A 13-year-old girl runs away because her mother’s boyfriend makes her feel uncomfortable, and her mother fights with her about “trying to get his attention.”

A 16-year-old girl is living on the street. Her parents will not let her live in their home because she is a lesbian. Her father wants her to stop “dressing like a boy.”

A 15-year-old girl repeatedly runs away from her foster home and misses school. She is pregnant and says everyone calls her a “ho.”

A 14-year-old transgender girl does not want to go to school because the other kids call her names and bully her.

A 15-year-old gender nonconforming child is skipping school. They don’t fit into sex-segregated peer groups or activities since they are not only a boy or girl.[]“They/them” is used in the singular as a pronoun of choice for people who don’t identify as male or female. For more on this usage, see Merriam-Webster, “Singular ‘They’: Though singular ‘they’ is old, ‘they’ as a nonbinary pronoun is new—and useful,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they. They don’t know who to talk to and are worried even their family won’t understand.

The scenarios above illustrate some common ways that gender can profoundly shape the circumstances leading girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming (LGB/TGNC) children into court and the juvenile justice system for status offenses.[]In each instance in this report the word “girl” is used to be fully inclusive of girls of transgender experience. All children have a gender identity that informs the way they live—from the ways they are expected to behave, to how they relate to their peers and their families, to how they see themselves and their roles in their communities. The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) embraces a broad and inclusive vision of gender-responsiveness, one that informs its work with all children, not just girls. Indeed, masculine social norms play as much of a role in the over-criminalization of boys as feminine social norms do of girls. Research has also shed light on the overrepresentation of children who are LGB/TGNC in court and detention facilities for status offenses compared to their straight and gender-conforming peers, which previously had gone unrecognized.[]See for example Angela Irvine and Aisha Canfield, “Reflections on New National Data on LGBQ/GNCT Youth in the Justice System,” LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School 7 no. 1 (2016-17) https://perma.cc/F4A9-X4ZD. Much of the invisibility of LGB/TGNC children in the system is due to flaws and bias in data collection and lack of appropriate consideration by youth justice systems, which are—like society as a whole—organized according to assigned biological sex, and thus most often do not account for or respond to the needs of LGB/TGNC children.

Within this comprehensive gender-responsive framework, it is especially urgent to focus on girls, whose experiences have been left behind in a reform field focused largely on boys, and for whom the toll of sexism, racism, and misogyny is often exacerbated by justice involvement. That is why they are the focus of this guide. Wherever possible, we also work to highlight experiences of children whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression depart from cisgender and heterosexual norms, as well as suggest reforms to make systems more equitable for LGB/TGNC children. Our ability to do so is limited, as their experiences are often made invisible because the majority of juvenile justice systems analyze data and operate facilities in a sex-segregated manner based on a child's biologically assigned sex, and without regard to differential experiences according to sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Very little is known, for example, about boys of transgender experience who may be processed in the girls' side of the juvenile justice system, or the experience of gender non-binary children who don't identify with only one gender but are nevertheless forced into one category or the other because of the way systems are organized. It is critical for the juvenile justice field to invest in reform for girls and LGB/TGNC children as part of a comprehensive gender-responsive reform strategy that works to transform the gendered adversities that

  • shape the lives of children at home, in school, and in the community;
  • funnel them into the justice system; and
  • define their experiences once they are inside.

Paying attention to gendered experiences of girls and LGB/TGNC children is especially important because skipping school, running away, disobeying authority, or violating curfew (behaviors also known as status offenses, which are only illegal for children under the age of 18) can set off a range of harsh consequences, beginning with an arrest and ending with probation, detention stays, or even time in a juvenile correctional facility. Although girls typically comprise just 25 percent of the overall juvenile justice system, 40 percent of children who are taken to court for status offenses—and 55 percent of children who are taken to court specifically for running away—are girls. In 2013, status offenses and technical violations of probation accounted for a combined 37 percent of girls’ total detentions nationwide—compared to 25 percent of boys’ detentions.[]Analysis of OJJDP data at “Easy Access to Juvenile Court Statistics: 1985-2014” (2017). .

Understanding gender

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Using one-size-fits-all punitive responses that do not account for gender in addressing minor misconduct does nothing to confront what drives girls to engage in these behaviors in the first place. For example, girls who run away from home may be experiencing sexual abuse or conflicts with their families over their sexual orientation, while girls who skip school might be the primary caregiver for a family member or may be experiencing harassment on school grounds. When adults either ignore or do not recognize the social context in which these behaviors occur—and push girls into the justice system rather than toward community supports—they reinforce the underlying convergence of sexism that drives the treatment of girls more generally: namely, that they should be compliant and “ladylike” even in the face of conditions—such as sexual abuse or discrimination in school—that warrant active resistance. Overlaying this is the issue of race. The criminalization of girls’ responses to the adversity, violence, and trauma in their lives is disparately borne by girls of color, for whom sexism is further magnified by racism and classism. (See “How race and gender converge to shape system responses to status offenses.”)

Successfully reforming how systems can respond to status offenses without relying on law enforcement and the courts requires placing gender at the center of this work.

An awareness of gender can help explain how and why girls behave in different ways and what, if any, misperceptions of girls’ behavior—rooted in race and/or gender biases—may exist among system actors or within girls’ families. It also empowers stakeholders to analyze how policies and practices may be negatively or differently impacting girls and to address disparities that are missed when systems assessment and reform do not include a targeted gender lens.

This guide, which supplements Vera’s Toolkit for Status Offense System Reform, aims to help system leaders and staff do just that.[]Alessandra Meyer, Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, Annie Salsich, and Sydney McKinney, A Toolkit for Status Offense System Reform (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2013), https://perma.cc/SD3T-FL75. Chapter 1 begins with a brief history of how gender has shaped the development of the juvenile justice system. Chapter 2 provides an overview of previous national status offense reform efforts for girls. Chapter 3 offers guidance and action steps to approach gender into your reform process, including:

  • types of data to look at in this process;
  • questions to ask when assessing and designing new policies, practices, and programs;
  • key insights into some of the root causes that often underlie status offense behaviors in girls, including their personal relationships and experiences of violence and trauma; and
  • promising resources to consider in implementation.

Chapter 4 concludes by suggesting areas for cross-system collaboration and partnership that can produce powerful results for girls. Ultimately, the goal of this guide is to ensure that girls’ needs are no longer overlooked, and that all systems treat them fairly, knowledgeably, and with respect as communities work to end reliance on law enforcement and confinement for status offenses and other minor misconduct.

Race and Gender

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