Adolescent Female Offenders: Unique Considerations
Miller, Darcy, Trapani, Catherine, Fejes-Mendoza, Kathy, Eggleston, Carolyn, Dwiggins, Donna, Adolescence
Given the emergence of a psychology of women in the mainstream of research and practice, it is critical that correctional educational practices become responsive to adolescent females. While in the past, few research studies focused on the needs and characteristics of adolescent female offenders, there is some evidence from recent investigations suggesting that adolescent females have unique needs. Most correctional educational programs, assessment procedures, and curricula have been developed on a knowledge base obtained from studies conducted with adolescent male offenders. The profile of the adolescent female now emerging from psychological, educational, and sociological research suggests that programmatic changes are necessary if we are to meet the special needs of these females.
A critical first step involves examination of the characteristics of adolescent female offenders. Few studies have done so, however, selected research on similar populations have significant implications for adolescent female offenders. A brief review of selected characteristics related to adolescent females is followed by a discussion of assessment considerations. Recommendations are then offered that will facilitate more responsive social, correctional, and educational programming.
Adolescent Female DevelOpment
Although research on adolescent females is a relatively new area of study, much information is now available that points to differences between female and male adolescents. Research has revealed that adolescent females experience more episodes of depression throughout adolescence than do males (Rutter, 1986), attempt suicide more frequently (Rosenthal, 1981), and exhibit lower levels of resilience (Block, 1990). As adolescence progresses, females' self-esteem becomes diminished, whereas young males' self-concept and self-esteem improve (American Association of University Women, 1991). Adolescent females have been shown to develop a "different voice" from males in discussing and acting out their relationships with others (Gilligan, 1982). Some have observed that adolescent females seem to lose their sense of self and their personality during adolescence (Thompson, 1964). In research examining the types of knowledge that men and women use to understand their lives and relationships, adolescent females have been shown to have different "ways of knowing" from that of males (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberg, & Tarule, 1986). Gender differences in moral development and independence also have been found to appear during adolescence (Gilligan, 1977). The gender differences illuminated throughout research with "normally" developing adolescents need to be considered when programming for adolescent female offenders.
Sexual and Physical Abuse
Research has shown that adolescent female offenders experience more sexual abuse and at higher frequencies than do males (Chesney-Lind, 1987; National Institute of Mental Health, 1977; Youth Policy & Law Center, 1982). In one survey questionnaire study of adolescent offenders, it was found that 64% of the adolescent females reported sexual abuse experiences as opposed to 13% of the males (Miller, 1990, 1992). Of the adolescents questioned, 81% of the females reported having been raped, while none of the males said they had been. Also, in this same study, 42% of the female offenders reported being physically abused by their "dates," while only 3% of the males reported a similar experience.
Female adolescents who have been sexually abused have been shown to have more serious problems than do males with self-image, sexual attitudes, family relations, vocational and educational goals, and "mastering" their environment (Orr, & Downes, 1985). Abused adolescent females have been found to be at higher risk for sexual assault and rape than are males (Gruber, 1984; Levine & Kanin, 1987).
Adolescent female offenders come to correctional programs with a variety of psychological needs. Dependency, both economic and social, a condition commonly seen in females who are emotionally or behaviorally disordered (Gibson, 1976; Kruttschnitt, 1982; Siegal, 1988), makes the adolescent developmental process of identification and building autonomy even more difficult.
Although dependency is an appropriate behavior at certain stages of development and throughout life in specific situations, female offenders tend to exhibit inappropriate levels and types of dependency (Lerner, 1983). Lack of problem-solving skills, a reluctance to verbalize opinions and preference, and avoidance of challenges, success, and autonomy can be manifestations of dependency. Emotional, educational, and interpersonal correlates of dependency-related problems in adolescent females have been outlined (Fejes-Mendoza & Miller, 1992) and include a weak, dependent self-image, vulnerability to social disapproval, depression, anxiety, few opportunities to pursue self-directed/self-seeking activities, and drug addiction/substance abuse. These correlates are seen much more frequently and intensely among females than males (Lerner, 1983; van Wormer, 1989). Dependency behaviors impede adolescent females in their process of developing healthy psychological and emotional personalities, which in turn increase their possibilities of future contact with the criminal justice system.
Girls and women commit different types of crimes than do males and receive differential treatment for similar crimes (Chesney-Lind, 1987; Sarri, 1983). Adolescent females tend to receiver harsher treatment in the courts for status offenses than do males (Armstrong, 1977). It is not uncommon for girls to have a great deal of court contact before actually being placed in a juvenile or adult correctional setting (Henggler, 1989). Since most judges are reluctant to place girls in correctional settings, they either send them home with supervision, try alternative placement, or a variety of residential options before incarceration. However, when many of these girls are sent to such institutions, they are more likely to be severely impacted, and the prognosis for treatment is not good.
