Vera’s Toolkit for Status Offense System Reform (“Toolkit”) outlines a four-module process for assessing how juvenile justice systems currently handle status offenses and what can be done—at policy, practice, and programmatic levels—to shift toward a more community-focused response. The following sections supplement this approach with an eye specifically to system changes that impact girls and LGB/TGNC children. They outline key considerations related to data collection and analysis, as well as policy and procedure reviews to help systems take stock of how gender factors into their responses to children and center gender in their reform processes.

Convene a diverse workgroup to lead reform

Module 1 of the Toolkit noted the value of assembling a stakeholder workgroup to lead the reform process. The Toolkit describes how to lay the foundation for productive engagement with stakeholders that leads to action and meaningful system change, including how to create a workgroup that will be responsible for assessing current practice; identifying areas of concern; and planning, implementing, and sustaining the change needed to address those areas. As part of this work, it will be valuable to your systems assessment and reform process to include experts in gender-responsive reform—academic and policy experts, experts in practice and programming, as well as young people and families with lived experience. You should strive to create a group that is representative of the array of agencies, groups, organizations, and families involved with your system. These experts can work alongside other institutional partners Vera recommends be part of the stakeholder group, including education, health, and child welfare system representatives (see Chapter 4 “Create powerful partnerships for change”). 

Ensuring gender diversity and expertise in this process means including local organizations that have specific expertise working with girls, boys, or LGB/TGNC children and children of color. To the extent possible, it also means your workgroup constituency should reflect the children, families, and communities involved in your status offense system. Module 1 of the Toolkit includes some helpful general considerations and resources for meaningfully incorporating children and family voices. Among the considerations should be whether the children and families you recruit represent gender diversity. In some situations, it may be impossible to include a perfect representation of children in your system or to include all the types of diversity you would like to see in your group. Consider how focus groups may allow you to incorporate diverse points of view that are not represented in your workgroup or how you might use participatory action research approaches. (See "Collect qualitative data to better understand gender-specific issues" and the discussion of girls' participation in Alameda County school reform in "Resources for reformers: Education-focused programs and reforms in schools.")

Questions to ask yourself when considering whether gender-specific expertise and diversity is reflected in your stakeholder workgroup:

  • Do the experts or organizations you’ve invited to participate in your workgroup express a gender-specific focus of their work in their mission statements? Seek out programs and leaders who demonstrate knowledge related to gender-specific issues, rather than programs that happen to serve many children of a particular gender, although organizations that most often work with or for children of a particular gender can often be helpful. Be aware, however, that just because an organization serves children of a given gender doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing gender-responsive programming or implementing gender-affirming practices. Sex-segregated programming is not the same thing as gender-responsive programming. 
  • Do the organizations you’ve invited discriminate against certain types of children or reinforce gender stereotypes? Programs that purport to serve LGB/TGNC children but engage in harmful practices like conversion therapy are discriminatory and will be unhelpful to your reform process. Similarly, programs that target girls but shame girls’ sexuality, use derogatory language about “teen moms,” exclude transgender girls, or strongly encourage girls to be “ladylike” can reinforce gender stereotypes and gender discrimination.  
  • Are the young people you have engaged all girls or all boys? Do any of them identify as LGB/TGNC? Because gender shapes the way children experience your system’s policies and programs, include diverse children in the reform process, rather than relying on children of only one gender or only including heterosexual and gender-conforming children.
  • Are the children and families you have recruited culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse? As explained in “How race and gender converge to shape system responses to status offenses” above, different cultures, races, and ethnicities influence the way that young people and their families express gender and experience gender stereotypes and bias. To include their viewpoints, ensure that the young people and families reflect diverse races and ethnicities and/or those races and ethnicities most impacted by your status offense system.

Once you identify who you will engage in your stakeholder group, Module 1 recommends holding a launch meeting to kick off your reform process. The first meeting sets the tone for your work together, so implement gender-inclusive practices that make all participants feel affirmed and invited. Use gender-inclusive language, ensure there are gender-neutral restrooms available, and identify a facilitator who is comfortable with key gender concepts.

Collect and analyze data to identify reform priorities

Understanding your current system, including who it serves and what is happening to different groups of children, is an important first step in any reform process. Such an assessment can shed light on whether and how the juvenile justice system responds differently to girls compared to boys at various points, and where gaps in practice and programming may be driving disparate outcomes. Module 2 of the Toolkit provides questions to guide data collection and analyses, including what basic demographic information is required. The suggested analysis below build on this information, elaborating on how to analyze the system with a focus on gender. 

