Bad Girls

Rosa was two weeks away from celebrating her 14th birthday the night she was arrested for armed robbery. She had been hanging out with eight friends at Four Corners, an alley at the intersection of Washington and Bowdoin streets that’s popular with Dorchester gangs. She was drunk for the first time, on a notoriously high-octane wine called Cisco. Or, as Rosa calls it, liquid crack.

Early in the night, she had an idea. “Let’s go to Brookline and rob some people,” she suggested to her friends. Less than five miles away, Brookline was an easy destination for kids from Dorchester to go and cause trouble. Her first victim — one of four — was a woman in her twenties walking home from work.

“I just walked up to her and said, ‘Gimme your stuff,’ and she gave it up,” recalls Rosa (not her real name), now 16 and slouching in her chair in a white shirt emblazoned with the words ” I’m so spoiled .” Her delicate features twist as she remembers what happened next. “The cops came. We took mug shots, and I got locked up.”

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. For one thing, Rosa left out the part about the gun. And about how, according to the police report, one of her male friends held that gun to one victim’s head as another friend sexually assaulted the woman. Rosa has spent the two and a half years since the incident in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services.

That should be the end of the story: A troubled girl is caught, rehabilitated, and released to experience what’s left of her childhood. But once again, it isn’t quite that simple. Other facts — like how from the time Rosa was two years old, she watched her mother get beaten by her husband at the time — make Rosa’s case tough to put aside so easily. Or that her father, who she barely knows, served time in prison for dealing drugs before being deported. In 2003, her brother was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Then consider that in fifth grade, Rosa was raped by an older man, her summer-job employer. Suddenly it becomes clear why Rosa may need more than to be simply locked away.

But the psychological complexities of Rosa’s life get lost in a system unable to handle the sheer number of girls like her. That’s because in the past 10 years, the number of juvenile delinquent girls placed in state custody has more than tripled to about 450. The state agency mandated to handle all cases of juvenile delinquency, the Department of Youth Services (DYS), has seen the number of girls on its committed caseload — those sentenced to do time in the juvenile equivalent of jail — soar 246 percent in about 10 years. That’s compared with a 25 percent increase in boys during the same period. And juvenile justice experts are at a loss, not only as to why so many more girls are suddenly getting in as much trouble as boys, but also over what to do with all of them.

Too often, the answer has been to lump them all together in a system traditionally reserved for criminal offenders. For someone like Rosa, that means being locked out of sight and out of mind.

While the spike in the number of girls placed with DYS is as clear as day, the reason for it isn’t. Some experts believe it can’t necessarily be explained by a rise in the number of crimes committed by girls. They say girls are increasingly being locked up for behavior that, until recently, was considered little more than adolescent mischief — skipping school, running away, or being rebellious or “stubborn.” By law, no child is sent to DYS without a court order. But many who work within the system say that, in practice, girls who start out by committing minor offenses (shoplifting or trespassing, for example) are winding up back in DYS custody because of subsequent behavior — also usually minor charges — that violates probation.

“We’re holding kids that we shouldn’t be for offenses that are so minor that they’d be better served in other agencies or settings,” concedes Mary Sylva, chief of staff for DYS. “But every kid in DYS
is there because of a court order. And often it’s for violation of probation for
a very low-level charge.”

For that, say children’s rights advocates, you can largely thank recent crackdowns by law enforcement. “Over the years, as we develop more zero-
tolerance policies at school and on the streets, the police tend to be less likely to give a girl a pass,” says Barbara Kaban, deputy director of the Children’s Law Center in Massachusetts, an organization that advocates for children’s rights. “There’s no doubt that girls’ behaviors have gotten more aggressive, but the ones we see in court are still overwhelmingly involved in interpersonal violence that is relationship based. That hasn’t changed.”

What has changed is how the offenses are being dealt with. “People may speculate that more girls are committing violent crimes,” says Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman. “But my anecdotal sense is that a lot of girls are being detained or committed for behavior which is often status-offense based” — meaning for lesser, nonviolent crimes — or for probation violations.

That was pretty much what happened to one 14-year-old girl from Hyde Park. Initially referred to the Department of Social Services (DSS) because of family problems, she was put in foster care. Then, after she was charged with shoplifting, a judge shipped her off to DYS. “It was a minimal case with the shoplifting,” says social worker Laura Prescott, who also runs a daily reporting center in Roslindale where girls who are committed to DYS are required to check in after school for drug testing and therapy. “But DSS threw her on us.” Today, the girl is 19 and living in a shelter for homeless pregnant women.

The handling of so-called status offenses has always been a problem for offenders of both sexes — so much so that in 1974, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was passed so that status offenses would be judged differently than delinquency cases in which serious crimes had been committed. The act also stipulated that status and criminal offenders not be placed together in the same locked detention facilities. But with the female population in DYS growing so rapidly, girls with low-level criminal charges are now being placed wherever a bed is available.

