The violence and sexual abuse faced by young girls is a tragic page in the checkered book of American history. However, even more tragic is the way the “justice” system deals with these victims.
A new study put together by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women blasts the American criminal justice system for the gross incompetence in the treatment of abused girls.
According to the report, sexual abuse among girls is a “crisis of national proportions that cuts across every divide of race, class, and ethnicity. The facts are staggering: one in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18.”
But the rate of abuse is only half of the problem. It’s what happens after the abuse, at the hands of the state, that is exacerbating this crisis. The system criminalizes these girls, especially girls of color, at an alarming rate.
According to the researchers, if a girl has been a victim of sexual trauma, this raises her chances of ending up in the criminal justice system, instead of getting the help she needs.
The US Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence has concluded that childhood trauma is associated with involvement in the juvenile justice system. For girls more than for boys, this connection is strongly rooted in the experience of sexual violence. And the link appears to continue even after girls are released: a recent study has shown that sexual abuse is one of the strongest predictors of whether a girl will be charged again after release; in fact, it appears to have a greater impact on girls’ re-entry into the system than other risk factors like behavioral problems and prior justice involvement.
Many of the girls who are processed into the system have been arrested for victimless “crimes” associated with their sexual abuse. For example, a young girl who’s been sexually abused may turn to substance abuse, or run away, or skip school.
The report’s authors say this cycle,
It illustrates the pipeline with examples, including the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking, girls who run away or become truant because of abuse they experience, and girls who cross into juvenile justice from the child welfare system.
Another horrifying aspect of the justice system is that it will lock underage girls up for being accused of prostitution, despite not even being old enough to consent to sex. Many of these young girls have been forced into sex trafficking, yet they are thrown in a cage instead of being helped.
Child sex trafficking is child sexual abuse. And it is abuse that is often layered over pre-existing trauma: children who have been sexually abused are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Yet many jurisdictions still view victims of child sex trafficking as perpetrators. These girls are arrested on charges of prostitution even though they are too young to legally consent to sex.
What this study highlights is that girls’ behavioral reaction to sexual abuse and trauma is criminalized, which in turn creates this sexual abuse to prison pipeline.
This pipeline feeds many of these children into adult prisons too. In another report, conducted by Dana Liebelson, an investigation found that there are currently 6,000 children throughout the Land of the Free currently being held in prison facilities for adults.
Imagine for a moment that you were sexually abused as a child and your only option was to run away from home. After running away, you’re caught by police. Instead of getting help, you are thrown in a cage with violent criminals. When you scream for your release, or try to voice your concern, you are met with pepper spray and militarized SWAT cops who force you into a restraint chair for hours on end.
This is what the state the audacity to refer to as the “correctional” system.
Sadly this is to be expected with the type of policing and subsequent corporatist prison model in America today. Cops are trained that citizens are the enemy. They are trained to be hammers, and everyone, even victimized young girls, looks like a nail.
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