Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Good Girls: Gender-Specific Interventions in Juvenile Court

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Good Girls: Gender-Specific Interventions in Juvenile Court

Article excerpt


In the juvenile legal system, many jurisdictions are adopting interventions that target girls for specialized treatment. The proliferation of so-called Girls Courts--or specialty courts designed to address the specific challenges faced by system-involved girls--is one such intervention. Girls Court rejects gender-blindness in the juvenile justice system in order to address the unique needs of system-involved girls. This Article enlists Critical Race Feminism to argue that, although well intentioned, these gender-specific juvenile courts enlist harmful gender stereotypes to guide girls towards an antiquated and hegemonic form of femininity. By examining the underlying assumptions that drive Girls Court, this Article assesses the line between gender-consciousness and gender stereotyping and critiques the role of law in entrenching harmful notions about what "good girls " ought to be.

Lifting ideologies from problem-solving courts, Girls Court purports to serve the most at-risk girls, with some jurisdictions placing special emphasis on holistic intervention for child victims of sexual exploitation. Girls Court targets girls, mostly girls of color, for enhanced scrutiny and surveillance. Although heightened services are needed for girls battling intersecting forms of oppression, this Article argues that Girls Court exemplifies important limitations to gender-specific reform. While the court's approach rightly acknowledges the role of gender in shaping outcomes for young people, it also targets girls for intrusive and punitive methods of social control. Girls Court funnels girls towards a very specific notion of girlhood--one centered in white, middle-class notions of femininity. Through criminalization, an emphasis on sexual purity, and a desire to instill obedience, Girls Court advances certain subordinating stereotypes about girls, particularly girls of color.

At its core, this Article argues for an increased duty of care when it comes to programming for girls. It urges a careful examination of all the messages we send, and the values we promote, when we target young girls for intervention.


It is an early morning session of a Girls Court in California and a female judge presides over a routine progress report. (1) Sitting in the gallery are representatives from a local teen clinic and a county organization that provides services to Commercially Sexually Exploited Children. (2) A young brown-skinned girl sits beside her attorney, slightly hunched over with her head cast down. She recently ran away while en route to a court ordered group home, euphemistically referred to as a "placement." Her mother is present at the hearing and sits behind her in the gallery with the Girls Court service providers. Her mother, the District Attorney, and the judge all believe that an out-of-state placement would be best for her, and that the girl needs to be removed from her current environment. The girl is opposed, but says very little. During the proceeding, her mother stands up to address the court. According to the girl's mother, after her daughter fled the rehabilitation program, the mother found her in the charge of a pimp. The situation was dangerous--for both the mother and her child. As the mother addresses the court, her desperation is palpable. The mother begins to describe her altercation with the exploiter, but the presiding judge interrupts her. The judge explains that part of the court's duty is to protect the health and well-being of the child, and this includes protecting the child from degradation through the recounting of traumatic experiences. The judge is stem yet compassionate. She gestures towards the crowded courtroom, explaining that here, the child is particularly vulnerable to an invasion of privacy that could harm or humiliate her. The judge turns to the girl inviting her to speak. When she finally speaks, her voice is soft and timid, highlighting the intensity of the reprimand. …

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