.”
The same goes for youth who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, said Chapman: “I’ve heard people say, ‘You want to act like a man, we’ll treat you like one.’”
The team at Girls for Gender Equity but hope that heightened attention to the criminal justice system will highlight what Sawyer says are the often-overlooked experiences of the youth they serve — even accounting for the realities of the pandemic.
“We need to ensure that they have access to safe housing, food security, and also moments of joy,” said Grier.