When a 14-year-old girl ends up in juvie, people focus on the crime. Drugs, shoplifting, truancy.
But what frequently gets swept under the rug is how she got there.
Abusive parents. Forced prostitution. Foster care, the bad kind. Girls in custody are four times more likely than incarcerated boys to say they've been sexually abused, and nearly two times more likely to say they've been physically abused.
The statistics are horrendous but they're also faceless and easy to ignore.
Richard Ross, a professor of art at the University of California - Santa Barbara, has made it his mission to change that.
Following the 2012 publication of his book Juvenile in Justice, which chronicled the lives of young people behind bars, Ross turned his focus to girls in the juvenile justice system, speaking with and photographing young women in more than 250 facilities across the country. His new book, Girls in Justice, is out this month.
He's not asking people to ignore their crimes, but he wants us to examine what we could be doing to limit the factors that drive young girls to commit such actions and to reimagine the way we incarcerate girls and the treatment they receive.
"Nobody is doing it as wrong as we are," he said during a recent phone interview.
No one comes to visit me here. I only see my family in court. —E.Y., age 11 (Photo: Richard Ross/Girls in Justice)
“The first time I was sexually abused I was at the age five," said one girl featured in the book. "They were with my mother and I tried to tell her a few times and she said I didn’t know what I was talking about, I was too little…I saw her sitting on the couch across the doorway and she looked at me and smiled and I knew the whole time that she could hear me screaming."
"My mother made me prostitute to get money for her drugs," said another.
When Ross goes into a detention center to speak with the girls, he gets on their level, literally sitting on the floor despite a bad back. If he's near home, he brings homemade cookies or brownies, baked by his daughter.
"A lot have never had a cookie that they haven't had to rip open plastic to get," he said. "It tells you something about the families they come from."
I was on house arrest, but I left to go to church. They won’t even let you go to church if you are on house arrest. I was a meth baby when I was born. I used meth before, but I have been clean for a year. I was 6 years old when my dad left. He had beaten me. He ended up going to prison for child abuse and drug abuse. When I was 7 years old I was abused by a guy that worked with kids at the Boys and Girls Club. I told the police but I told them about 6 years later and I don’t think they did anything. —S.G., age 17 (Photo: Richard Ross/Girls in Justice)
The pictures and anecdotes from the girls are devastating and anger-inducing, which is exactly Ross's aim. He wants people to wake up and take action.
"The police need to have a better strategy," he said. "Family services need a better strategy. We have to be able to listen to a kid with the same veracity as we do an adult."
An 11-year-old girl at a former orphanage now at a level 12 lockdown residential treatment center. (Photo: Richard Ross/Girls in Justice)
Girls, he added, face unique hurdles. While overall juvenile incarceration is actually down somewhat, girls make up an increasing proportion of kids in custody. And they're not typically in for violent crimes, Ross said. They're picked up for running away and punished for that. But often, he said, it's because they're fleeing sexual abuse. They're punished for running, but no one does anything to address the root of the problem, he said.
"These girls in detention and commitment facilities are further abused by an organized system that can’t recognize or respond to their history and their needs," Ross writes in the book.
My mom is deceased. Drug overdose. I stayed with my auntie in Compton until I was 11. She was abusive, verbally and physically. I went to maybe 15 to 20 foster homes. They were all ladies, no man in the home. My baby is 1. His daddy’s family took him to Vegas to see his daddy. He wouldn’t give my baby back. The baby was in the hospital with a lung problem. I asked my social worker if I could go to see my baby. She said I had to wait until my next court date in 2 months to see the judge. So I went AWOL to see my baby. They picked me up and now I am 241.1—dual custody between dependency and delinquency for going AWOL. I just wanted to see my baby. —T.L., age 16 (Photo: Richard Ross/Girls in Justice)
While he doesn't pretend to have all the answers, he hopes the book will help illustrate and call attention to the failings of juvenile incarceration, particularly when it comes to girls.
"It does start with listening to the girls," he told Fusion, adding that he thinks services should focus on giving families and communities the resources and training to empower the girls.
"As an artist," he said, "I feel like I'm making a half of a one percent contribution to a better outcome for these kids, and that makes me immensely proud."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.