Words From Prison: Abused at Home, Abused by the System; Girls and the Juvenile Justice System

Document Date: June 12, 2006

Melissa lived with her parents in the suburbs of New York City. Her dad was a corporate accountant and her mother taught preschool. From all appearances, Melissa’s family was the model American family. What nobody knew was that since she had turned ten, Melissa’s dad had been coming into her room late at night and getting into bed with her. He made her be very quiet while he did what he wanted. Formerly an excellent student, Melissa soon started talking back to teachers at school and getting bad grades. She eventually began to skip school altogether to hang out with older kids who could get her beer and sometimes marijuana and pills. Concerned about her daughter’s complete change of personality, Melissa’s mother begged her to tell her what was wrong, but when Melissa confided in her mother, she refused to believe her and accused her of trying to tear the family apart. Having just turned thirteen, Melissa decided to run away from home. The police found her in less than 48 hours and returned her to her parents’ home. She went back to school, but was completely uncooperative. One of her favorite teachers noticed her change in disposition and called child welfare to express concern that something might be going on at her home. Ashamed, frightened, and angry, Melissa said nothing to the child welfare worker and the investigation was closed.

Abusive family environments characterize the backgrounds of many court-involved girls, as does involvement with the child welfare system or court-ordered separation from parents.

When Melissa was fifteen, her father left the family. Melissa was glad when her father moved out of the house, but this didn’t solve her problems at school and her growing dependence on drugs. It also didn’t solve the tension between Melissa and her mother. Melissa was angry at her mother for allowing the abuse to continue for so long and her mother blamed Melissa for the failure of her marriage and the dire economic straights they were now in. Melissa ran away from home again, this time becoming involved with and arrested for prostitution.

80 to 90 percent of adolescent prostitutes have been sexually abused before hitting the streets.

After Melissa ran away, her mother went to court and filed a “PINS petition,” asking that Melissa be designated a “person in need of supervision” by the court. The PINS petition was granted and Melissa was ordered to attend a drug program and to obey a curfew. Melissa went to the program but didn’t come home on time. As a result of violating the court’s order, she was sent to a “secure juvenile commitment facility”—that is, a prison for children.

During the 1990s, the number of girls held as delinquents in detention facilities increased 50 percent, compared with a 4 percent increase for boys. Girls tend to be arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses and probation violations.

Because she was in a locked facility, Melissa did not use drugs while in detention. In her mandatory counseling session, she eventually revealed the incest she had suffered; however, the counseling she received did not adequately address the history of sexual abuse by her father, which lay at the root of her drug addiction.

The vast majority of girls caught up in the juvenile justice system have a history of physical or sexual victimization. Yet, juvenile facilities often do not offer adequate mental health care or trauma counseling tailored to girls’ needs.

At one point during her six-month stay, Melissa found out that a staff member at the facility had told some of the other girls that Melissa had been abused. Furious at this violation of her privacy, Melissa flew off the handle and yelled at the staff member.

Girls in the juvenile justice system have higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than boys. When these problems go unaddressed, they contribute to behavioral problems during incarceration.

In response, the staff member grabbed Melissa from behind and pushed her to the ground. The staff member had learned this “restraint” procedure in the academy for youth corrections officers, but he applied too much force to Melissa, scraping her face against the carpeted floor of the facility, making a large scar that lasted for months. The scar on Melissa’s psyche lasted even longer. By using the “restraint” procedure, the staff person re-activated memories of her father’s abuse and thwarted any progress Melissa was making toward healing the wounds from her father’s assaults.

Girls re-live early trauma when they are restrained in detention by staff who are not trained in the specific vulnerabilities and needs of incarcerated girls.

Melissa was finally released from the youth facility having received no substantive counseling relating to the trauma she experienced at her father’s hands. Not surprisingly, her difficulties at home continued, and she went back to using drugs. Just after her sixteenth birthday, she got caught trying to buy drugs from an undercover police officer, and was sentenced to a ten-year term in a women’s prison.

New York is one of only three states in the nation that automatically treat all children aged 16 and older as adults, processing them through adult courts and placing them in adult institutions.


  • Tutor an at-risk girl and help open a door of opportunity.
  • Volunteer with or donate to a program for court-involved girls. For instance, the Center for Community Alternatives trains volunteer mentors in Syracuse who are matched with girls and boys to help them gain life skills and build self esteem. For more information visit
  • Join the Correctional Association of New York’s Juvenile Justice Coalition and become a part of efforts to improve the state’s juvenile justice system. Learn more at
  • Protest the New York City Department of Probation’s recent decision to close its Alternative to Detention (ATD) program for juveniles without a replacement plan in place. Support Community Corrections, an ATD program implemented to fill that gap.
  • Learn more about the importance of school in keeping girls from entering the juvenile justice system and read more to learn about the school to prison pipeline. Visit for more information.
  • Volunteer with Girls’ Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS).
  • Support The After-School Corporation (TASC) which enriches the lives of thousands of young people, including those at risk of getting caught up in the criminal and juvenile justice system.
  • Contact your legislators to support the New York State bill, A-11365, that would prohibit the prosecution of persons under 18 for prostitution and would create a range of community services to help young people recover from the trauma of sexual exploitation.
  • Write to your legislator or write a letter to the editor in support of policies and bills that promote deinstitutionalization of children and protect the rights of those children who are imprisoned.

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