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.

"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.

· A seventh-grade girl at Gateway Middle School in St. Louis was stabbed several times in the thigh by a female classmate in February.

· A fourteen-year-old girl in East St. Louis needed 200 stitches after she was slashed in the face by two other girls during a fight in January.

· Two thirteen-year-old girls at Merrill J. Rogers Middle School in Affton are in juvenile detention, charged with conspiracy to commit murder. They allegedly planned in late August to stab another thirteen-year-old girl to death.

The common thread tying the incidents together is violence. Though parents are typically the target of a girl's rage, it is peer violence that makes the headlines. And rather than being random crimes, most girlfights stem from personal conflicts. If a girl reaches for a weapon, it will probably be a knife. Boys, on the other hand, prefer guns.And boys still lead in the overall number of assaults, but girl violence in the area is still significant: In St. Louis County, the number of eleven- to sixteen-year-old girls referred to the court -- not necessarily charged -- for assaults in 1994 was 435; in 2002, the number was 560 -- a 29 percent jump. In the city of St. Louis, the number of girls ages eleven to sixteen detained by the court for assaults and other offenses was 217 in 1994; in 2002, it was 350 -- a 61 percent jump. In a survey of youth behavior completed in 2001 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of the Missouri high-school girls interviewed admitted to fighting. In 1997, it was 23.7 percent.

The number of girls that the court committed to the state Division of Youth Services also is up. Youth Services commitment is the last-resort option for courts, the alternative used when probation, social work or the Division of Family Services doesn't work or when a crime is extremely serious. In 1997, the number of girls turned over to Youth Services was 190; in 2001 (the latest figure available) it was 206. Of that number, 46 cases involved "status offenses" such as truancy; the rest were felony and misdemeanor offenses. And even though girls have been a steady presence in the system, the agency, in its most recent annual report, says that finding room for them is an "ongoing challenge."

Frawley's ongoing challenge, however, is trying to figure out "what drives the girls' train." It isn't just an intellectual exercise: Knowing what makes them tick could lead to a way to get them to stop.

"They've been dealt a hand of crap," Frawley says. "The girls have incredibly low goals, disturbingly so. Many of them haven't even been asked what they want to be when they grow up. The language of the family is a series of put-downs."

Girls, he says, "are different. They respond to different things."

The judge worries that the current setup isn't fully addressing their needs. "You can't paint a boys' program pink and call it one for girls," Frawley says.

But looking at juvenile justice by sex is still a relatively new idea. So there isn't any real consensus on what a good girls' program looks like.

That hasn't stopped Frawley from trying to come up with his own solutions. Instead of fiddling while Rome burns, he's been running to the fire with cupfuls of water.

With the help of Jean Tyler, the chief juvenile officer, the court offers two programs for girls. One is aimed at exposing them to possibilities, a mentoring program with female law students at Washington University. But it is getting a lukewarm reception from a tough crowd. Pairing privileged, well-educated young women and girls of less-than-adequate means can be a recipe for talking at each other rather than with each other.

The other is a once-a-week session sponsored by the St. Louis chapter of Girls Inc., a national not-for-profit advocacy group. The Girls Inc. program focuses on the girls' immediate needs: anger management, feminine hygiene, sex education and peer relationships. It started in January and runs until mid-July.

So far, it's been a big hit with girls who hit.

Near the intersection of Vandeventer and Enright, work nears completion on the new Cardinal Ritter College Prep campus. Across the street is what is left of a church: Stone walls jut toward a roof that no longer exists, and empty window frames reveal nothing but charred remains. To the east of the intersection is the Veterans Affairs Medical Center; to the west are a few new homes with security-alarm signs out front, old homes turned crack houses, Cole Elementary School and prostitutes on street corners, flagging down customers. In the midst of it all is the city's juvenile court, and on Thursdays at 4 p.m., it's a girl magnet.

Dee passes through the metal detector with a to-go plate from Art's piled with pieces of chicken, a biscuit and fries. She shares with two other girls. Sue, thirteen, sits in the lobby. She has an "informal" case -- one in which no charges have been filed. She's in trouble for fighting with her mother. She has arrived early to show her DJO an honor-roll mention from school. Dana, a skinny fifteen-year-old class clown who wishes she had a backside "out to here!", looks longingly at the vending machine. Like all teenagers, the girls are constantly foraging for food.

They're here for the Girls Inc. meeting. But no one can go back to the conference room until a court employee escorts them through the building.

Frawley stops by the lobby to chat. "That's my judge," Dana says before asking him whether she can borrow a dollar.

"Sure," he says, then adds, after a half-second pause, "from somebody else." The growing group of girls -- some here for skipping school, throwing chairs at teachers or fighting with classmates and parents -- snickers.

The official name of the program is Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy, but it is about more than sex. Each month of the program has a different theme: self-esteem, handling anger, getting along. At a recent session, the group discussed feminine hygiene and sex.

The discussions can be very frank.

