CYC-Online 80 SEPTEMBER 2005
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Adult too soon: Age-sensitive interventions with delinquent girls

Ann Booker Loper

Because the problems faced by delinquent girls are so often adult problems, it is easy to forget that such girls are young and still developing. The author details several intervention strategies that take into account the participants' youth and vulnerability.

There is no one cause of female delinquency, and there is no one description that fits all girls. Some are like Trikia, 16, who grew accustomed to seeing and hearing violence in her neighborhood, but could not adjust to the loss of her childhood friend who was murdered one day after school. Trikia routinely gets into fights at school and will likely be expelled. Some are like Louisa, 15, who has run away from home twice. She is afraid of her mom's new boyfriend who wants to “teach her" about sex. Marguerita, 16, has a learning disability and has never done well at school; however, she has discovered that cocaine makes her feel bright and desirable.

These girls fit the profile of the female delinquent: they are often poor, live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, experience abuse at home, and lack hope for the future (Greene, Peters and Associates, 1998). Despite their very adult problems, these girls are not adults. They are still growing and are capable of change, deserving of attention, and in need of sensitive intervention. Effective interventions recognize that, while dealing with complex problems, delinquent girls are still young people who need guidance toward healthy choices. Unfortunately, society's response is often the opposite, for example, we see a growing trend in juvenile justice towards treating young offenders as adults if they commit an “adult" crime. Between 1993 and 1998, the number of juveniles held as adults doubled, despite substantially reduced arrests of youth for serious crimes during this period (FBI, 1994-1999; Gilliard, 1999). If a youth looks like an adult and does things that adults do, then that youth is increasingly being held accountable as an adult. Unfortunately, being held accountable as an adult is not new for many of the girls who find themselves in the juvenile justice system. Teenage parenting, substance abuse, and dealing with the pain and emotional toll of physical and sexual abuse can interact to make troubled girls grow up too fast.

Teenage Parenting
Perhaps foremost among the “adultifying" experiences for delinquent girls is teenage pregnancy. A recent study that examined risk factors associated with sexual activity among teenage girls revealed that a self-reported history of fighting, alcohol problems, and theft-related delinquency activities significantly increased the probability that a girl would also be sexually active (West, 1999). Moreover, the study found that a history of fighting was one of the best predictors of which of these sexually active girls would subsequently become pregnant. The lifestyle that is associated with delinquent activities – theft, heavy alcohol consumption, and physical violence – is also associated with the risks that lead to teen pregnancy.

Adding to the burden of dealing with adult-size problems such as parenthood, a large majority of delinquent girls experience serious mental health problems (Ellis, O'Hara, & Sowers, 1999). Notable among these problems are depression, eating disorders, and suicide. Troubled girls often become self-destructive, seeking relief from their isolation and histories of victimization by engaging in relationships that are destructive. Relational distress seems to fuel much of the high–risk behavior typical of these girls, including behavior leading to pregnancy. A pregnant delinquent girl may see her baby as an opportunity to at last control her relationships, particularly as she may imagine the baby as an object that will be unequivocally accepting. This misguided premise for having a baby ill-prepares the girl for the inevitable stress associated with parenthood. More than 70% of teenage mothers end up in poverty, often during formative years of their children's lives. The sons of adolescent mothers are nearly three times more likely to end up incarcerated than are boys whose mothers delay pregnancy until their early 20s (Maynard, 1996).

In fact, this pattern is consistent with another problem these girls face: lack of parental support. After all, when a woman becomes pregnant, she tends to look to her own mother for advice. Unfortunately, delinquent girls often come from homes where such support is lacking. One recent study of girls who were incarcerated in juvenile facilities in Virginia revealed that during 1998, 12% of the girls had mothers who were currently or previously incarcerated and 23% had fathers with incarceration history (McGarvey & Waite, 1999). Consistent with a trend toward increased incarceration of women (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1998), the McGarvey and Waite investigation indicated a 100% increase between 1993 and 1998 in the number of girls whose mothers had incarceration history.

Clearly, teenage parenting – in any generation – is a risky venture. The experience of teenage pregnancy propels vulnerable and ill-equipped girls, girls who often have a lifestyle associated with destructive activities, into the adult role of parenthood.

History of Physical and Sexual Abuse
In a perfect world, children are protected and their survival is assured by parents and caretakers. The children are allowed to grow at their own pace, and when these children mature, they then take up the role of ensuring survival for themselves and for their own children. In this benign world, a young girl voluntarily engages in sexual behavior when she is mature enough to handle the meaning and consequences of sexual activity. Unfortunately, for the majority of delinquent girls, this is simply not the case.

