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The mother of one of juvenile defense lawyer Laura Peterson’s clients believes she gave her daughter sage advice for the past school year. “I told her, ‘If someone hits you, scream as loudly as you can, and don’t hit back,’” says the Denton, Texas, housewife, whose 12-year-old daughter now is charged with assault — allegations the girl denies. Judge Darlene Whitten presides over the case, which is pending in Denton’s County Court at Law No. 1 for juveniles. For almost a week last year, the mother says, her daughter followed her recommendations. For three days in a row, the girl returned from school and recounted how another girl purposely hit her in physical education class. The girl told her mom she screamed and reported the incident to the teacher. And she refrained from hitting back, the girl told her mom. But a few days later, the dispute escalated. The woman says the other girl, who is white, taunted her daughter, who is biracial. One slur, the mother recalls, was: “My grandfather told me what to do with people like you.” The next day, the two girls got into a fight in the lunchroom. Peterson’s client was blamed because school officials alleged she started the scuffle. She eventually was charged with Class A misdemeanor assault. The other girl claims she suffered a concussion and submitted to the court thousands of dollars in medical testing bills as evidence. For the girl’s mother, who moved to Texas from Chicago a year ago and who has two older teen-age children who never have faced juvenile charges, the episode shocks and overwhelms her. “I can’t take it anymore,” she says. “My daughter is a straight-A student, on the honor roll. She had never been in trouble with the law. I never thought my kids would get into an altercation.” For Peterson, a partner in Humphrey & Peterson Law Firm in Dallas who practices almost exclusively in juvenile courts, the scenario of a girl getting into a fight and facing the consequences of the law — in this case, likely probation — ranks as a disturbingly common occurrence these days. Peterson, judges, academics, other officials in the juvenile justice system and recent statistical reports from state agencies all point to the same disturbing trend: Although juvenile crime has dropped in general, girls are getting into trouble and committing more violent crimes than ever before. “That’s something we’ve been talking about and trying to figure out what to do,” Judge Jean H. Boyd, who presides over the 323th Juvenile District Court in Tarrant County, Texas, says about the increase in the number of girls in her county’s system. In 1999, Tarrant County adjudicated 189 female juvenile offenders, the judge says. But as of July 2002, Tarrant County already has adjudicated 162 female juvenile offenders, the judge says, with five months left in the year. Under the Texas Family Code, males and females face possible prosecution for criminal offenses committed after the age of 10. If they have committed serious and violent offenses, such as rape or murder, children can be certified and tried as adults starting at the age of 15. Those who commit a capital offense can be certified at 14. But, as a rule, they will be tried as juveniles until they reach their 17th birthday. In the parlance of the juvenile courts, juveniles are not prosecuted, convicted of an offense and sentenced like adults. Rather, alleged juvenile delinquents are charged, adjudicated and given a disposition. A disposition means a youth is placed on probation in the home or outside the home with a private contractor of such services for the county or, in the most egregious cases, committed to the care of the Texas Youth Commission, the Austin-based agency that oversees state-run juvenile detention centers. “Have you ever gone down and looked at the girls in [state juvenile facilities]? They are scary,” says Texas state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, who also is chairman of the Legislature’s Juvenile Justice & Family Issues Committee. Goodman says in the 2003 session he expects to address the issue of how the state can better handle the rise of female juvenile offenders. “It is something I intend to bring before my full committee the next time we meet on Sept. 12,” Goodman says. “We are definitely getting more females,” says Judge Hal Gaither, who presides over the 304th Juvenile District Court in Dallas County. “In my court we used to have a girl in about one in every 10 cases; now it’s more like two in every 10 cases.” WHY THE RISE? Beyond Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, statewide statistics also show the rise in female juvenile offenders. At TYC facilities, where males and females aged 10 to 21 who have committed the most serious offenses are housed, the percentage of females has risen steadily in the past decade. The percentage of girls committed each year for offenses climbed in all but one of the past 10 years. In 1992, the TYC reported, 6 percent of its youths entering were girls. In 2001, that figure rose to 16 percent. At TYC facilities, girls are a growing percentage of the population, and they are coming in for committing violent offenses in greater numbers than boys. Indeed, the percentage of girls sent to TYC facilities in 2001 on assault or aggravated assault charges surpassed the percentage of boys arriving for the same reason. Some 34 percent of the girls committed to TYC that year were alleged to have assaulted or caused bodily injury to another person; only about 14 percent of the boys were committed because of that type of offense. Beyond Texas, the bulge in female juvenile offenders has shown up nationally as well. Eric Andell, a former 1st Court of Appeals justice in Harris