Begin by looking closely at how girls move through the system at every system point, such as arrest and detention. To do this, calculate the proportion of total cases involving girls at any given point and how this number changes as cases progress through the system. Figure 2 below provides a sample flowchart that breaks down data in this way, which can be a useful tool in visualizing trends. Figure 2 can be further broken down by charge categories to analyze tends in processing across each system point for specific status offenses. It should also be broken down by race and gender to show trends in how specific groups of girls move through the system. (See "How race and gender converge to shape system responses to status offenses.")

Girls Matter Figure2 Transparent V2

Some questions to explore during this process: 

  • What proportion of girls are coming into the juvenile justice system for a status offense compared to a delinquency? How does this compare to the national picture?
  • Are there status offense categories where girls make up a significant proportion of all cases?
  • Are girls a higher proportion of children detained or placed for a particular offense than they are of all children charged with that status offense?
  • Are there differences in the proportions of girls and boys charged with status offenses who are referred to the system by different sources (police, schools, families)?
  • What is the proportion of children charged with a status offense at each stage in the system, by gender?
  • What proportion of children in detention or placement are girls, and what percentage of these cases is for an initial status offense charge or a technical violation (which are often status offense behaviors)?
  • What are the average lengths of stay in the system, by gender and for specific charge categories?
  • If data on children’s needs are available (such as behavioral health or special education needs), are there any differences by gender?

Should your system not currently collect the data above, this may be an important first step to flag for different stakeholders and incorporate going forward. Importantly, in exploring all of the questions above, data should also be cross-tabulated by gender and race to understand whether there are differences within genders by race and ethnicity. This is particularly important, given that the cumulative effects of race and gender biases can magnify disparities for girls of color and LGB/TGNC children.

  1. Having data about LGB/TGNC children is critical, but most systems do not yet collect this information. In an effort to better serve LGB/TGNC children, a group of probation agencies in California partnered with Impact Justice and the Prison Law Office to train all intake officers on the factors that drive LGB/TGNC children into the justice system and on how to ask children about their sexual orientation and gender identity. For more information on collecting data and responding to LGB/TGNC children involved with the juvenile justice system—including a suggested questionnaire for collecting sexual orientation and gender identity data—see Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning and/or Gender Non-Conforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide.[]Angela Irvine, Shannan Wilber, and Aisha Canfield, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, and/or Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Girls and Boys in the California Juvenile Justice System: A Practice Guide (Oakland, CA: Impact Justice and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, 2017), 10-13,

Although quantitative analysis is crucial, it is always helpful to also capture qualitative data to inform your assessment. In some jurisdictions, the number of girls of color, LGB/TGNC children, and other populations charged with status offenses may be too small for robust quantitative analysis, making qualitative analysis especially important. Collecting qualitative data—with a focus on understanding gender-specific issues among children and families within a system—makes it possible to capture insights from young people, families, court staff, law enforcement, and other stakeholders. One way to capture their insights is via interviews or focus groups. Another, more integral way, is to engage people directly impacted by an issue in the design, collection, and analysis of data—an approach often called participatory action research or collaborative research. This approach engages young people in developing solutions to improve their lives and keep them out of the courts.

  1. Examples of projects that use participatory action research to engage young people in reform include:

    • The Public Science Project’s survey “What’s Your Issue?” is a national survey made with LGB/TGNC and questioning children to lift up their “experiences, priorities [and] dreams.”[]What’s Your Issue, “National Survey,”
    • The Young Women’s Freedom Center in California is a peer-led organization engaged in a five-year participatory action research study to give young women, including those who have been incarcerated, a voice in local, regional, and national policy changes that impact them.[]Young Women’s Freedom Center, “What We Do,”
    • The Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Hub offers an innovative approach that engages children in social justice work through participatory action research that allows young people to have a voice in improving their lives, communities, and the institutions intended to serve them.[]Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR), “Learn About YPAR,”
    • Vera’s Center on Youth Justice is conducting a collaborative research project examining the help-seeking behaviors of young men of color (18-24 years old) after experiencing or witnessing street violence. Vera hired and trained a group of community researchers—young men of color impacted by violence—to shape the research, influencing every part of the project from the questions asked, the ways people are recruited into the study, and how the data is analyzed. The findings will be used to develop recommendations for improving victim services for young men of color.[]Vera Institute of Justice, “Young Men of Color’s Help-Seeking Following Violent Victimization,”

Review policies and procedures through a gender lens

Beyond looking at data and conducting interviews, policy and procedure reviews are also helpful. The purpose of such a review is to identify some of the formal and informal ways that gender bias may be embedded in your system, thus leading to disparate outcomes for girls.

