Youth Justice


During the most critical period of Jessica’s childhood, adults who could have intervened to protect her from abuse let her down over and over. As a child she was sexually abused in her home and ended up living with her grandmother for a time. At age 11 she became a victim to child sex trafficking when she fell into the clutches of a local pimp. She was never treated as a victim or a sexual assault survivor, even by the police. At school she was stalked and sexually harassed by a school administrator known to pay for sex. Jessica was sold for sex by her pimp for the next several years until she finally found a way out through The Mary Magdalene Project, a local social service agency. She often called herself a “prostitute,” but through her healing and advocacy work Jessica now knows how important language is and understands she was sexually exploited.

When Tanisha was in junior high she got into a fight at school. Instead of the argument being mediated or the discipline handled by the school, she was funneled into Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system and given probation for getting into the fight. While on probation Tanisha, who had to rely on public transportation, was occasionally late for school which led to truancy tickets which were considered a probation violation. As a result Tanisha was arrested and detained at a juvenile detention center. When she arrived she was scared and depressed, but rather than providing her help from mental health professionals, she says detention officers placed her in “the box,” or solitary confinement, for days. Cold, hungry, and extremely frightened, it took her a very long time to heal.

Today Tanisha is a 20-year-old student and advocate for other young people in the juvenile justice system through the Youth Justice Coalition, and Jessica is a 29-year-old Los Angeles County probation consultant with the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Unit. Jessica is now a mother and is featured in a powerful mural on Los Angeles’s Skid Row as a survivor of sex trafficking. Both survivors spoke at a Los Angeles town hall co-organized by the Children’s Defense Fund-California, Public Counsel, Youth Justice Coalition, and UCLA Law School and focused on five critical areas where girls of color face disproportionate risks: school push-out, foster care and dependency, criminalization and incarceration, sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children, and gender-specific burdens.

Though national focus is often on the racially-biased ways boys of color are treated, girls of color face many of the same risks from the cradle through adulthood which impact their life chances for success. Like boys, girls of color who enter the juvenile justice, child welfare, education, and other systems often arrive traumatized and experience more trauma from the way they are treated inside systems.

recent report by the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc. and the National Women’s Law Center, Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, details the barriers to educational success for these girls: stereotyping and perception; under-resourced schools; unequal access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning opportunities; overly punitive school discipline practices; the challenges of early pregnancy and parenting; and discrimination from school personnel. It also highlights sexual harassment, violence, and trauma and their harmful impact.

The level of gender-based violence girls experience and the way supposed “child-serving” systems treat girls of color compounds the harms they face. Systems often fail to see them as trauma survivors—treating them instead as complicit in their victimhood, threatening, or unable to be rehabilitated. The story of mass incarceration and racial inequality is incomplete without understanding and acknowledging gender-based violence and the gender-specific burdens girls of color face as they attempt to survive these systems and succeed.

When Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria earlier this year, it sparked international outrage and calls for United States military intervention. But girls are at risk right here at home too, begging the question—where is the outrage for them? In 2010 the homicide rate among Black girls and women ages 10-24 was higher than for any other group of females and higher than that for White and Asian men. The firearm death rate for Black girls and women ages 10-24 from 2008-10 was more than 6.5 times higher than for White girls and women. Black girls experience sexual violence at higher rates than their White and Latina counterparts, and intimate partner homicide is the leading cause of death among Black women between the ages of 15-35. The commercial sexual exploitation of children like Jessica is a $32 billion global industry involving over 100,000 U.S. children, mostly girls, whose average age of entry is 12-14 years old. The Human Trafficking Reporting System reports that 94 percent of confirmed victims of sex trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010 were female, and 40 percent were Black.

Girls of color experience the highest rates of criminalization and incarceration and are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. Like Tanisha, many girls are detained because of laws criminalizing probation violations or “status” offenses like truancy that would not be considered illegal for an adult but result in their being sent to juvenile detention centers in cities and towns across the country with no attention to their underlying health, emotional, educational, and economic needs.

Black girls also have some of the highest school suspension and expulsion rates. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Black girls like Tanisha represent less than 17 percent of all female students but make up 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement by schools and about 43 percent of girls who experience school-related arrests. Even the very youngest girls are at risk—girls like 6-year-old Salecia Johnson, who in 2012 was handcuffed and arrested at her Georgia elementary school for throwing a tantrum in her kindergarten classroom. Despite all this, gender-informed interventions are still a rarity in places like our juvenile justice systems—which further prevents girls from getting the help they need and deserve.

We need to wake up and realize all children, especially those of color—girls and boys—need adults to stop criminalizing them and recognize the special risks facing our girls. They need us to stand up, speak up, and protect them right now.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.