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We Need to Stop Sexually Abused Black Girls From Ending Up in Prison

I was a little Black girl growing up in a middle-class home. I went to private school and I had access to many resources, including loving adults in my life. I also had abusive ones who did everything in their power to destroy my life and cause me to go down a very bleak and lonely path. If it were not for my grandmothers, aunts and attentive teachers, I would have been lost and would have ended up like a lot of girls who are sexually abused in their families.

Many girls who are sexually abused at home end up acting out. They end up trying to tell in the only way they know how but no one is listening. They try to tell their moms, they act out at home, or they become withdrawn. They become “problems” at school or drop out altogether. They become sexually involved way before their years because of exposure. They are called fast and grown without anyone paying attention as to why. They turn and look to people for love, but all they do is get abused again. They run away from home and become truant. They end up in foster care if they are lucky or worse, juvenile detention where they are abused again.

  • African American girls make up only 14% of the population, yet they comprise 33% of detained and committed girls.” — Georgetown Law Center
  • According to the FBI, African-American children comprise 59% of all prostitution arrests for those under 18 — more than any other racial group.
  • “In a two-year review of all suspected human trafficking incidents, 40% of victims of sex trafficking were African American.” — Rights4Girls.org.
  • In Los Angeles County, 92% of girls in the juvenile justice system identified as trafficking victims were African American. Nearly 60% of those children were from the child-welfare system and 84% were from poor communities in the southeastern part of LA County.

These statistics show that at no time does anyone address the core problem. They are victims of sexual abuse and no one is asking the question or reading the signs. Black girls are disproportionally subjected to sexual abuse before the age of 18. They are considered and viewed older than their actual years and therefore are treated as such. They are treated as criminals instead of victims. They are abused at home and then by the system. The white community sees Black girls as older than white girls of the same age.

According to a survey conducted by the Center on Poverty and Equality at Georgetown Law, it is presumed that:

  • Black girls need less nurturing than white girls.
  • Black girls need less protection than white girls.
  • Black girls need to be supported less than white girls.
  • Black girls need to be comforted less than white girls.
  • Black girls are more independent than white girls.
  • Black girls know more about adult topics than white girls.
  • Black girls know more about sex than white girls.

Black girls end up aging out of foster care or juvenile detention and end up on the streets or going from one bad relationship to another. They end up sex trafficked or beaten by partners and experience more sexual violence. They eventually end up pregnant and often not by choice. They are often impoverished or living with addictions and lose custody of their children, where the cycle begins all over again and the child is now in an abusive system.

I was lucky to survive my home life because I could have easily ended up like these girls. The presence of women who loved and cared for me made it possible for me to see value in myself and it gave me hope for a better future even though I never disclosed my abuse. But many Black girls are left without hope. They have no safety at home or with others. They give up looking for love or for someone to care.

There are many pathways into the juvenile justice system after sexual abuse. Status offenders are girls who commit so-called crimes which include truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, underage use of alcohol and general ungovernability. Truancy is the most common offense for which girls are arrested, and running away is the second most common. Valid court order allows for the detention of status offenders.

The underlying reason for their involvement in the system is abuse. Trafficking federal law defines any person under the age of 18 as a victim of child sex trafficking, a severe form of human trafficking. Girls are routinely arrested for prostitution, even though they are legally incapable of consenting to sex.

Why does the sexual abuse to prison pipeline exist?

  • Mythologies about girls of color as “hyper-sexual,” “fast,” “hostile,” “grown.”
  • Lack of data.
    • No accessible data on girls of color in the system.
    • No data on the number of pregnant youths in custody.
    • No screening for sexual abuse or trafficking.
  • Refusal to prioritize the lives of girls of color.

Based on Rights4Girls.org’s recommend solutions, I recommend:

  • End the arrest and detention of children for prostitution
  • Strengthen and Pass the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)
  • End valid court order (VCO) exception as “it exists in the JJDPA law when a youth has been detained for a status offense, whereas they have committed an offense that would not be criminal if committed by an adult, such as running away from home or skipping school.”
  • Screen for trafficking and other forms of abuse upon intake.
  • Comprehensive healthcare services for girls in detention.
  • Utilize Medicaid funding to get trauma-related services to girls in state custody.
  • Data collection cross-tabulated on girls of color.
  • Training on gender and racial bias.

We must as a society do better by these girls. They deserve a society that will do whatever it takes to care for them. Child abuse can be prevented or at least mitigated. Abusers need to be held accountable and children need to be guarded and believed. If a girl’s mom or teachers understood the signs instead of punishing her for acting out, we could have ended the cycle right there. If her mom were not paid less than a man or she did not live in poverty, she could have had the option to leave an abusive relationship. Many of these moms have few options and choose to ignore their daughters, rather than take the risk of losing a relationship and income.

I dedicate my life’s work to reaching out and protecting these girls and to make sure there are policies in place that hold the community and system accountable to believe and then to do right by these girls. They are not criminals and should not be treated as such. They are victims whose stories must be told. They deserve to be loved and protected. They need counselors, not jail.

Further Reading:

Photo by Krystal Dixon on Unsplash