Start off with these basic questions:

  • What behaviors are considered status offenses, and how is each one defined?
  • Is there a written policy process on referral for and triage of status offenses?
  • Are children charged with status offenses referred to courts or are they processed informally? If they are referred to court, under what circumstances?
  • Who is authorized to make a court referral for status offenses?
  • Is detention allowed for status offenses? Under what circumstances?

Once you’ve answered these preliminary questions, it will make sense to move on to the following questions, which focus specifically on girls.

  • Do your status offense policies and procedures have different effects on girls and boys?
    Some policies and informal practices that are common in status offense systems can have a specific impact on girls and LGB/TGNC children, especially children of color, particularly when it comes to the use of detention. These include:

    • Runaway and safety exceptions for detention. Some jurisdictions prohibit detention for status offenses, but make exceptions for children who run away or when safety is a concern. In some cases, this policy is not formal, but is used by judges and other stakeholders who view child safety as an appropriate reason for detention.
    • Lack of appropriate policies and procedures for children who are commercially sexually exploited. Status offense systems that do not actively identify and divert commercially sexually exploited children, who are disproportionately girls and LGB/TGNC youth, are likely to rely on the courts, inappropriately, to try to keep girls safe. In jurisdictions where commercial sexual exploitation is a recognized problem, or at least suspected of occurring, it is one of the most common reasons that courts invoke the safety and runaway exceptions described above.
    • Lack of alternatives to detention in the absence of a parental resource. Detention is often used when a parent or family resource is either unwilling or unable to accept the young person into the home. Lack of parental support can have an outsize impact on girls and LGB/TGNC children, who are often driven into the system as a direct result of family violence, sexual abuse, or family rejection. The availability of community-based respite care, which provides a short-term placement for a girl when tensions may be running high and offers a break to families, can reduce unnecessary reliance on detention and may, in some cases, keep cases out of court if policies are flexible enough to accommodate children without the consent of their parents and/or if system actors effectively engage parents to rely on respite as an alternative resource.

Understanding gender and family conflict

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  • How do you define “family”? Girls and LGB/TGNC children who have experienced family conflict or rejection might not be able to live in the home of their parents or legal guardians and, even if they can, they may not be able to rely on their family members for critical support that could help them avoid future system involvement. Gender-responsive programming for LGB/TGNC children emphasizes the importance of including their “chosen families”—communities of supportive peers and adults that should be included in activities and plans designed to help keep children safe and out of court—in systems definitions.
  1. Family engagement—especially for children who may be disconnected from relatives and/or without a permanent home—is challenging but critical work. The resources below offer examples of strategies for engaging young people and their families. 

  • Do you train decision makers at each point in your system (referral, intake, diversion, and court processing) on gender and race/ethnicity bias and the impact of gender on adolescent development? Training on gender and adolescent development and on implicit gender bias is critical to reducing discrimination in the status offense system. Such training helps staff identify their own preconceptions and how these ideas affect their decisions and those of girls’ family members, teachers, and other relevant adults. Effective training curricula equip staff with tools that address language, setting boundaries, and structuring inclusive environments for girls and LGB/TGNC children.
  • How competent are your preventive and diversion service contractors on gender-related issues? Any individual who or agency that provides preventive or diversion services in conjunction with the status offense system should be competent in adolescent development and gender. When formal training and contract requirements do not specify the need for gender responsiveness, it is not unusual for sex-segregated or sex-stereotyped programs to exist in place of gender-responsive programming. Review all programming offered by providers within or connected to your system in order to ensure that it does not reinforce gender stereotypes. For instance, a program for boys might address vocational or employment needs but lack a focus on trauma, whereas a program for girls might have the opposite imbalance or focus on vocations that have historically been considered “typically female,” like cosmetology. Eliminating gender stereotypes and increasing gender-neutral program options also helps to ensure that LGB/TGNC children have access to a variety of programs where they are affirmed in their identities. 
  1. Curricula that positively affirm girls’ identities. 

    A number of curricula are available to help girls identify positive relationships with women and other girls in their lives, find support, and create positive associations with their gender.