Delinquent girls' first sexual experience is likely to be in the form of sexual abuse. Estimates indicate that from 30% to 60% of female delinquents have suffered sexual abuse, most typically by a family member or trusted adult (Acoca, 1998; McGarvey & Waite, 1999; Miller, Trapani, Fejes-Mendoza, Eggleston, & Dwiggins, 1995). Sexual abuse at an early age sets up a filter for these delinquent girls, through which future events are interpreted and understood. This filter, or worldview, couples victimization and pain with sexuality and desirability, and sets up an expectancy that it is normal to be used, and that self-worth is equated with sexuality. A visit to any girls' detention center or probation facility quickly reveals the volatility of girls' emotions concerning their sexual relationships. Disputes over boyfriends, usually with other girls, are a ubiquitous and powerful trigger for fights. Sexual abuse, so prevalent among delinquent girls, drives young women into prematurely dealing with their own femininity and sexuality, before they have the emotional resources to handle such powerful material.

Substance Abuse
In the United States, alcohol consumption is allowed only after the age of 21, when an individual is assumed to have the maturity to drink judiciously. Substances such as co–caine, marijuana, and heroin are viewed as too toxic even for adults, and are outlawed for all. However, abuse of alcohol and illegal substances is yet another affliction that forces girls to deal with problems that are well beyond their maturity to handle. Between 1994 and 1998, arrests for drug abuse violations increased 43% among girls under 18 years of age. Arrests for liquor law violations increased by 47% (FBI, 1994-1999).

For many delinquent girls, mood-altering substances such as cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol constitute a form of self–medication that offers an escape from depression and pain. A large proportion of delinquent girls are from families where substance abuse is normalized and role models for abusing are ever-present. Arrests of women for substance abuse problems have increased dramatically in the past decade, and account for much of the increased incarceration of women. McGarvey and Waite (1999), in their five-year study of incarcerated girls in Virginia, found that during the period investigated, 26% of the girls reported substance abuse by their mothers, and 32% reported fathers engaging in such behavior. It is frightening to speculate how many delinquent girls may see substance abuse and even incarceration for substance abuse as part of a typical path to adulthood.

Developmentally Sensitive Solutions to Problems of Delinquent Girls
Teenage parenting, substance abuse, and sexual and physical abuse are three usually overlapping routes leading delinquent girls to jump into the world of adult problems without the wisdom and understanding that maturity provides. The recent trend toward viewing juvenile delinquents as adults is disturbing in this context, as it seems to reify the mistaken notion that these young people are in fact adults. Viewing delinquent girls as adults evaluates them according to how much they look like adults, rather than on valid measures of maturity and achievement. In fact, delinquent girls typically are less developmentally mature and have lower levels of achievement than their nondelinquent peers (Acoca, 1998).

A solution to this misinterpretation is exemplified by a number of gender-specific programs that are designed for girls at high risk for delinquency and that account for differing rates of development.

In-home counseling. The Pulaski County Voluntary Probation Officer Teen Parenting Program in Arkansas is an example. A unique feature of the teen parenting program is provision of services not only to the teen mother, but also to the parents or caretakers of the teenage girl. Volunteer probation officers supervise minor offenders and form one-on-one relationships. These officers are typically of the same race as the participants and are specially trained to understand the individual needs of the girls with whom they work.

In addition to the volunteer probation officer, each teen parent also has a professional parenting instructor who visits with the teenage mother and her parent. In a series of 10 weekly one-hour home visits, the instructor covers issues of limit setting, structure, and appropriate discipline, as well as practicalities of caring for and attending to a young baby. The in-home instructor also works to foster solid communication between the teenage mother and her parent. A videotape is used to provoke discussion about listening to each other, expressing displeasure in a calm manner, keeping an open mind before making a decision, and using empathy to see each other's positions.

The issue of limit setting by the teenager's parent also receives prominent attention. Traci Weaver, in-home parenting instructor, has found that “often the mom [of the teenager] was herself a teenage mother, and chances are that limits were never really placed on her. I work to teach the mom how to set and enforce limits and I work with the daughter so she can understand why the limits make sense" (personal communication, February 17, 2000).

A technique that has worked well for Weaver is to request mother and daughter to list the problems they are having with each other. For example, the teenager's mother might complain that her daughter is spending too much time on the phone instead of taking care of the baby. The teenager might complain that she never gets time to talk with friends. Weaver works with mother and daughter to find a mutually agreed upon solution, such as setting up a consistent “phone time" that the daughter can count on and during which the teen's mother agrees to care for the baby. Failure to stick to agreed upon time limits will trigger consequences, such as losing phone privileges for two evenings. Similar agreements are forged for other trouble issues, such as staying out too late with friends, talking disrespectfully, and skipping school.

Weaver works to help both mother and daughter understand the long-term importance of enforcing and accepting consequences for infractions. The volunteer probation officer, who works with the teen throughout involvement with the court, reinforces and follows up on the work of the in-home parenting instructor. After the 10-week series is completed, the in-home instructor provides as-needed crisis consultation. The program has been successful because it recognizes that teenage parents are still developing girls who need structure and guidance from their own parents, and that adult parents need support for setting limits and guidance in how to better listen to and communicate with their daughters.