Research suggests that females and males tend to differ in terms of addictive behavior, whether the addiction is related to food or drugs (Comerci, 1986; Kagan & Squires, 1984). It has been shown that female adolescents use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco for different reasons and at different rates than do male adolescents (Bodinger-Deuriarte, 1991). In her report, Bodinger-Deuriarte states that adolescent females' drug and alcohol behaviors are influenced by different factors from those of males.
Behaviorally, females are often withdrawn, depressed, or anxious and tend to internalize their feelings (Epstein, Cullinan & Lloyd, 1986). Academically, girls appear to compensate better for learning differences than do boys (Pennington, 1991). Because referrals for assessment are often the result of behavioral rather than academic concerns, attention to girls who experience emotional and learning problems may be minimized by current practices.
Ideally, diagnostic interviews and standardized measures of cognitive, academic, and social skills should be used for screening and early diagnosis of those who are "at risk" for emotional/behavioral disorders. Therefore, young girls who have a history of physical and sexual abuse or a family history of incarceration might be identified early for special education or counseling services. There is a very real need for early screening devices that can be systematically used to identify subclinical cases in their early stages when they might be more amenable to intervention. Unfortunately, however, the focus of current assessment practice is on assigning pathology to the individual and not in evaluating the antecedents of behavioral problems or in identifying underlying distress. Rather, the prevailing labeling system, driven by the DSM III-R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987), may foster a number of misconceptions regarding the conduct of young females who are delinquent (Bowers, 1990).
A comprehensive interdisciplinary assessment should consider the interaction of contributing biological and physical factors on behavior. Depression inventories, interview schedules, and checklists of social competence should be used to evaluate coping mechanisms and adaptive behavior. Utilizing school records, standardized and criterion-referenced measures should be administered to estimate general intellectual functioning, determine academic strengths and weaknesses, and identify problem-solving strategies used by the adolescent. The efficacy of current school placement and program of instruction should be evaluated on the basis of this information. Additionally, the multidisciplinary assessment team should collaborate in the design of an individual transition program that identifies the resources that will maximize continued academic, vocational, social, and emotional development (Trapani, 1990).
Effective correctional educational programs should be designed with gender differences in mind. Traditionally, correctional education, as well as other disciplines, such as medicine and psychology, have generalized the results of studies conducted with males to programs and practices serving females. While females constitute only a small portion of the total delinquent population, minority status has never justified ignorance of a minority's needs. Further, the low prevalence rates of females in this area indicate that we have much to learn about the identification of, and early intervention with females who are having criminal or behavioral difficulties.
Comprehensive research studies that examine the characteristics of adolescent female offenders are needed. A larger proportion of funds must be designated so that the quality of research relevant to females parallels that of their male counterparts. The products of the research efforts should include recommendations for academic, functional, affective, and vocational curricula designed around the unique needs of adolescent female offenders. Refining assessment practices will contribute to the overall therapeutic and educational intervention. The provision of gender-specific programming, assessment, intervention, and transitional support services are pivotal to addressing the needs of this population.
Following the development of a comprehensive knowledge base on adolescent female offenders, correctional educators and other professionals must be trained in gender differences pertaining to adolescent female development, sexual abuse, dependency, and criminal and addictive behavior. As part of this training, educators should be taught to recognize behaviors that are concomitant to various indicators, such as low academic functioning, so that serious conditions can be identified and treated.
While we may not have all the answers as to what and how adolescent female offenders should be taught in correctional education, the efficacy of current programs is questionable in light of the special characteristics of females. Correctional education should foster lifelong academic, vocational, and social development by instituting programs that are responsive to the unique needs and characteristics of these young women.
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Catherine Trapani, Associate Professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Box 411, University of Chicago, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60631.
Kathy Fejes-Mendoza, Associate Professor, Special Education, School of Education, DSE Memorial 204, Drake University, Des Moines, IA 50311.
Carolyn Eggleston, Assistant Professor, Special Education Program, Department of Advanced Studies, School of Education, California State University at San Bernardino, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, CA 92407.
Donna Dwiggins, Professor, Special Education, Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC 28603.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Adolescent Female Offenders: Unique Considerations. Contributors: Miller, Darcy - Author, Trapani, Catherine - Author, Fejes-Mendoza, Kathy - Author, Eggleston, Carolyn - Author, Dwiggins, Donna - Author. Journal title: Adolescence. Volume: 30. Issue: 118 Publication date: Summer 1995. Page number: 429+. © 1999 Libra Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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