The United States incarcerates more women than any other country. And, according to a recent report of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the proportion of girls to boys in custody is steadily rising in the juvenile justice system.
This creates a somewhat invisible female population in a system developed for young men. Teenage girls in juvenile detention who are pregnant or parenting are especially vulnerable. Already engaged in risky behavior, and often with a history of victimization, substance abuse or family conflict, these girls are even less prepared to be parents than the average teen. Yet statistically, they are more likely to be young mothers.
Due to the steadily increasing number of girl offenders (accounting for 30 percent of juvenile arrests in Washington state in 2004, an increase of 10 percent since 2000), the juvenile justice system regularly comes into contact with teens who are pregnant or already parents. It's a problem, but it's also a valuable opportunity.
A specific and standardized response to the needs of pregnant and parenting teens in the juvenile justice system would contribute greatly to achieving a positive outcome for those girls and their children. Simple measures, such as routine pregnancy screening of all girls admitted to detention facilities, could make a difference. Pregnant teens could receive advice on their options, be referred to public health programs, benefit from prenatal and post-partum care, and even be equipped with vital life skills through parenting classes and family planning education.
Further, juvenile rehabilitation staff could assist girls in successfully re-entering the community by ensuring that immediate access to health and financial benefits is in place before a girl leaves a detention facility. Once a teen leaves the juvenile justice system, the opportunity for intervention with a young mother may be lost.
Currently, no such comprehensive policy response exists at either a statewide or county level, and there is a lack of structured coordination between the juvenile justice system and social and health service agencies. At a minimum, pregnant and parenting girls deserve to be fully informed of their rights and options when entering detention and staff working with them deserve to be trained in how best to assist. Additionally, there are opportunities for extensive parenting education and skill building. Unwritten practices and spontaneous, ad-hoc assistance are unreliable and insufficient.
Washington Appleseed is working with youth advocates, Powerful Voices, and with a pro bono legal team at the Foster Pepper law firm in Seattle to produce an information pamphlet for teen mothers in the juvenile justice system, which outlines available social services and their legal rights. The team is also producing a resource guide for the juvenile justice professionals responsible for the girl's welfare.
A systemic approach is necessary, however, such as legislation directing the adoption of appropriate policies and procedures to ensure the best possible outcomes for these girls and their babies. This is a juvenile justice issue, but it also involves wider considerations -- rights to health care, women's rights, children's rights and family rights. Only by being proactive about this problem can legislators and policymakers ensure that the unique opportunity to help a teen mother and her child achieve a better quality of life isn't missed.