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Doing Girls Justice 

Tailoring juvenile-justice programs to girls like 14-year-old Keisha takes more than adapting bathrooms and slapping pink paint on the walls.

His 13-year-old sister Keisha hadn't called for a few hours, and so Anthony picked up the phone and began to track her down.

Anthony is 24 years older than Keisha (both names have been changed for this story, because she is a juvenile). He's been her guardian since their mother, a nurse, died of pancreatic cancer in 1999.

Being Keisha's guardian is a role he takes seriously. "I tell her," he says matter-of-factly, "'If your behind isn't home on time, I call out the National Guard.'" That night, he found Keisha after calling the Juvenile Bureau of the New Orleans Police Department. They reported that they had picked up a 13-year-old who had the same last name. But, they said, this girl's first name was Latoya.

Anthony had a hunch that this so-called "Latoya" might look an awful lot like his sister. He was right -- Keisha had given a false name to the police after being picked up at Dillard's in New Orleans East for shoplifting some pants and a couple of shirts.

It's now about a year later, and Anthony and Keisha are sitting across from each other at a table in a friend's home. Keisha is eating a fast-melting ice-cream bar, but that doesn't put a crimp into the rhythm of their banter. If Anthony catches Keisha insisting on something she might not really know, he throws up his hands and says, "You know it all, microwave."

He explains: "Keisha is what I call a microwave baby. Her generation didn't take their time growing up." He looks straight at her. "You were put in the oven and -- zoop! -- you think you're grown. But you're not."

The term "microwave baby" might be new. But the idea that kids grow up too quickly is not. And a run-in with the juvenile-justice system can make any parent (or guardian) think that their child is growing up too fast.

It used to be that most parents didn't have to worry about their daughters getting in trouble with the police. But in the past decade, arrest rates for girls in America have been climbing, despite the fact that arrest rates for boys have been on the decline. Girls used to be a relative rarity in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. They now account for one out of four cases here. It's a trend mirrored in juvenile courts across the country.

But many juvenile-justice systems seem unequipped for their new arrivals. This is partly because delinquent girls, who often are arrested for minor nonviolent offenses, might not seem as troubled as boys. Yet, below the surface, many delinquent girls have needs that are complex, challenging -- and often unaddressed within the justice system.

It's not surprising that delinquency resources are most often focused on boys, because delinquent boys are more likely to be considered a danger to society, says Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor at the University of Hawaii who has been studying girls and delinquency for 25 years.

"Boys have a kind of monopoly on serious forms of physical violence," says Chesney-Lind. "Girls tend to stick around in the system for relatively minor things, but they have background family issues that make their cases much more complicated."

These issues include sexual and physical abuse in staggeringly high numbers. A study through the National Council on Crime and Delinquency estimates that the proportion of delinquent girls who have been abused ranges between 40 and 73 percent. As a result, says Chesney-Lind, when girls do commit violent acts, they most often hurt someone they know well, typically in reaction to abuse. Or they harm other girls -- usually in arguments about boys.

Keisha is better off than some delinquent girls. She doesn't have any drug problems and she hasn't suffered abuse. But in many ways, Keisha is typical of the girls that come through juvenile court. For one thing, she has suffered the loss of a parent, which can be devastating -- whether the parent dies, goes to prison or disappears on drugs.

Keisha -- like other girls in the system -- is also a nonachiever in school. She is obviously bright and eager, and she has a shelf of well-thumbed books about animals and habitats that make her a fount of detailed observations about things like lemurs, giant iguanas and deep-sea creatures. But school, Keisha says simply, is "boring."

There may be other factors at play here. Meda Chesney-Lind cites research showing that girls of color often feel particularly ignored in the classroom. Whatever her motivation, Keisha fled school, becoming by the time of her arrest a chronic truant who sometimes skipped every hour of school except lunch. And she was stumbling academically -- "straight Fs," according to Anthony. This fall, he enrolled her in the Street Academy. Her grades and attendance seem to be better there, although she still has lapses in arriving home on time, lapses that cause Anthony to threaten her with boot camp.

Keisha's crime is also typical. In fact, shoplifting is the most common offense for which girls are arrested. "Both girls and boys want to look a certain way," explains Chesney-Lind. "But boys' status in groups is derived by their ability to do something that the group values. For girls, appearance is the be-all and the end-all. That, and popularity with boys."

So it's essential, says Chesney-Lind, that programs for girls address subjects like relationships with boys, media images of beauty, and self-esteem. But instead, juvenile courts often simply tweak their long-time boys' programs and then implement them for girls. One probation officer put it best, says Chesney-Lind: "You can't make a boys' program into a girls' program by painting the walls pink and taking out the urinals."