County, Texas, and prior to that a 315th District Court judge hearing juvenile cases in the same county, says he witnessed the trend. “In my new role, I have seen evidence of it anecdotally,” says Andell, now a senior adviser on juvenile crime issues to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Statistically, a study released by the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention shows that between 1981 and 1997, the violent crime index arrest rate for females increased 103 percent compared to only 27 percent for males. Between 1989 and 1998, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime in the United States report, arrests of girls increased 50.3 percent, compared to only 16.5 percent for boys. No one denies girls are getting into trouble at an accelerated rate. But the experts debate why. “Young women are subjected to the same stimuli that make men disrupt,” Andell says. Similarly, Gaither and Peterson say they believe girls commit crimes for the same reasons as boys. Specifically, that the breakup of the family unit has put more girls into situations where they wind up getting into trouble. The girls receive no parental guidance or misguidance from troubled single parents. Gaither and Peterson also believe girls, who feel more threatened and vulnerable without parental support, are joining gangs at a faster rate these days and subsequently getting involved in gang violence. A TYC survey of 1,026 youths entering the state agency’s facilities between February 2000 and February 2001 showed that the girls were just as likely as the boys to belong to a gang. Girls and boys in the survey reported that 21 percent of them belonged to a gang when they entered the system. Others believe the higher arrest rates for girls result from a more complex set of factors. Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor in the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Hawaii, who recently published an article about the closing gender gap in the Spring 2001 issue of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Magazine, writes: “What we’re seeing is not an increase in violence among girls so much as a closing of the gap between what girls have always done … and arrest statistics.” In other words, Chesney-Lind contends, girls are getting arrested for the same activities that they used to get away with. The professor contends that a large degree of the violence committed by female juvenile offenders is committed in the home against other family members. She believes that parents have altered their attitudes about when to call the police about their children. Robert Dawson, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who helped draft much of the juvenile justice legislation passed by the Legislature in the past decade, agrees that society dumps girls into the juvenile courts more quickly these days. “There is less tolerance for any kind of misconduct,” Dawson says. Mike Berger, a solo practitioner in Fort Worth, Texas, who spends most of his time defending juveniles, says he too handles many assault cases involving girls fighting at schools. “I don’t think girls are doing any worse things than they used to, but the schools are turning cat fights over to the cops and washing their hands of the whole thing. They don’t want to get sued by the parents of the one who lost the fight.” FACILITIES OVERLOADED While disagreement persists on the reason for the rise in juvenile delinquency among females, state officials are raising a central question: Are juvenile justice institutions prepared for the trend? “It’s a problem of overall resources,” Dawson says. “Overall, males still outnumber females. Often there aren’t enough females for a program. For years, people have commented on the paucity of programs for females.” In May 2002, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission produced a report, “Female Juvenile Offenders: Services in Texas.” In the study, the agency surveyed juvenile probation departments around Texas about the services they offered for girl offenders. The results showed that 94 percent of the departments had females with chemical dependencies and 90 percent had females with mental health problems. But only a fraction of the departments, 22 percent, had therapeutic shelter programs specifically designed for females. When queried, department officials often told the pollsters that they didn’t believe their mental health and mental retardation services adequately addressed female needs, according to the TJPC report. For instance, 65 percent of the departments said they did not think female offenders with chemical dependencies were being addressed effectively. In its conclusion, the TJPC report states that the programs targeted for female juvenile offenders were “almost always inadequate compared to need levels.” At the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center, administrators have tried to promote programs specifically designed for girls. On a Friday night in mid-August on the second floor of the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center in Dallas, 10 girls, ages 14 to 17, sit on blue vinyl-covered chairs; each girl cradles a plastic doll. The girls are in detention on a broad range of charges. Some allegedly committed credit-card theft, others drug violations, and one girl is charged with the injury and death of a family member. Eight of the girls are pregnant. The other two already have given birth. Doug Vance, the director of the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center, says he has doubled the number of beds earmarked for girls to 40 in the past five years. In 2001, Vance says, the detention center housed 44 pregnant juvenile offenders. Dealing with pregnancies is something