Most Girls in the Juvenile System Experience Abuse Prior to Incarceration. Their Stories of Abuse Don’t End There.

Increasing instances of abuse within the juvenile justice system highlight the pressing need for change.

A probation officer helps a new arrival at Camp Kenyon Scudder fill out intake paperwork after arriving to serve her time at the girls detention center in Los Angeles county. (Photo by Bethany Mollenkof/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Over 80 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system in multiple U.S. states are sexually or physically abused prior to incarceration. According to a 2015 report titled The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, a history of sexual or physical abuse is strongly connected to girls’ involvement with the juvenile justice system. Research published by the ACLU and the Women’s Prison Association further supports the report’s claim that domestic violence is linked to women’s incarceration.

The same report states that in California, for instance, 81 percent of young women in the juvenile system have experienced some form of abuse. Of that 81 percent of juvenile-justice-involved girls, 56 percent were sexually abused, 45 percent were burned or beaten at least once, 40 percent were raped or sodomized at least once, and 17 percent experienced multiple occurrences of abuse.

With similar instances of sexual and physical abuse occurring in every state, it is unsurprising that many victims of sexual or physical violence turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with abuse-related trauma, leading to higher rates of substance abuse. Moreover, often due to trauma that results from experiences of domestic abuse, 80 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system are also diagnosed with mental health disorders. In many cases, substance addiction or an alternative mental health condition is what leads girls to become juvenile-justice-involved.

One might assume that after being incarcerated, instances of sexual or physical violence against women and girls are temporarily or even permanently stopped, but their stories of abuse do not end there.

A lawsuit filed in August alleges that at least 70 girls held in juvenile incarceration facilities across Los Angeles County were sexually assaulted by probation and detention officers, between the years of 1985 and 2019. Expanding on litigation filed in March 2022, the recent litigation alleges that instances of assault occurred not only at Camp Scott, but also at Camp Kenyon Scudder, Camp Challenger, the Dorothy Kirby Center, Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, Central Juvenile Hall, and other juvenile detention centers throughout Los Angeles.

The allegations detailed in these recent lawsuits demonstrate the ongoing injustices of the juvenile justice system. Even after escaping at-home sexual or physical abuse through incarceration, many young women continue to experience sexual and physical abuse by juvenile justice employees after being placed in juvenile detention. Today, the juvenile justice system remains one of many parts of the U.S. criminal justice system that perpetuates a cycle of abuse against those most vulnerable in our society.

Michaela, a 15-year-old girl from New Hampshire placed in juvenile detention instead of a group home, was repeatedly raped by a youth detention center officer who eventually impregnated her. Melissa, a teenage girl from New York who was domestically abused, faced physical violence in juvenile detention, an experience that forced her to relive the trauma of being sexually assaulted by her father. Alongside Michaela and Melissa, more and more women and girls continue to step forward, sharing their stories of sexual and physical abuse during incarceration. Instances of abuse within the juvenile justice system are being exposed increasingly often, highlighting the pressing need for change.

In the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, we must keep in mind the future of legislation affecting victims of sexual and physical violence in the United States. Further legislation criminalizing acts of sexual and physical abuse is still needed. The cycle of abuse against girls in the juvenile justice system must be broken.

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Sophia Panigrahi is a fellow at Ms. and an assistant producer at Ms. Studios. She is passionate about women’s healthcare, domestic violence intervention, criminal justice reform and educational equity.