A Different Approach For Young Latinas In Court System


 By Suzanne Bates

Many of the young Latinas who are arrested experienced some kind of trauma early in their lives, experts say.  As a result, and to better serve them and other young women in the court system, the state says it has made advances in how these girls are treated, offering more outpatient services, and limiting the number that have to be incarcerated.
This may be especially significant for young Latinas, who currently make up a disproportionate number of the young girls in the state’s criminal justice system, though their numbers are not as high as African American teens. Most criminal offenders age 17 or younger are considered juvenile by the state’s courts.
While the Latino population in Connecticut is about 14 percent of the total population, 20 percent of the teenage girls referred to the state’s courts so far this year were Latina, according to numbers provided by the state’s Judicial Branch. So far this year, 627 Latinas were in court, compared to 654 last year and 626 in 2011.
Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said higher arrests among Latino and African American populations is attributed by researchers to higher contact between minority populations and police. National surveys show white teens engage in about the same number of illegal behaviors as minority teens, she said.
There is also a difference in how children are treated once they come into contact with the courts.
While most of the white teens arrested end up in the mental health system, African American and Latino teens end up in the criminal justice system, she said.
Studies show putting children in jail affects their brain development, Anderson said.
“While most of the white teens arrested end up in the mental health system,
African and Latino teens end up in the criminal justice system.”
Abby Anderson, Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance
“They are learning, this is what I need to prepare for,” she said. “You’re training them how to live in that environment, instead of giving them the potential to be contributors to society.”
The state began adjusting its approach several years ago after state officials noticed the number of girls getting into trouble increasing. To better serve young women, probation officers and court officials were given gender-specific training, said Julia O’Leary, deputy director of juvenile probation for Connecticut’s Judicial Branch.
A group of all-female officers were trained to work with the girls because many of the girls had a history of poor relationships with men, she said. It was also felt that the girls would be more comfortable talking with women about trauma they’ve experienced, she said.
The trauma that typically causes the behavior that leads to a girl’s arrest is usually interpersonal – meaning it happens at the hand of someone close to the child – and is prolonged and severe, according to Rocio Chang, a psychologist and researcher with  the Center for Trauma Recovery and Juvenile Justice, which is based at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
“Young women are victimized by the people who are supposed to take care of them,” said Chang.
The young women Chang works with at the center have experienced many types of abuse, including sexual abuse, extreme neglect, or prolonged physical and emotional abuse.
The state has worked to reduce the number of teens going to jail, based on the understanding that sending a teen to jail is not always the best way to help him or her change. Nine years ago 700 teens – boys and girls – were incarcerated. Last year that number was 200, said O’Leary.
She said at least part of the drop can be attributed to an effort to provide teens with community-based assistance instead of committing them to a state facility.
Most of the juvenile boys who do end up incarcerated are sent to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School,where they can attend classes and receive counseling. There has not been a similar facility for girls, but that is changing. A cottage on the campus of the Albert J. Solnit Psychiatric Center in Middletown is being fitted with eight beds to provide a training school setting for girls, said O’Leary.
Photo: Latina.com