Academic journal article Social Work Research

Study of Delinquent, Diverted, and High-Risk Adolescent Girls: Implications for Mental Health Intervention

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Study of Delinquent, Diverted, and High-Risk Adolescent Girls: Implications for Mental Health Intervention

Article excerpt

This study examines risk and protective factors for delinquent, diverted, and high-risk adolescent girls to inform the development of effective mental health prevention and intervention programs. Delinquent, diverted, and high-risk adolescent girls (N = 159) involved or at risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system, who were receiving home-based or community-based open or closed residential services, completed a written, self-administered, structured questionnaire. A majority of the girls reported moderate to severe depression, but only about one-third hod received mental health specialty services. Girls in the community-based closed residential settings had significantly higher levels of depression, experienced more negative life events, reported more sexual abuse, more often had special education status, were more likely to come from families who received welfare, had more disruptions in living situations, exhibited more delinquent behavior, and used more negative coping behaviors than did girls in the other programs.

Key words: girls; intervention; juvenile justice; mental health; prevention


In the United States, the number of adolescent girls involved in the juvenile justice system during the past decade has increased significantly (American Bar Association [ABA] & National Bar Association [NBA], 2001). Most of this increase can be attributed to changes in arrest policies and practices--such as charging girls involved with family conflicts with assault and increasing arrests for curfew, loitering, and drug abuse violations--rather than to changes in girls' offense patterns (ABA & NBA). Despite this troubling trend, many girls in the justice system have mental health problems and need services (Petrila, 1998). Adolescent girls from racial and ethnic minority groups living in impoverished conditions are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system (ABA & NBA). This article presents results from a survey of 159 girls, the majority of whom are lowqncomc African Americans in three types of placements for girls at risk of involvement or involved with the juvenile justice system. We focused on risk and protective factors to inform the development of mental health services.

The incidence of mental disorders among youths in the juvenile justice system is two to three times higher than in the general population (Lexcen & Redding, 2000; Petrila, 1998). About 73 percent of these youths reported mental health problems at intake (Cocozza & Skowyra, 2000), and many have multiple mental heahh problems (Lexcen & Redding). In a randomly selected, stratified sample of 1,829 youths arrested and detained in Cook County, Illinois, Teplin and colleagues (2002) found that two-thirds of the boys and three fourths of the girls met diagnostic criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders. Almost one-half of the girls in this study had a substance use disorder, and rates for many disorders were higher among girls and older adolescents. Youths with mental health problems enter the juvenile justice system at earlier ages and report significant family problems at the time of admission (Dembo et al., 1998). According to the National Mental Health Association and National GAINS Center fbr People with Co-Occurring Disorders in the Justice System (1999) and Coalition for Juvenile Justice (2000), mental health services for youths in the juvenile justice system are fragmented and inadequate.


For the present study, we used a risk-focused approach (Hawkins, Arthur, & Catalano, 1995; Pollard, Hawkins, & Arthur, 1999), which asserts that delinquency can be prevented by reducing risk factors and promoting protective factors. Risk factor was defined as any influence that "increases the probability of onset, digression to a more serious state or maintenance of a problem condition" (Fraser, 1997, pp. 10-11). A protective factor is an internal or external force that helps an individual resist or ameliorate risk (Fraser). …

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