Adolescent Female Offenders: Unique Considerations

By Miller, Darcy; Trapani, Catherine et al. | Adolescence, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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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.

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