When Girls Go Wild

They're angry. They're violent. And they have juvenile-justice folks stumped.

It's Alisa's* big day. A white-shirted policeman escorts her down a narrow aisle. An older man with a careworn face and black-turned-ash hair sits hunched in the front row, his bent elbows resting on his knees. Alisa sits down next to him. He studies her with a sideways glance and shoots her a look that could only come from a father.

The thirteen-year-old girl returns the glance with raised eyebrows and wide eyes. She doesn't look afraid or remorseful. She says nothing.

Everyone's here for Alisa -- a juvenile prosecutor, her defense lawyer, a court clerk, a sheriff's deputy, a deputy juvenile officer, the policeman who walked her in and Family Court Commissioner Anne-Marie Clarke. Like the other judges who rule the courthouse and kiddie jail on Vandeventer Avenue, Clarke has left her black robe at home. Instead, she wears a red dress; tiny braids hang to her shoulders.

Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley says many of the girls he sees have been “dealt a hand of crap.”
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley says many of the girls he sees have been “dealt a hand of crap.”

"You keep coming back. Is this the only way you can keep seeing me?" Clarke asks the girl. What's the problem, Clarke wants to know.

Alisa doesn't answer, so her father does the talking. He shakes his head: "I can't figure it out."

Nobody disputes the fact that Alisa has problems -- big problems. By the time she was twelve, she'd pulled a knife on her disabled mom. She flies off the handle at the smallest slight. Her fists become weapons to win battles against people and family members who get in her way.

That behavior landed her in St. Louis City Juvenile Court for assault. In April 2002, Alisa was placed under supervision, on a suspended commitment to the Division of Youth Services, and sent home with a bunch of rules: 8:30 p.m. curfew, psychologist appointments, steady doses of medicine to control her outbursts, regular school attendance and monitoring by a DJO, or deputy juvenile officer.

Alisa's DJO takes the stand and brings the court up to speed. Alisa, he says, was doing "relatively well" when she was taking her meds (he doesn't say what kind). The problem is, she stopped.

"Do you think that's the problem, Alisa? You're not taking your medication?" Clarke asks.

The girl doesn't answer.

The DJO tells the court that Alisa's father has kept up his end of the bargain: He sees the psychologists and doctors. But Alisa hasn't kept her promises, and now that she's off her medicine, she's also walking out of the house, staying out all night. It's wearing on Alisa's father, who now wants to be relieved of custody of his daughter.

A box of tissues sits nearby. Neither Alisa nor her father reaches for it today.

Clarke keeps up the verbal pressure on Alisa: "You know you're supposed to be taking meds in the first place. Why aren't you?"

The girl won't answer; she won't look at the judge. She just shrugs. Clarke won't stop pressing. Finally Alisa says softly, "I don't know."

"You don't know?" Clark is incredulous.

The commissioner listens to the lawyers as they debate Alisa's fate. Finally Clarke makes her decision. "We're gonna keep you here," she says.

"Here" is juvenile detention, the jail for children attached to the court for kids. It's obvious from Alisa's attire that that's where she's been for the past few days. The girls in detention wear light-yellow sweatshirts, mustard-yellow pants and plain white tennis shoes. Everything is government-issue: the clothes, the underwear, the bra, even the rubber band -- the color of chewed gum -- twisted around Alisa's short hair.

Alisa stands up and clasps her hands behind her back -- the position prisoners take before they are handcuffed. There are no goodbyes as she's taken to the cement holding cell where other girls wait.

And there will be other girls -- many, many girls:

Girls who lash out in self-defense, to assert independence, to remedy disrespect, to put down a rival or to get attention.

Girls who greet personal conflict with clenched fists and sharp objects.

Girls who increasingly find themselves answering for their behavior in the juvenile-justice system.

But now the system that makes girls own up to their behavior is also trying to come up with all-girl programs to keep them from coming back.

For more than a decade, St. Louis Circuit Judge Thomas Frawley has watched family dramas unfold. He spent the bulk of his judicial career presiding over divorces, child-support fights and domestic-violence disputes. About three years ago, the 56-year-old jurist traded adults for kids, taking over as the judge in juvenile court -- where punishment and reform, social work and criminal law collide. Juvenile court, Frawley says, "was set up long ago for boys," but it's no longer a boy's world. "There has been a serious increase in the number of girls" coming through the court, Frawley says, and it's for more than cutting class.

"Girls," he says, "are getting more violent."

And Alisa -- an angry, out-of-control preteen who pulls knives and throws punches -- is typical of the kind of girl Frawley and other juvenile judges are seeing.

It's not just a city phenomenon:

· Two girls in Riverview were referred to the St. Louis County Juvenile Center after attacking a woman in March.

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