    • Voices, developed by nationally renowned researcher Stephanie Covington, can help girls navigate violence in relationships, heal from trauma and gender-based violence, develop positive relationships with other women and girls, learn about gender, and develop media literacy around issues like body image and gender stereotypes.[]Stephanie Covington, “Voices: A Program of Self-Discovery and Empowerment for Girls—Second Edition,”
    • Girls Circle is a structured support group focusing on gender-specific themes that aims to counteract social forces that disrupt girls’ social and emotional growth and development.[]One Circle Foundation, “Girls Circle,”
    • My Life My Choice is a 10-session curriculum focused on exploitation prevention that works to change girls’ attitudes and perceptions of the commercial sex industry while also building self-esteem and empowerment.[]My Life My Choice, “Prevention,”

    Culturally-responsive programming. 

    Building positive connections to one’s racial heritage and culture is associated with higher self-esteem and self-acceptance for girls of color.[]See Avis A. Jones-DeWeever, Black Girls in New York City: Untold Strength & Resilience (Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Twenty-First Century Foundation, 2009), 19 (the more black girls successfully internalize “a positive conception of their racial identity and embrac[e] egalitarian gender role attitudes,” the more likely they are to hold positive views of their appearance, fitness, academic achievement, and career aspirations),

    • Black Girls Code engages girls in technology and can help them overcome racial and gender stereotypes related to intelligence that may prevent girls from entering educational tracks in science and math that can lead to economically lucrative professions.[]Black Girls Code, “What We Do,”
    • The Xinatchtli program of the National Compadres Network offers a rites-of-passage curriculum for adolescent Latina girls at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. The curriculum focuses on building the strengths of each girl and developing her connectedness to family, community, tribe, and nation.[]National Compadres Network, “Xinachtli,”
    • Pūʻā Foundation in Hawaii offers curricula, lesson plans, assessment tools, and evaluation templates for service providers working with Native Hawaiian girls. The trauma-informed approach is culturally responsive to Native Hawaiian children, who are disproportionately involved in the state’s juvenile justice system.[]Pūʻā Foundation, “Trauma Informed Services, Training, Capacity Building & Facilitation,”
    • The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center developed two resources for Native girls: ABC Handbook for Native Girls: What to Do When You’re Raped and a Teen Dating Violence Prevention Curriculum for Native Girls.[]Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, “Educational Materials: Teen Dating Violence Prevention Curriculum,”

    Gender-responsive programs that divert girls from the justice system. 

    Below are two examples of gender-responsive programs that have been used effectively to divert girls from the justice system and evaluated to have positive outcomes for girls. 

    • Resilience, Opportunity, Safety, Education, Strength (ROSES) is a community-based, gender-responsive, trauma-informed advocacy program that serves girls involved in the juvenile justice system or at risk for such involvement. A girl in the ROSES program is paired with a paraprofessional advocate who, over the course of 10 to 12 weeks, works with the girl individually on any goals that she chooses for herself.[]Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, “ROSES (Resiliency, Opportunity, Safety, Education, Strength),”  The model uses a strength-based and skill-building approach guided by girls themselves and hones their capacity for self-advocacy.
    • PACE is a delinquency prevention and intervention program for girls between the ages of 11 and 18 in Florida. PACE uses a holistic, strength-based, and asset-building program model that addresses the needs of girls, keeping them from entering the juvenile justice system. The program offers case management, individual and family therapy, educational support, and girl-affirming group programming, among other services.[]PACE Center for Girls, “About PACE Broward,”
  • Does your system have formal policies ensuring gender responsiveness and barring gender discrimination? Such policies are essential to ensuring gender equity within a system. Juvenile justice systems in 19 states mandate elements of gender-responsive programming or equitable resource allocation for girls.[]Ibid. at 17.  Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls outlines elements of systemic, policy, and practice-based approaches focused on equity for girls, and provides an overview of policies that are either particularly detrimental to or beneficial for girls.[]Ibid. at 31.

Evaluate reform outcomes by gender and race

As your system transformation process takes hold, evaluating the progress and outcomes of different reforms will be essential to ensure they are achieving the desired results. At each stage of evaluation using intersectional data that accounts for race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity will enable you to assess whether certain policy, practice, and program changes are benefiting subgroups of children equally, and where adjustments might be needed. Further, look at whether any changes have unintended consequences, such as charging girls engaged in status offense behaviors with misdemeanors or more serious offenses instead. (See Chapter 2, above, on upcharging.)