Invisible offenders: juvenile detention centers struggle to meet the unique needs of their fastest-growing population.
"They forget about us," said Amanda, who asked that her last name not be used. "But I need somebody to talk to. Girls are like that. And a lot of times there isn't anybody to talk to [in the detention center] because they are too busy, and there are so many girls."
As a girl, Amanda is part of the fastest-growing population in detention centers in Cook County and across America. Yet child advocates say female juvenile detainees remain invisible, with their unique mental and emotional health issues unaddressed in detention centers.
Amanda said the only place she found people to talk to about her feelings and how she ended up in detention was a grassroots volunteer organization that works with girls at the county facility each week. Girl Talk, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November, provides all the girls with an open space to talk about everything from prostitution issues to women's rights. It also offers art therapy programs, such as quilt making and poetry writing. Many of the volunteers were once juvenile offenders held in the detention center.
On average, Cook County's detention center, one of the nation's largest, holds about 43 girls and 400 boys each day, according to Sondra Jones, one of its assistant superintendents.
In the past five years, the number of girls has nearly doubled, while the number of boys has decreased each year. And nearly two out of every three girls are African American.
The increasing number of girls further strains the already limited resources in detention centers, which often have programs geared toward boys, said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii whose research focuses on girls' delinquency. "Boys get services in America because we are afraid of them, and we are not as afraid of girls," she said. "We ignore their pain because we can."
Amanda said she would like the girls to have more teamwork-building activities. She said the boys had an organized football tournament, complete with music and fans. The girls were only allowed to watch.
Wenona Thompson, director of programs at Girl Talk, said the girls' softball games were cancelled about a year ago because the staff believed the girls didn't want to participate. "There are no activities for us because we fight," Amanda said. "But we fight because we don't know how to get along with each other. Teach us to work together, and we won't fight."
Amanda also suggests adding more educational activities--she enjoyed a spelling contest that was put together for the girls. "They made these places so we could learn something and change, not to remove us from society," she said. "If I were on staff, I wouldn't let the girls sit in the TV room all day and rot away--it's wasted time that could be spent talking or learning."
Chesney-Lind agreed that psychological and emotional issues often surface among a large group of girls, and detention centers need staff to teach them anger management.
Jones said the detention center is trying to use more psychologists and psychiatrists to talk to the girls and to avoid punishing them with isolated confinement. She said new training programs will help staff identify depressed girls.
During Amanda's incarceration, she said she saw more girls punished than counseled. She was confined twice while in the detention center and asked to meet with a psychiatrist multiple times, but she never saw one.
According to a 2002 study conducted by Linda A. Teplin, director of Psycholegal Studies at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, girls in the detention center were more likely than boys to suffer from diagnosable psychiatric illnesses. About three out of four of the almost 700 girls studied over a three-year period met the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders. Two out of three boys had comparable mental disorders.
The county gives juveniles entering the detention center a mental health evaluation within 24 hours of their arrival and refers about one in four detainees to one of the center's three psychologists or two psychiatrists, said Dr. Jackie Moore, the center's health administrator.
But Amanda said she was not given a mental health evaluation. "Psychiatrists come to the section with a list and talk to every girl for about five minutes. They may come around and ask me questions like, 'What meds are you on?' One girl leaves, and another one comes, and that's how it is."
Illinois state budget cuts in the late 1980s slashed more than $18 million allocated to state and county facilities for juveniles with mental illnesses. Although part of the money was gradually restored, a number of mental health facilities were shut down in 2002. In September, Gov. Rod Blagojevich cut $12 million from Illinois' mental health budget.
Moore said these recent cuts have not affected the detention center. A grant from a national advocacy agency has helped the center add two psychologists and develop policies on dealing with suicidal youth, administering psychotropic medication and implementing group therapy sessions, she said.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, nearly one in five girls who appeared in court was ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation, compared with about one in 10 boys, according to a 2002 study by Laurie Schaffner, an associate professor at the University of Chicago. But, in recent years, the percentage of girls ordered to have the evaluations has dropped below the boys' rate, which has remained fairly constant.
"Girls have complex issues that society doesn't know how to deal with," said Girl Talk's Thompson, who was 16 in 1992 when she was convicted as an adult for selling drugs, serving two and a half years in prison. "So they are starting to look at us as criminals, rather than young girls growing up with complex issues."
The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the detention center in 1999, citing chronic overcrowding, lack of adequate food and medical services, unsanitary conditions, and deteriorating physical and mental health care for juveniles. In 2002, the two sides agreed to a reform plan that was approved by the court. Part of the plan included submitting a timeline, expected by year's end, for implementating reforms. But the county is running behind schedule, said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director for the ACLU of Illinois.
Moore said the detention center is now conducting tests for sexually transmitted diseases and posting a nurse in the intake area for the first time. And county officials have told the ACLU that they have also made progress this year in girls' healthcare by providing gynecologists and making sure pregnant girls are eating enough, Wolf said.
But Michael Jacobs, the assistant state's attorney who represented Cook County in the ACLU lawsuit, said the reforms will improve health care in general but will not specifically address females' needs. Amanda hopes the detention center will focus on helping the girls work through their problems rather than punishing them. "I think that nobody means to be a criminal. I don't care if you think I'm a prisoner--I am just a child. Everybody in that place is a child. Nobody means to deliberately put themselves in jail. Something goes on in our lives, in our heads. And there's something wrong with that."
Contributing: Desiree Evans.
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|Title Annotation:||Keeping Current|
|Publication:||The Chicago Reporter|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2003|
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