Though the girls range in age from eleven to sixteen, two are already mothers, another is pregnant and many admit that they're sexually active. That means they're also putting themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

They talk about their periods: Can you swim during one? Can a virgin use a tampon? Is douching a good idea? (One girl thinks pickle juice can be used.) Is it true that once a boy is aroused, he's "gotta have it" or he'll be crippled?

Tanya Jones, 22, led the PAP program from January through March. Her duties at Girls Inc. included speaking in schools and to community groups, but she says the girls in juvenile are her favorite audience. The biggest challenge in working with them, she says, is "seeing how much they know and how much is negative -- sexual activities, drugs and gang violence."

Jones says the girls have a hard time distinguishing between aggressive and assertive behavior. Jones cites the example of one girl in the program who had trouble getting a schoolteacher to listen. To get the teacher's attention, the girl smacked her with a chair. "Aggressiveness is just a part of her life," Jones says. "It is how you get your point across."

"When we talk about relationships, they think male/female relationships have to be yelling," Jones says. Peer friendships are also problematic. "It seems the girls have bad thoughts about other girls -- they're gossipy and can't be trusted."

Despite that, she says, she's been able to build relationships with many of the girls, some of whom stay after class to continue the discussion.

But spending an hour with the group of fifteen to twenty girls is comparable to riding a roller coaster blindfolded.

As they walk to the conference, the girls are laughing and chattering when, out of the blue, one grabs another by the collar and tries to haul her back to the front door to duke it out. Within seconds, a court employee materializes. The petite, middle-aged woman nabs both girls and administers a tongue-lashing as she drags them to her office. The dust-up lasts less than two minutes. The other girls are oblivious. "Girls in my school fight four or five times a month," Sue says. "Yesterday there was a fight on the playground, during school recess." It doesn't take much, Sue says: They'll fight over boys or if somebody rolls their eyes at them.

Sometimes girls just talk big. During one meeting, an irritated participant reached into her pocket after some verbal sparring. "Let me see if I got something in here to cut you with," she says.

Despite the combativeness, there is a hunger for camaraderie.

Later, another one of the girls, Yolanda, wants to know whether anyone else has been stalked. She describes a recent encounter with a much older man on the bus who wanted to "get with her." She says she sat down next to a "dove" -- a guy who looked as if he wouldn't hurt her -- and asked him to pretend she was his girlfriend.

"I woulda gone 'pop' in his face," one girl says, smacking her fist against the palm of her hand.

In another session, Dana says she needs help. She's in foster care, and a new girl recently moved into the foster home. The new girl is seventeen and diabetic. "I feel sorry for her," Dana says, but the girl has crossed a serious boundary -- she's taking Dana's panties.

"Why she go upstairs and put on a pair of my drawers? What should I do? I need my drawers."

The group answers with "Ewwww" and laughter. Someone shouts a solution: "Tell her you got crabs!"

Jones ends each session with a group activity or game. In one activity, the girls are divided into two teams. Answering a series of questions earns a team points, and prizes are handed out at the end, things such as hair-care products and keychains.

Jones says, "Name some of the advantages of being a boy." The girls are all over the question. Answers include possessing a penis and being able to stand to urinate.

There are few more questions before Jones asks: "What are the advantages of being a girl?"

The room gets quiet and, for several moments, nobody answers.

Finally one girl speaks up: "How about the disadvantages?"

Violence begets violence -- at least that much researchers agree on.

Jody Miller, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, spent six years studying teen violence and girls in street gangs. Much of her research relies on information from the city of St. Louis, where the courts, police and school system are more willing to provide access than other jurisdictions in the area. Even with those limitations, she's been able to identify some patterns that go a ways toward explaining why girls act out.

"A notable feature of girls' environment is that abuse of women is quite visible," Miller says. "Girls routinely saw women being beaten up by men on their streets and witnessed the public sexual exploitation of women addicted to drugs."

She notes that girls report being frequently sexually harassed at school -- chests groped, backsides grabbed.

Miller interviewed 75 boys and girls in the city of St. Louis and published her research on sexual harassment in the schools. She interviewed one sixteen-year-old girl named Michelle who gave this account: "We was down in gym class. I had on some shorts and a boy was, like, 'Yeah, this is my butt, this is my butt.' Then somebody told him, 'Well if it's your butt go over there and touch it' and he came over there and touched me. I told him, 'Don't touch me. If I didn't tell you to touch me, don't touch me,' or whatever. He got to talking, 'Don't be frontin' now' like that or whatever.' So he started getting loud and the gym teacher talked to both of us and told us don't even worry about it as long as he don't put his hands on me no more."

Michelle told Miller that the boy never got in trouble.

Of the 40 boys Miller interviewed for her study, sixteen said they'd "run trains" on -- had sex with -- a girl who'd passed out. Unlike the girls who'd been victimized, the boys didn't view what they'd done as rape.

Miller says the experiences send powerful messages: "Girls don't respect themselves, and they don't respect others. Victims get what they deserve."

Often, home is no better.

