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