July 27, 2007 A new study reveals that girls in juvenile detention centers face surprisingly different psychological issues than average teen girls and, in some ways, more severe problems than incarcerated boys.
In a four-state survey, researchers found that girls are twice as likely as boys to be aggressive, and just as likely as boys to have problems with alcohol or drug use – findings that surprised psychologist Elizabeth Cauffman, who has worked for years with troubled teens in California and Pennsylvania.
“The psychological issues we found with girls in detention centers are nothing like what we expected – not compared to boys in juvenile hall, not compared to average girls in the community,” said Cauffman, associate professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. “Girls in the correctional system are just different.”
For the study, researchers gave psychological evaluations to more then 800 teens and then compared the results of teens in juvenile detention facilities to those who had never been incarcerated but shared similar backgrounds, race and socioeconomic status.
Psychologists know that in general, teen girls are more likely to internalize problems while boys act out through yelling or hitting. But Cauffman found that among incarcerated youths, teen girls are twice as likely as the boys to externalize their problems through aggression. For example, they describe themselves as having a “short fuse” or admit a desire to get back at someone.
The researchers were also surprised to find that among the jailed teens, the girls are just as likely as the boys to report worrisome levels of alcohol and substance use. In the general population, teen girls report lower alcohol and substance use than boys.
In addition, incarcerated girls were two and a half times as likely as boys to describe levels of depression and anxiety that may require treatment, and twice as likely to have a number of somatic complaints, such as physical aches and pains.
Although fewer than 200 girls are detained by the California Youth Authority, Cauffman said the findings help validate concerns raised by staffers who work with the girls.
“The staff is working with really difficult kids,” Cauffman said. “We often point the finger at the system and say ‘fix it,’ but that’s not really fair to the system. If we don't understand where the problems are and don’t give facilities the resources needed to improve the situation, we won’t be able to ‘fix’ anything.”
One helpful change, Cauffman said, would be to evaluate the mental health issues of teens – both male and female – when they enter the correctional system. The Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument, Version 2, which Cauffman used as the evaluation tool for her study, was designed specifically for juvenile offenders and can be administered by staff at juvenile detention centers. The screening flags areas for concern – such as depression, drug use, or aggression – that may require further evaluation by a mental health professional. Cauffman has already visited several teen correctional facilities in California to train staff to use the test.
The next step would be training additional prison staff to deal with psychological issues incarcerated teens bring with them to the facilities.
“Everyone, including front-line staff, could benefit from understanding these kids’ psychological issues,” Cauffman said. “For a guard, this could mean learning different techniques for diffusing a tense situation with a teen with post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to dealing with a teen who has a tendency toward acting out.”
The study appears in the July issue of Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. It was co-authored by Frances J. Lexcen, Child Study & Treatment Center; Thomas Grisso, University of Massachusetts Medical School; and Asha Goldweber and Elizabeth Shulman, UCI.
This research was an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice and was supported by grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute.
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