Lumping low-level offenders and delinquents together has wide-ranging negative effects. Among them is a problem known as “subliminal recruitment,” which works like this: “Say a girl comes in for prostitution,” says Prescott. “She’s been in and out of the system for different offenses, then meets up with a low-level girl — a shoplifter, for example. The system-savvy girl will say to her, ‘Hey, if you’re ever on the run, this is where to find me.’ She may or may not mention prostitution, but that’s how it starts.” From there it’s often simply a matter of time before the low-level offenders start behaving like their new friends.

Advocates for juvenile justice agree that separating girls convicted of minor charges, such as trespassing, from their more criminally minded counterparts would be one step in the right direction. At the very least it would cut down on subliminal recruitment, which is one of the reasons girls land right back in the system. Another reason is probation violations, which can keep girls locked in the system for years. “It’s a revolving door,” says Francine Sherman, a professor of law at Boston College and director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project. “From 14 to 18 years old, girls can be in and out of this door eight times. And every time it’s a disruption to their education, relationships, and residence. It’s not what you want for any developing adolescent.”

At most, separating minor offenders and delinquency cases might help to stem the systemwide tide that seems to be rushing inexorably toward chaos.

Sitting atop a tree-covered hill in North Chelmsford, the Rotenberg School looks like an old mansion. Look closer and you’ll see that all the windows are covered with a security screen made of heavy metal mesh. A huge Winnie the Pooh mural inside the second floor stairwell belies the real purpose of the place. A white, cagelike structure beside it prevents despondent girls from falling or jumping.

The witching hour at Rotenberg begins around 9 every night. Girls get swept up in the anxiety of being effectively behind bars and argue, whine, and do whatever else they can to push back the inevitable announcement that the doors are being locked and the lights switched off. The state’s only long-term secure treatment facility that rehabilitates delinquent girls, Rotenberg is the juvenile equivalent of a maximum-security prison. Some nights it sounds like an orchestra warming up for a concert when bedtime rolls around and the demons inside the locked-up girls come out.

“Bedtime is especially difficult to manage with girls,” says Mary Harte, director of the school. “Nighttime has always been a scary thing for many of them,” she says, because it’s when bad things happened. In order to make some girls feel more comfortable in their locked rooms, one detention center installed night-lights — a reminder not only of how vulnerable these girls are, but of the unique concerns of treating girls, many, if not most, of whom have long histories of suffering domestic violence and sexual abuse.

What’s more, says Harte, the larger the group, the slower the progress. “It creates chaos if they’re all together,” she says. “If the groups are smaller, the morale tends to be better because girls aren’t as apt to show what we call ‘relationship aggression,’ where they’re trying to get under one another’s skin.”

Most experts agree that because of their personal histories, girls need more psychological treatment than boys. But with the upswing in the number of cases involving girls, one of the biggest problems facing DYS administrators and social workers is that they’re hamstrung by a system that has historically catered to boys.

While facilities for boys are also now being stretched, those for girls are in even greater trouble. Four out of 11 of the girls’ programs statewide are at or over capacity, compared to 15 out of 52 of boys’ programs. The girls pretrial floor at the Metro Youth Services Center, a detention center in Dorchester where girls await their sentencing, has a maximum capacity of 25, “and they’re usually full” — or even overflowing — says Nancy Carter, director of the Spectrum Health Systems Girls Detention Unit, which provides the custody services at Metro Youth. “We’ll make room for more in the system if we have to. We’ll never refuse a girl, because we can’t. We have to find a spot for them.”

But rehabilitating teenage girls requires a lot more than just finding places for them. “The treatment for girls needs to be more specialized,” says Laura Prescott. “There are almost five times the number of facilities available for boys, and they typically respond better to correctional, more aggressive attitudes than girls do. Girls need more attention, more handholding.”

Take 16-year-old Emily (not her real name), who was almost eight months pregnant last fall and landed in DYS custody after fighting with another girl. She now lives with her thirtysomething mother, who has had seven children and given all but Emily up for adoption. “Even though she was sleeping on the floor pregnant, she wanted to be with her mother,” Prescott says. “We see the same things in the same families over and over again. When a girl like Emily” — who is still young enough to love SpongeBob SquarePants — “gets pregnant and hears what her options are, the most common response is that she’s Catholic and would never consider not having the baby.”

“You have to understand that these are young girls,” says Prescott. “They seem tough, but at the core is just a little girl who’s fighting to survive. They need love and care. And locking them up isn’t always the best answer.”

