Adolescent Girls in the Spotlight

In 2008 my colleagues and I wrote for and were awarded a recovery-oriented systems of care grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The primary goal of this grant was to develop and implement a trauma-informed and recovery-oriented system of care for adolescent girls. My colleagues and I were concerned about the increasing juvenile justice involvement and substance use rates among adolescent girls with little to no increases in their rates of enrollment in treatment. Our previous research highlighted the significant levels of trauma and other co-occurring mental health problems among girls. In addition, we found girls had higher PAGE3_NEWCOLORrates of “harder” drug use such as cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin/opiates as compared to boys. And on the positive side, we also found that girls who accessed treatment responded really well and made significant behavioral improvements over time.

Other juvenile justice and behavioral health policy makers and program developers have recognized the importance of responding to these increased rates of behavioral health and substance use problems among adolescent girls. We now have a better understanding that while males and females are equally vulnerable to addiction, that from a physiological standpoint, females can have lower tolerance and may progressive to physical dependence at different rates.  We also have a better understanding of the critical role played by trauma in substance use and addiction as well as a broader range of available approaches for providing gender-specific and trauma-informed treatment. The positive news is that we have seen the rates of illicit substance use significantly decrease for girls from 2008 to 2014 (26.5% versus 23.7%) and decreases in comparison to boys.

Yet, at first glance it appears that we have not seen similar decreases in arrests for drug related offenses among females. Recently, Jeffrey Butts, PhD released the second Reclaiming Futures Data Brief focusing on adolescent  girls with drug related offenses. Dr. Butts indicates that while drug arrests have declined for both boys and girls between 2000 and 2014 the rate of reduction was much higher for boys as compared to girls (46% versus 23%). And the proportion of overall drug arrests that involved girls was higher 2014 (20%) than at any other time since 1980. He interprets the finding of a larger proportion of arrests for females (as compared to males) is related to decreases in the number of male arrests in the past decade. Similar reductions have not occurred for girls and this has certainly put the statistical spotlight on girls in juvenile justice and prompted the field to look for answers.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has recently released policy guidance on girls involved with juvenile justice. This policy guidance clearly stands up and behind girls involved in juvenile justice and offers a primary message that the needs of girls must be addressed in a developmentally appropriate manner. OJJDP describes cultural and contextual issues including:

  • Intersectionality disparities – girls of color and girls who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender
  • Gender gap – differential reasons for arrests and types of delinquency/crime
  • Victimization and behavioral issues – trauma, sexual exploitation, and family violence
  • Pregnancy and parenting
  • Other health issues – lack of regular primary care; sexually transmitted infections
  • Failed educational experiences – due to school suspension and expulsion policies.

OJJDP offers a call to action for juvenile justice professionals. This is a comprehensive list that includes eight focus areas for policy, program, and staff abilities and competencies. We applaud OJJDPs efforts and this call to action on behalf of young women in juvenile justice and challenge our sites to review these focus areas to determine what is already being implemented and areas for improvement. Let’s start a national discussion about the best policies and practices for improving the health and wellness of young women.


Updated: January 08 2018