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Young Adult Outcomes of Girls Involved in the Juvenile Justice System: Distinct Patterns of Risk and Protection
By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD, NIC - Corrections & Mental Health
Published: 12/03/2012

Teenager jail How do boys and girls who engage in delinquent behavior fare as young adults? Generally, delinquent boys are more likely than their peers to experience difficulties—including substance use, mental health problems, and poorer educational attainment and earnings—during their transition to adulthood. Girls may also have problems during this critical shift toward independent living, but empirical studies on this population are lacking. The knowledge resulting from such studies could guide the development of tailored services to address the needs of delinquent youth—and especially girls, who now represent an increasing proportion of those involved in juvenile court.

Both girls and boys in the juvenile justice system usually have problems at home and school that have put them at risk for delinquency—including maltreatment, poverty, or both—and these factors also may have a negative impact on their adjustment to young adulthood. Although the risk factors for delinquency substantially overlap for girls and boys, gender influences how individuals respond to these experiences. For example, depression is more strongly linked to delinquency in girls than it is among boys. Among youth at risk, the specific entry points and pathways to delinquency can differ for boys and girls. Boys more often initiate delinquent behavior when crime is prevalent in their neighborhoods and among peers, whereas girls might show such behavior in response to a broken relationship. Such gender differences suggest that one should not assume the same young adult outcomes among juvenile-court involved boys and girls.

When girls involved with juvenile courts become young adults, a number of measures can be used to assess their level of functioning during their transition to adulthood. Have they been arrested or been remanded to the corrections system? Have they participated in publicly funded adult mental health or substance-use treatment, or received income maintenance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF])? The number of these outcomes young women experience depend on patterns and characteristics they developed earlier in life as well as the services they received from the juvenile system, according to a study by Charlotte Lyn Bright, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Patricia L. Kohl, Ph.D., and Melissa Jonson-Reid, Ph.D., of Washington University in St. Louis.

Bright and colleagues analyzed data from a larger National Institute of Mental Health-funded study that provided information from several justice and human service systems in a Midwestern metropolitan region. The researchers selected a subsample, focusing on data from females born between 1982 and 1987 who committed offenses that led to involvement with the juvenile justice system. Seven hundred girls met the inclusion criteria. The researchers used a methodology, called latent class analysis, to categorize these women into distinct classes or profiles based on 10 characteristics evident during youth. In prior studies, these characteristics were associated with juvenile court involvement among female youth (e.g., report of maltreatment as a child, family receipt of income maintenance from the state) or reflected a system’s response (e.g., any service provided to the child or family).

Five classes of girls involved in the justice system emerged from the analysis. In each class, individuals shared some of the 10 characteristics but not others (see descriptions in graphic), so that women within a given category were like each other and distinct from those in different profiles. Patterns related to negative young adult outcomes—entry into the adult corrections system, participation in mental health or substance use treatment, and receipt of TANF—varied among young women in the five classes (see pie charts).

“In our sample, girls’ offending was generally not linked to justice involvement later—at least through young adulthood—which suggests that they might grow out of such behavior,” says Bright. “But a certain type of girl—those who were African American and poor (class 3)—were at higher risk for problems, particularly recidivism and TANF receipt. It’s important to note that these girls were less likely to have received services in the juvenile justice system, suggesting that interventions are not reaching females with the greatest need. Some African-American girls who live in poor, urban areas are slipping through the cracks. Service providers and policymakers might consider how resources might be made available to perhaps improve the young adult outcomes of these girls.”

The researchers also found that youth in suburban areas were more likely than those in urban areas to receive services. This finding was not surprising, as suburban communities have greater resources and availability of all kinds of services, but Dr. Bright notes that systems could allocate such resources to the urban areas. Girls who were poor but not maltreated had worse outcomes than those that were maltreated but better off. “Although they are not maltreated at home, girls who grow up in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods often witness violence and experience threats to safety that are traumatic. Our data suggest that service providers shouldn’t assume that girls who are not maltreated in the home haven’t experienced trauma and other problems,” says Dr. Bright.

Girls in poor families, however, were somewhat protected if they lived in relatively resource-rich neighborhoods, as indicated by the median income in their census tract. This metric of neighborhood resources is associated with many different life and health outcomes, according to prior research. For example, neighborhoods that are relatively rich in resources have a greater availability of fresh food, which influences health, and better schools, which is most likely very important for a positive transition to adulthood.

“These results have practical implications for understanding young women’s ongoing risk for problems and for identifying their need for services,” says Dr. Bright. “They highlight that girls in the juvenile justice system are diverse, as are their service needs, and that interventions must be flexible enough to accommodate multiple groups,” she adds. For example, providers tend to focus on trauma-informed services for girls, in particular, because many girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced trauma. But there are differences between the traumatic experiences of violence and maltreatment in the home and that of witnessing violence in one’s neighborhood. Therefore, service providers have to contextualize services for the actual risk each girl encounters and individualize services.

Prior research by others had indicated that boys involved in the juvenile justice system have a wide range of problems and service needs. Although the results from Dr. Bright’s study are based on data from only one geographic area, they suggest that girls in the juvenile system, not surprisingly, are also a very diverse group and that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to services. The researchers note the importance of examining the characteristics, outcomes, and provision of services to youth involved in juvenile court in other regions of the country. Overall, there are still many unanswered questions about gender-specific services for delinquent youth, and longitudinal research on outcomes beyond recidivism—including mental health functioning and family conflict—help in the development of interventions. “Although it makes sense to provide gender-specific services, we don’t know as much about what those look like in practice,” says Dr. Bright. The heterogeneity of the juvenile justice population, boys and girls alike, must guide the design and implementation of services.

Dr. Bright and colleagues are examining how service is provided by the juvenile justice system to determine which services are most useful to girls and whether they are similar to those for boys. They are also examining the relationship between committing offenses and substance use among adolescents—the trajectories of offending and substance use. “Girls and boys have different precursors to juvenile crime, commit different crimes, and have different childhood and adolescent experiences. To best serve kids, we might need to provide equal but different treatment for boys and girls,” says Dr. Bright.

Dr. Bright also notes that the study’s findings have implication for better use of limited resources and services in the juvenile justice system: “We need to think carefully about who receives services and what services are offered. Research can indicate groups in greatest need of services and tailor interventions to maximize their effectiveness.

“Getting tough on crime is not necessarily the best use of juvenile justice resources. The majority of girls in our study were not involved in the justice system as young adults. There is a prevailing attitude that we should teach juvenile offenders a lesson, but youthful offending might be part of a developmental stage. Interventions to increase youth protection and decrease their individual, family, or neighborhood risks seem a better use of resources.”

For more information contact Dr. Charlotte Lyn Bright, University of Maryland, School of Social Work in Baltimore, MD, cbright@ssw.umaryland.edu.

Reprinted - National Institute of Corrections - Corrections and Mental Health

Document available at: http://community.nicic.gov/blogs/mentalhealth/archive/2012/10/05/young-adult-outcomes-of-girls-involved-in-juvenile-justice-system-distinct-patterns-of-risk-and-protection.aspx


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