Our justice system is beleaguering female victims of sexual violence

by Thomas Radder

Opinion Contributor

It is a painful reality that many women who experience forms of sexual abuse are treated as criminals, not victims.

A report co-authored by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center, and the Ms. Foundation for Women describes how young women are sent to the juvenile justice system as a consequence of their history of sexual violence.

Research included in the report titled  “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline” draws attention to the disturbingly high rates of abuse among girls in prison. No national data exists, however several statewide studies reached similar conclusions.

A study of young women in Oregon’s juvenile justice system found 93 percent suffered physical or sexual abuse and 76 percent were victims of sexual abuse before the age of thirteen. In California, 81 percent of delinquent girls reported one or more incidents of sexual or physical abuse. 40 percent recounted being burned or beaten.

These figures are not coincidental. As the report argues, “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” Recurring behavioral responses to sexual violence such as truancy, substance or alcohol abuse, and running away are offenses minors are often charged with. Once young girls enter the criminal justice system, their prospects do not improve.

Juvenile detention centers do not have the resources to suitably address or treat victims of sexual abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an overwhelming number of youth detainees are placed in facilities without licensed mental health professionals. In addition, the nature of incarceration is injurious to children following distressing events.

The report maintains “conditions in juvenile justice systems risk re-traumatizing girls. Routine procedures, including the use of restraints and strip searches, as well as the isolating, punitive environment itself, can be particularly harmful to victims of trauma by triggering their traumatic stress symptoms.”

The pipeline is formed when girls reenter society with exacerbated trauma symptoms, or worse, are put back into abusive environments, and resort again to “criminal” behavior. The result is a justice system that fails the real victims—girls who are physically or sexually abused—and perpetrators are not held responsible for their crimes.

We must work to end sexual violence inflicted on children. Behind every orange jumpsuit is a boy or girl crying out for help, pleading for a life free from evil. We owe it to them to endeavor for a more perfect America.

I invite you to visit rights4girls.org to learn more about the sexual abuse to prison pipeline and how we can help.

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