Given the overcrowding, it’s not surprising that girls with different problems are being lumped together. But while their numbers may be too high to give them the individual attention they need, they aren’t high enough to warrant more resources from the state. More specialized programs are available to boys, simply because there are more of them in the system.

That’s particularly true when it comes to mental health. With an increasing number of the girls committed to DYS on psychotropic medications such as lithium, there is an increasing need to provide them with mental health services. Only 48 hospital beds are allocated to adolescents within the Department of Mental Health statewide, so DYS is not only burdened with the safekeeping of children from abusive homes, but also those who have severe psychological disorders.

Prescott tells the story of one girl who entered DYS after a fight at school, but had been hospitalized several times in psychiatric wards for what may have been bipolar disorder. She was immediately sent back to the hospital after showing suicidal behavior and was in and out of DYS and hospital custody for the next several months. “We struggled with assessing her,” says Prescott. “We just couldn’t get our hands around the mental health issues she had. People would say, ‘Well, she’s in DYS, so at least you know she’s safe.’ But it made her worse than any other place. She didn’t need the heavier hand of DYS: She didn’t respond to it at all.”

“It’s difficult to run a detention center with this number of [girls with] mental health problems,” says Monica King, who works as Nancy Carter’s assistant at Metro Youth Services. “If one girl is acting out because of a mental problem, she may get more leniency than a girl who’s acting out because she’s delinquent. The delinquent girl then gets mad that the ill girl isn’t getting punished in the same way that she would have for acting out.”

“There should really be two types of long-term treatment facilities,” Harte says — “one for criminality and one for mental health. I don’t understand why a girl has to get to the end of the road before getting psychiatric treatment. Why does a girl end up [at Rotenberg] before getting a mental health referral?”

The problem with combining would-be mental health clients with delinquent cases is the same as mixing minor offenders with hardened criminals. Staff members simply don’t have the time or other resources to cater to each one individually. The limited staffing also creates a safety risk. At most Massachusetts juvenile detention centers, staff members are required to check on each girl’s room an average of every four minutes — and sometimes, as at Metro Youth, even more frequently. It isn’t unusual to find 17 of the 25 girls detained there on a two-minute check cycle, meaning they have shown they are at a moderate risk of injuring themselves or others. Girls at the highest risk are called “arm’s-length girls”; at any given time, a supervisor must be no more than an arm’s length away from them.

This puts judges in a difficult position, too — between wanting to keep girls safe, but not necessarily having the means to do so. “We just don’t have a lot of services available to meet the needs of adolescent girls,” Kaban says. “It increases the likelihood that a frustrated probation officer or frustrated judge is going to say, ‘This kid needs to be committed because it’s the only place we know we can keep her and the public safe.'”

“That we don’t have funding for mental health resources, that’s a real problem,” says Judge Blitzman. “It’s a public safety concern, pure and simple.”

If girls are to have even a fighting chance after they’ve been committed, experts agree it would take major changes to the system. Some have suggested coordinating services and sharing costs with the various state agencies that deal with children, an arrangement that was the norm when there were fewer delinquent girls to rehabilitate.

Meanwhile, locking up girls without solving their problems disrupts their education, which leads to trouble once they’re on probation. “We have a larger and larger dropout rate,” Blitzman says. “Kids out of school end up in court. If you don’t deal with these issues in a timely fashion, the results are foreseeable.” He adds, “Are we really doing a disservice to these girls by holding them for disproportionately long periods of time and then not providing the services that prompted our decision to hold them in the first place?”

Letters cut from tan, blue, and black construction paper pasted on the wall at Metro Youth Services Center spell out, “Life is 360 degrees. What you put out is what you get back.” When Rosa ended up back there, her social workers were disappointed, but not surprised.

After the robbery, the judge’s instructions to Rosa were simple: Go to school, report to a caseworker every day, meet curfew, avoid alcohol and drugs, and stay away from criminal activity. Instead, she ran away. Then again. And again — even after serving eight months at the Rotenberg School, a result of telling a judge, “Just commit me, because I’ll do it again.”

With a violent crime on her roster of offenses, Rosa will be under DYS supervision until her 18th birthday. Prescott, for one, seriously questions whether she’ll be able to stay out of trouble. “I worry about her. She has a mother who’s just trying to survive every day and can’t protect her,” she says. “Meanwhile, one of her biggest issues is that she defines herself through men’s attraction. It’s how she values herself. Not through the things that should really raise her self esteem, like passing the MCAS.”

Months out of Rotenberg, Rosa passed parts of that test, despite a disrupted education since the eighth grade. And for a time, she seemed determined if not to race toward her own future, then at least to be something besides another lost cause.

“I want to be a midwife,” she said. “It’s not going to make me happy. But people say when you’re committed, you’ll never be anything. I’m going to do it to prove them wrong.”

Six weeks later, Rosa ran away.