Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

The Sexual-Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

By Gina Womack — October 13, 2015 5 min read

If we truly believe that children are our future—all children—then it is imperative that we stop the cruel and unjust funneling of victims of abuse into incarceration, and improve the lives of sexually abused girls currently in our juvenile-justice system.

Recently, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Human Rights Project for Girls released a report, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story,” with groundbreaking new data on this problem. Among the study’s many findings are data confirming that sexual abuse is a “primary predictor” for involvement with the juvenile-justice system, and that girls of color—particularly African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinas—are disproportionately affected.

According to the report, “Native American girls are in residential placements at a rate of 179 per 100,000; African-American girls at a rate of 123 per 100,000; and Latinas at a rate of 47 per 100,000. By comparison, 37 per 100,000 of non-Hispanic white girls are confined.” The report also finds that the sexual-abuse rate of girls in the juvenile-justice system (31 percent) is more than four times higher than the rate for boys (7 percent).

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A recent U.S. Department of Justice study shows that the increased arrest and incarceration of girls over the past 20 years has not been the result of increased criminal activity or violence. Instead, more and more girls are being arrested and incarcerated because of the aggressive enforcement of non-serious offenses, many of which stem from abuse and trauma. Gender stereotypes contribute to the problem, as the decision to arrest and detain girls in many of these situations is negatively influenced by whether the decisionmaker perceives girls to have violated gender norms—even though such deviation may actually be a response to trauma.

In fact, girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy, or substance abuse. Outrageously, girls who have been trafficked are often arrested for prostitution—even when they are too young to consent to sex when they enter the juvenile-justice system.

At the nonprofit organization I head, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, or FFLIC, we have seen the devastating impact of sexual abuse, including the alarming and shameful increased incarceration rates of girl survivors. This is not only cruel and unjust, it also fails to deal with the underlying trauma that results from sexual abuse. As a result, victims are further traumatized by the juvenile-justice system.

There are many parallels between the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline mentioned in the recent report and school-to-prison-pipeline issues. Rather than providing the care, counseling, and support these young people need, we are allowing vulnerable youths to be pushed out of schools and into the juvenile-justice system. We are failing at providing the safe and supportive environments young people need in our schools and communities, particularly for youths of color.

Girls are ending up in the juvenile-justice system as a result of behaviors directly connected to their sexual abuse, such as running away, truancy, or substance abuse."

Through an initiative called the Let Kids Be Kids Campaign, FFLIC is working to address Louisiana’s failure to care for our most vulnerable youths. We are raising awareness about laws in place that effectively criminalize children, and we are working to ensure that all children have the necessary support to grow, thrive, and reach their full potential.

For example, we are working to reduce the number of youths suspended from school for habitual absence, tardiness, or “willful disobedience"—a subjective categorization susceptible to racial bias that schools are often ill-equipped to deal with. Approximately 56 percent of African-American youths in the juvenile-justice system report a prior school suspension. Out-of-school suspensions cut classroom time for children who need it most, and research demonstrates a correlation between harsh discipline practices, dropouts, and incarceration. Students with multiple suspensions are three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than students who have not been suspended. Our group urges educators to work to ensure that children who are in crisis or exhibit challenging behaviors are kept in school, where they are surrounded by sources of knowledge and opportunity.

Another approach we stress is “positive behavioral interventions and supports,” or PBIS, a rehabilitative practice focused on developing and nourishing support structures for students to help improve their lives, both in and out of the classroom, and strengthen positive behaviors. Rather than centering exclusively on reactive disciplinary approaches, PBIS uses modeling and positive reinforcement to foster a good learning environment for young people.

These restorative practices are based on an understanding that children are not problems; children have problems. If children are suffering from sexual abuse, that trauma can manifest itself in acting out. In fact, research has consistently linked problem behavior in girl offenders to abuse and a traumatizing home life. In such situations, children need support, rather than suspension followed by incarceration.

The “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” report includes the story of Sasha to illustrate how current school structures and dynamics can fail girls who are victims of trauma. Sasha was raped as a high school student. The details of her assault spread via social media and led to judgment and harassment from her peers. Sasha felt unsafe at school and became truant and dropped out. Two years later, with the support and assistance she received from an educational advocate, Sasha successfully returned to her education, attending an alternative school. But without this kind of help, her story could have ended very differently.

For more of these promising endings to terrible life stories, both educators and whole communities must implement rehabilitative practices like PBIS, and provide the care and support our children need. If we don’t act now, we may lose a generation of children of color and victims of abuse.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as The Sexual-Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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