Center-based education programs. Another outstanding example of a developmentally sensitive solution is the Practical Academic Cultural Education (PACE) program that originated in Jacksonville, Florida (Ravoira, 1999). This highly regarded day treatment program, which has grown to include 17 centers across Florida, focuses on prevention of delinquency in girls through the provision of comprehensive education and treatment. Girls in need of special help are referred by the court system, welfare agencies, and schools, as well as by families and by girls themselves. As is often the case for troubled youth, most students live at or below poverty level, and substantial numbers report sexual or physical abuse, running away, and substance abuse problems. Girls are individually assessed to determine their specific needs and to devise tailored intervention plans. In addition to providing traditional high school education, the curriculum focuses on teaching girls how to make healthy life choices, how to deal with victimization and violence, and how to find nonviolent solutions to relational problems.

Girls approach their goals through a specialized curriculum, SMARTGIRLS! (Students Making a Right Turn), which consists of multiple instructional modules. For example, the “Baby Can Wait Club" is part of SOS (Save Our Sisters), which provides educational activities about choices regarding sexual activity, nutrition, and drugs. Girls are encouraged to set personal goals concerning sexual activity and pregnancy prevention, which are then shared with and encouraged by other club members. An example of a personal goal could be “I will be sexually abstinent. If I start thinking about not being abstinent, I will first talk to a counselor, think carefully, and be sure that I have a method of birth control." Periodically the club plans special events, such as a party or attending a special musical event to celebrate shared success in delaying pregnancy. Bonnie Rose, State Director of Operations for PACE, reports that for young girls who may long for the attention and intimacy that comes with parenthood, the club provides a healthy alternative way of finding support and attention from peers, family, and staff (personal communication, February 23, 2000).

Another module of the curriculum, “SAFETYSMART", teaches violence prevention and breaking free of abusive relationships. A typical group activity might include viewing a movie that deals with an abusive relationship, empathizing with characters in the story, and then discussing and role-playing ways of speaking up assertively or making alternative choices. Practical instruction for daily living is also offered. “NUTS & BOLTS" emphasizes basic home and car safety instruction, while “ON MY OWN" targets money management. “SMARTTALK" empowers girls to find their voices and express their views, using appropriate and sensitive language. Activities include writing for the literary magazine, participating in the newsletter, and discussing views and opinions. Recently some PACE girls wrote, directed, staged, and starred in a video production concerning drug abuse that was then used for peer counseling with other PACE students and for community groups. Other curriculum modules emphasize career security, peer counseling, and appreciating cultural differences.

In addition to participating in SMARTGIRLS! students receive counseling on a regular basis that can include crisis intervention, grief and loss counseling, and specialized therapy groups. Girls complete PACE either by finishing their high school education or by returning to traditional school. Follow-up services are provided for up to three years. The program is highly successful because it teaches the specific skills needed by maturing girls, provides friendship and relational support, and empowers these young women to assert their own voices.

A Model to Emulate
These programs are successful because they never lose sight of a crucial truth about the population they serve: Although they deal with adult problems, delinquent girls are not adults. Programs that work recognize this, and provide girls with the support and structure needed to develop healthy self-identity, to acquire life skills, and to deal with issues of victimization and self-destruction. The trend toward treating juveniles as adults stems from a fear that juvenile predators endanger our society. However, helping these girls delay or, when necessary, cope with teenage parenting can work to protect our society from fu–ture delinquency. Helping girls deal with their own issues of prior victimization and abuse can impact their own parenting skills and short-circuit a perpetuation of societal violence. Helping girls deal directly with their victimization, depression, and eating disorders can reduce the need for self-medication and escape, and promote reduced substance abuse. Our recog–nition that delinquent girls are still developing youth, worthy of societal investment of time and resources, benefits all.


Acoca, L. (1998). Outside/inside: The violation of American girls at home, on the streets and in the juvenile justice system. Crime & Delinquency, 44(4),561-589.

Ellis, R., O'Hara, M., & Sowers, K.(1999). Treatment profiles of troubled female ado–lescents: Implications for judicial disposition. Juvenile and Family Court Journal (Summer), 25-40.

FBI.(199~1999). Uniform crime reports for the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Gilliard, D. K. (1999). Prison and jail inmates at midyear 1998 (NCJ 173414). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Greene, Peters and Associates. (1998) Guiding principles for promising female programming: An inventory of best practices (NCJ 173415). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. [Online]. Available: Internet:

Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. (1998). Women in criminal justice system: A twenty year update. Author.

Maynard, R. (1996). Kids having kids: A Robin Hood Foundation special report on the costs of adolescent childbearing. New York: The Robin Hood Foundation.

McGarvey, E., & Waite, D. (1999). Profiles of incarcerated adolescents in Virginia: 1993-1998. Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Miller, D., Trapani, C., Fejes-Mendoza, K., Eggleston, C., & Dwiggins, D. (1995). Adolescent female offenders: Unique considerations. Adolescence, 30(118),429-435.

Ravoira, L. (1999). National Girls' Caucus. Juvenile Justice, 6(1), 21~28.

West, H. (1999). Prediction of adolescent pregnancy: Maternal characteristics and adolescents' personal characteristics of depressive symptoms and externalizing behaviors. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

This feature: Loper, A.B. (2000) Adult Too Soon: Age-Sensitive Interventions With Delinquent Girls. Reaching Today's Youth, vol.4 no.3, pp.12-16

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