that’s unique to female offenders in the juvenile justice system. The parents of one of Peterson’s recent clients learned that their 15-year-old daughter was pregnant only after she was in the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center on aggravated assault charges. The girl was accused of going with a group of other girls to a rival school to attack members of another gang. A box cutter was identified as the weapon, Peterson says. Faced with the high influx of pregnant girls the Dallas County Detention Center administrators are offering a pre-natal class on this particular Friday night, as they have done so weekly for the past three years. “I was a virgin, how did this happen?” a tall black woman who helps teach asks the class in a mocking tone, as the girls respond by grabbing their sides in laughter. The teacher, along with her two co-teachers that evening, is a volunteer from the Potter’s House, a nondenominational church in the southern sector of Dallas led by Bishop T.D. Jakes. The clatter of boys shooting hoops at the nearby basketball court can be heard much of the time as the Potter House volunteers cover their lesson plan in a quick and amusing fashion. The teachers tackle everything from birth control (they advocate abstinence until marriage) and motherhood (they instruct the girls never to leave a baby in a car alone). “As you know, girls are emotional creatures. They need programs that develop their self-esteem,” says Demetria Thrash, program manager for the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center. Thrash put together a hodgepodge of programs specifically for girls. Community volunteers staff most of the programs Thrash has initiated. For example, on the same night as the prenatal class, in another room on the second floor, 14 girls are gathered for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The girls, dressed in their blue baggy shirts and pants with elasticized tops, the juvenile detention uniform, sit on the edge of their seats as an adult AA member tells her story of growing up with a drunk and becoming a drunk herself. “I wasn’t very pleasant to be around,” the woman admits. The girls attending the prenatal and AA classes that evening probably will reside in the county detention facility longer than their male counterparts who were playing basketball. In general, girls tend to stay longer in detention than boys because their cases are more difficult (for example, some of them are mothers) and they are harder to place in other residential programs that the county pays for juveniles to attend, Thrash says. On average, girls stay 48 days, as compared to boys who stay 17 days in the Dallas County Detention Center, Thrash says. While they are there, Vance says, girls sometimes get into more trouble. Of the 33 total incidents of children acting out suicidal gestures in 2001, Vance says, 23 of the cases were female. Of the 65 instances the same year of self-abuse — hitting their heads on the wall or excessively scratching — 53 were female. Indeed, Vance says, just 16 girls accounted last year for 74 percent of the serious incidents at the detention center, incidents that required counselors to use physical restraints. Because female juvenile offenders require so much attention, other counties in Texas are starting to target pre-detention and preventive programs for girls. In Tarrant County, Boyd says, a few months ago the juvenile program department began a pilot project specifically for girl offenders who have not yet been committed to a residential program. The nonresidential program “is set up just to address the issues more specific to girls and help some of these girls feel safer,” Boyd says. The eight-week program offers counseling sessions for girls. The first group of offenders graduated from the program in July. “The probation officer who started it is excited,” Boyd says. But the judge concedes the program results are too new and too scarce to show anything substantial about the effectiveness of the program. Defense lawyer Peterson says the increase in girls committing offenses means lawyers need to teach themselves about what programs they can persuade prosecutors to send their clients to. “You have to be a lot more of a social worker because there are so few services for girls. Sometimes the whole battle is where they go,” Peterson says. The allegations in some of Peterson’s recent cases would concern any parent. Peterson recalls the vague, noncommittal reaction she received when she questioned one 15-year-old client facing charges in the 304th District Court in Dallas County. Police allege the girl used a “stick instrument” to attack a peer at a rival school. When Peterson entered the evidence room and saw the stick instrument, the attorney realized the police had collected a bedpost with a large protruding nail at one end. “My client had apparently taken apart her bed,” Peterson says with dismay. Another 15-year-old client who faces drug possession charges told Peterson that one of her middle school peers actually framed her by sneaking an Ecstasy pill into a plastic bag full of pain reliever medication the girl had in her purse and then told school officials she suspected the girl had illegal drugs. “Even if my client isn’t telling the truth, it’s amazing the level of sophistication that’s involved with this stuff,” Peterson says. And Peterson, who worked four years for the Dallas County Public Defenders’ Office, says she expects to get more tough cases involving girls sent her way. “Girl fight, girl fight,” Peterson chimes, only half in jest. “I don’t [know] what it is. When I was in high school I never heard of a single girl fight. Now I get them all the time.”

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