Haley, a short but physically mature thirteen-year-old, appears in truancy court with her mother, who's at least a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier. Frawley asks Haley why she's in court, and she replies, "I fight; I get suspended. I fight and argue with the teachers because the teachers be getting smart with me."

Haley and the judge go back and forth about the wisdom of fighting at school. When he turns to the mother to see whether she needs help with her daughter, Haley's mom says she's got to give her daughter "whuppins" because she won't mind at home. Frawley warns the mom against corporal punishment. "No belts, no switches," he says.

That just seems to ignite the mother's anger. "If you swing on me, I'm gonna swing on back!" she says, defiantly swinging an arm over her head and around her back. Then Mom lets rip with a tirade about the problems she's having getting her daughter to get up in the morning, leading to an angry and confusing rant directed at the girl. "When I say something, I'm not about you rushing me -- so that's what you need to keep my hands off of you!"

Though it's evident that Haley needs to watch her back around Mom, the courts aren't likely to cut her any slack when she demonstrates what she's learned at home.

Girls don't get a pass because they're girls.

For 26 years, Rodney Smith worked as a juvenile detective for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He retired and in 1996 took a job as an investigator for the family court's juvenile division. His main duty is to run the detention side of the juvenile building.

"The girls here are primarily violent and have low self-esteem," Smith says. "They've got a lot of anger problems."

Blame is everywhere, he says: Bad parents -- "if you go into some of these homes, you'll know what I'm talking about"; bad schools that don't reach kids in the early years; bad music, with lyrics that degrade women.

Smith doesn't mince words about the system, either.

Some girls that go into DFS custody are so poorly supervised that they end up pregnant. Few programs exist for troubled youngsters, and during tough budget years, he says, "the first thing they want to cut are programs for children. Nobody cares about kid issues." It all comes down to adults' failing to do what they're supposed to.

Smith sees his job as reinforcing the message the courts are trying to deliver -- that it's up to the kids to take responsibility when no one else will. So he's got two aims: Give the kids a dose of what it's like to go to prison and provide them with structure and education during their confinement.

When girls first arrive in juvenile detention, they get booked like grown-ups -- they're fingerprinted and have their mug shots taken. There's a lineup room, complete with the one-way mirror crime victims look through to identify suspects. During the week, young offenders can be seen in conference rooms, meeting with their lawyers.

Girls are housed in eight-by-twelve-foot jail cells. Steel beds are bolted into a concrete floor -- everything seems to be some shade of green. Each girl gets a thin green mat to sleep on and a small metal mirror. There's a small sink and a toilet. A small metal shelf is bolted to another wall, convenient for writing letters, doing homework or scratching out some graffiti: "Britanny is here." "Sarah." "Fuck the Haters."

The cells face each other across a narrow hallway inside a larger unit, Unit C. A girl comes through the main door, which is controlled by an enclosed guard post within the unit. Inside the main door is a large common room with tables and chairs. The girls' unit has curtains -- the boys' doesn't. The girls also have a huge mound of teddy bears, piled against a wall. A lone plant hangs from the ceiling. Just past the enclosed guard post, which has surveillance cameras and all the gadgets needed to lock doors and seal the girls inside, is a wide-open shower room and the narrow hall with the cells just beyond.

Although the girls have one unit in which all ages are mixed, the boys get three, segregated by age. The youngest boys wear green. Boys in blue are fourteen and fifteen; the oldest boys, sixteen and seventeen, are in red.

Sometimes the judges and family-court commissioners send a girl over for just a couple of days, a juvenile version of shock time.

When the girl returns to his courtroom after spending time in Hotel Juvenile, Frawley asks what the worst part of the ordeal was. "You know what they say? Wearing other people's underwear."

But there's more to the juvenile detention than cells, lineups and communal underwear.

The St. Louis school district runs a school out of juvenile detention, and the children who find themselves locked up are also going to find themselves in class. They've got a circa-1960s gymnasium, a very small library and a computer lab stocked with hand-me-down computers. Each unit of kids has its own teacher. They meet in a classroom, not the community space in lockup.

The classes cover reading, writing and arithmetic. The teacher says, "The girls are getting younger" -- too many twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. Of a group of ten girls, two are usually moms. There are five girls in class now -- one has already had a baby.

Alisa's in the group of five, an open textbook on her desk. She's still not talking, but that's because she's not supposed to.

She'll attend jail school until May 1 -- that's the date Clarke has set for another hearing. That's when the commissioner will probably decide whether to send Alisa back home or to relieve Alisa's parents of legal responsibility for their child and entrust her instead to Youth Services.

Before Clarke sent Alisa to detention in March, she warned the girl that her future was in her own hands. "It is all on you," Clarke said.

When she sees her again next month, Clarke will want to know whether Alisa has had time to think about her life and about what she wants for the future. She'll want to know whether Alisa will take her meds. And she'll want to know whether this thirteen-year-old has decided it's time to grow up.

* All the girls' names are pseudonyms.

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