Several days after her arrest, Keisha came before Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge C. Hearn Taylor, pled guilty, and entered the Female Enrichment Program (FEP), a local program designed to work with first-time female offenders between the ages of 13 and 16. The girls' charges are expunged if they complete FEP successfully.

The program, in existence since 1997, is overseen by Chief Judge Ernestine Gray and run by Director Gail Baptiste, a certified therapist who spent most of her career as a school counselor. FEP is designed to be a six-month program, but judges sometimes order nine months or a year for girls who have continued troubles. Keisha, for instance, skipped an entire month at one point and almost lost the chance to have her shoplifting charge expunged. She finally buckled down and completed the program a few months ago.

To begin FEP, each girl is drug-tested; she's also given a complete psycho/social assessment. The program immediately checks on school enrollment, says Baptiste, because a lot of their girls have been put out of school. This is typical for delinquent girls -- one California study found that 85 percent of the state's delinquent girls had been suspended or expelled at least once.

FEP puts girls back in school. Then, after each school day, FEP girls head over to the program's offices on Tulane Avenue for tutoring and counseling. Counselors consult the girls about what they'd like to address; the girls request discussions on topics ranging from prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS to help with self-esteem and goal-setting.

FEP has earned a solid reputation in juvenile court. Judge Mark Doherty says that girls placed in FEP form strong bonds with their counselors -- he calls those relationships "the single-most important factor to getting girls back on track." Doherty also speaks highly of how FEP helps girls academically, by teaching them how to study and getting them in the habit of doing schoolwork. He estimates that 85 percent of the girls he placed in FEP made it through the program and haven't appeared again in his court.

Other Orleans Parish judges feel similarly and, as a result, the program was nearly busting at its seams this year, says Baptiste. "We were supposed to address 60 kids a year. When it got to 90 this year, I had to cut it off." The program added another enthusiastic backer after State Representative Renee Gill Pratt viewed it in action; she then helped to secure funding for things like laptop computers, a copy machine, and updated materials.

Yet, despite undeniable popularity and success, the Female Enrichment Program spent its summer in limbo. The program's original four years of funding was running out, and so FEP could accept no more new girls until they were re-funded. In early September, Baptiste and her colleagues traveled to Baton Rouge to receive $200,000 in federal drug-grant money, awarded through the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement. The money is renewable annually for up to a total of four years.

But the new grant describes a program that, while still single-sex, serves both girls and boys. Girls will attend three days a week for one week and then two days the next; boys will do the same on alternating weeks.

With the new money comes the new name SAASI (Substance Abuse AfterSchool Intervention), making the Female Enrichment Program (FEP) a piece of history. That's sad, says Judge Doherty. "We now won't have a program in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court dedicated only to working with girls. It's a loss."

But, Doherty concedes, beggars can't be choosers. And so, even if SAASI isn't totally devoted to girls, the court will embrace it. "Due to the paucity of resources available for delinquent youth in this town," he says, "we don't have any choice."

It's a sunny Saturday. Keisha and Anthony are driving through City Park after playing tennis, a game Keisha learned from their mother. Their big blue American car still bears their mom's special name-plate on the front bumper, and Keisha still sits in the back seat on the right-hand side, like she always did when her mom was behind the wheel.

But the chauffeur-passenger configuration doesn't stop the siblings from their bantering. Keisha is, as usual, curious and excitable -- she's thrilled to get an ice-cream cone, delighted to take a pony for a spin, inquisitive about the statues in a cemetery nearby.

Anthony lectures Keisha at periodic intervals. He talks as he drives, while she pipes up from the back seat. "Okay, microwave," he often concedes good-naturedly.

As they ride along Canal Street, they pass a car dealer and Keisha squeals about how she would love to be riding around in one of those shiny Dodge PT Cruisers. Anthony sees an opening to re-visit one of his favorite topics: practicality. "There's nothing wrong with this car, Keisha," he says, patting the big dashboard.

Anthony pulls to a halt at a stoplight across from the French Quarter. A woman in a light-green uniform and white apron walks in front of the car, and Anthony seizes the opportunity. "Keisha," he says, pointing at the woman, "that woman is a housekeeper. That's what you're going to do when you grow up, because you need practical skills." Keisha cuts him off: "You be a housekeeper." She snorts in disgust. "I want to be an attorney."

Meda Chesney-Lind says that this unrelenting optimism is one of the delights of dealing with youth. The thing to ask, she says, is "How do you take the kind of moxie this girl has and channel that into steps that could actually take her to law school?"

Girls often suffer low self-esteem during adolescence, says Chesney-Lind, and so one of the goals of the justice system should be to give girls the support and confidence they need to excel. "It's our responsibility," she says, "to not make those dreams beyond their reach."

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG


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