Girls in Crisis: The Challenge for Our Community

June 6, 2003

Boston – A group of public policy directors, community leaders, academics, and law enforcement officials responded to a national report by a Boston-based advocacy group on the failures of the juvenile justice system to address the wide range of needs of delinquent girls at a public forum, Girls in Crisis: The Challenges for Our Community, today at the Boston Foundation.  Sponsored by the Boston Foundation and the Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation, the forum was organized by the Crime & Justice Institute.The findings of the report were presented at the forum by its author, Francine Sherman, who directs the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at Boston College Law School.  Following her presentation, a panel of local leaders explored the unique needs of at-risk girls and women, common pathways to justice system involvement, and key opportunities for communities to help girls avoid the justice system.

The panel was moderated by Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, M.D., who is co-pastor of Bethel AME Church and a pediatrician at the South End Community Health Center.  The panelists included Lewis H. (Harry) Spence, Commissioner, Department of Social Services; Joan Wallace-Benjamin, President and CEO, The Home for Little Wanderers; Detective Lisa Holmes, Boston Police Department; Mary Ellen Mastrororilli, Deputy Superintendent, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department; Valerie Johnson, Director of Girls Programming, Ella J. Baker House; and Fabiola Jerome, former DYS consumer.

“We know that girls are now the fastest growing segment within the juvenile justice system, both nationally and here in Massachusetts, and they are becoming involved in the system at younger ages. It’s also sobering to note that the obstacles facing system-involved girls are no different than those facing girls generally,” said Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation. “Yet the state systems, particularly the juvenile and criminal justice systems, often function separately from community services. Clearly, we need to strengthen and connect these isolated areas, such as social services, mental and physical health care, and criminal justice, to develop systems that work together.”

According to recent research, in Massachusetts in 2003 there were four times as many girls committed to the Department of Youth Services as there were in 1993, which mirrors national data.  “These trends are even more disturbing for girls of color who are over-represented throughout the juvenile justice system,” said Elyse Clawson, Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute.  “Services tailored to the needs of young women in the juvenile justice system can reduce their continued involvement as adults.  Appropriate community-based interventions for at-risk girls can build on their strengths so they may lead safe and healthy lives.”

The profiles of contemporary delinquent girls show a number of common characteristics:

  • Significant levels of violence and trauma in their lives, particularly sexual violence, and involvement in the child welfare system.  In many cases, their experiences of trauma are repeated within the criminal justice system.
  • Girls for whom running away has become a habit and a way to cope with chaos and trauma at home are ill served by the current system: they tend to get deeper into the system, and stay in it longer, even though they have committed little crime and pose no threat to public safety.
  • Girls are detained for less serious offenses than boys – or for none at all. With so few community-based services for girls, many who have never committed any crime, such as teenage domestic violence victims, are locked up because there is simply no other safe place for them to go.
  • Girls at risk of becoming involved in the delinquency system are often victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse.  Those already involved frequently suffer from physical or mental illness and come from families coping with poverty, death, violence, and/or multigenerational patterns of incarceration.
  • Violent crime by girls is on the rise – this represents a shift away from the two most common minor and non-violent crimes, running away and prostitution; and
  • Girls in the system are treated differently from boys: they are twice as likely to be detained, and their detention typically lasts five times longer.

One example of an issue that is gaining increased attention in Massachusetts is prostitution among teenage girls.  It illustrates the devastating impact of early sexual victimization on the lives of girls: between 65 – 90% of prostitutes have experienced sexual abuse or incest prior to their entry into prostitution. For many teenage girls, childhood sexual abuse, followed by running away, leads them into prostitution as a means of survival which results in continued victimization, substance use, and criminal justice involvement.  These girls would benefit from a wide range of social services,  in fact the community services addressing sexual victimization are widely acknowledged to be inadequate and unavailable.

One of the solutions, according to the study, is to provide effective, community-based girls programs.  “Community-based programs are a cost-effective, safe alternative to the justice system for many girls,” observed Francine Sherman.  “Yet judges and attorneys surveyed by the Girls Justice Initiative were not aware of many of the programs existing in their communities.  Shoring up homes and communities so they become safer places to be is a critical challenge for communities and systems, and is a key to the future health of families and communities.  Girls who lose their community ties are left as adults without community supports and connections.  This poses a particular problem when these teens and young women become mothers, where community support is critical to success.”

This forum is the second in a series of community safety forums that are sponsored by The Boston Foundation, The Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation and coordinating partners MassINC and The Crime and Justice Institute. The five forums are being conducted over the course of one year to explore in depth a range of public safety issues, their impact on the community, public policy, and the potential for system change. The Forum Series engages the community, law enforcement, public agencies, and others in informed dialogue about a range of community safety issues and will provide an opportunity to develop new learning, spark public debate, and influence current public safety practices and public policy.

* * *

The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of more than $550 million and made grants of  $53.7 million to nonprofit organizations last year. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grantmaking, visit, or call 617-338-1700.

The Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) operates as a division of Community Resources for Justice (CRJ). CRJ was formed in 1999 when Massachusetts Half-Way Houses (founded in 1964) and the Crime and Justice Foundation (founded in 1878) merged. As innovators in service delivery and social policy, CJI is deeply committed to the search for effective and cost-efficient ways to enhance the quality of life in our communities. CJI promotes rational public policy and practical strategies for addressing criminal and social justice issues through research, advocacy, and capacity building technical assistance. Additionally, CJI fosters awareness and energizes efforts focused on community development, quality of life, and violence prevention. For more information about the Crime and Justice Institute, visit, or call 617-482-2520.