Most Incarcerated Girls Have Experienced Abuse, Says TN Juvenile Court

By Nadia Ramlagan, Tennessee Public News Service

The juvenile court in Davidson county is spearheading an effort to reduce the number of girls and gender-nonconforming young people who end up behind bars. 

The court is emphasizing a trauma-informed approach, as part of the Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration by the Vera Institute of Justice, which aims to meet its goal nationwide within the next decade. 

Kathryn Sinback is a juvenile court administrator with the county who says girls tend to to be pulled into criminal activity perpetrated by boys, or are sexually exploited by gangs.

“In Davidson County, what we see is the majority of the girls who are system-involved are living in poverty, and largely African-American,” says Sinback. “We have seen some changes in the types of offenses that girls are charged with.”

According to the Vera Institute, girls make up 55% of children nationwide who are taken to court specifically for running away. Yet Sinback points out many girls run away from home to escape sexual abuse and an unstable home life. 

She adds that nationwide, more than 80% of girls in the juvenile justice system have been sexually or physically abused.

Sinback says listening to girls is now a central focus of her work in Davidson County. 

“But what we found is that, when you focus on what the youth need to be successful — what they feel that they need to be successful — you actually have outcomes that reduce the risk for the community, and that reduce the risk of that girl committing additional delinquent acts,” says Sinback.

Lindsay Rosenthal, project director for Vera’s Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration, says most girls who end up in the system are there because communities haven’t been able to offer long-term solutions.

“You know, girls who are coming into the system are not a threat to public safety,” says Rosenthal. “Unfortunately, they’re all too often being confined in an attempt to protect their own safety.”

She adds that instead of arresting, prosecuting and confining girls, courts should work to provide them with positive resources to help them deal with trauma, such as mentors and home-based therapy.