Black girls in the Pittsburgh region are 11 times more likely than white girls to have contact with the juvenile justice system, according to a 2016 study, Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Nationally, the study notes, black girls are sent to juvenile justice three times as often as white girls.
In response to these findings, local practitioners, researchers and policymakers formed the Black Girls Equity Alliance late last year.
Much of the alliance’s work is based at the nonprofit Gwen’s Girls. The 15-year-old organization provides a range of services to girls throughout the county, and virtually all of the girls that participate in its after-school program are black.
One of the organization’s main goals is to prevent girls from entering the juvenile justice system. It strives to create a sense of sanctuary for participants and to help them feel empowered.
Deaysa Trent, 13, has been coming to Gwen’s Girls for four years.
“It feels like we’ve grown a big family here,” she said. “These are like my sisters.”
Another participant, Sy’Raya Williams, 11, said Gwen’s Girls taught her how to self-reflect.
“They teach us things like our history. Sometimes we do group about what we want to be known as, like what do we want to be remembered as,” she said. “We want to make a history out of ourselves.”
Gwen’s Girls Executive Director Kathi Elliott said she wants girls at her organization to grow into independent and caring women.
“For our girls, it’s having a place to have friends, people that look like them that may be experiencing some of the same things that they experience,” she said. “And having a safe space to have that conversation.”
The after-school program at Gwen’s Girls serves about 100 girls from 8 to 15 years old.
“For the most part, our girls want to come here and do girl things, be young adults, depending on what age they are,” Elliot said. “So, we try to encourage those activities and those things, but also keep them mindful that society expects other things from them that may be unfair.”
Elliot’s alluding, in part, to what she says is the expectation that girls should be compliant. While data show that Black girls in the region are twice as likely as white girls to engage in fighting, research has found that in many cases, they’re trying to defend themselves.
Kim Booth, Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Assistant Chief Probation Officer, noted that many girls in the system are victims of violence and sexual abuse.
“Typically I feel like, if a girl has an issue, per se, with breaking the law in terms of aggravated assault or something of that nature, it’s also usually that they have trauma,” Booth said.
Locally, black girls are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be raped and more than four times as likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon, according to the 2016 study.
When a girl is referred to juvenile justice, she could end up in family court, where a judge decides whether to take her case, send it to adult court or dismiss it altogether.
In these cases, Allegheny County Administrative Family Court Judge Kim Berkeley Clark said, many girls face conflict at home, which can lead them to run away or to engage in harmful behavior.
“Sometimes I say, quite frankly, sometimes all the stars and planets are misaligned, and they’re just caught up in the moment with something bad happens,” Clark said. “There’s a lot of stuff that happens at school – bullying, you know, social media.”
University of Pittsburgh social work professor Sara Goodkind said that in these situations, girls of color tend to face harsher consequences than their white peers. Goodkind conducted the 2016 study on inequities between black and white girls.
“A lot of the behaviors that kids get referred to the juvenile court for are behaviors that many or most teenagers engage in,” Goodkind said. “But, the fact is that many and most teenagers are not referred to the juvenile court.”
Goodkind cited another recent survey of 1,600 teenagers in Allegheny County. In it, white girls were just as likely to report using drugs and alcohol as black girls. Yet, black girls are more than three times as likely to be referred to juvenile court for drug offenses.
“This is something that tells us, okay, the behavior is the same, but the response is different,” Goodkind said.
This disparity, Goodkind said, is something she and the other members of the Black Girls Equity Alliance are trying to understand.
They’ve been examining the specific types of offenses for which girls are sent to the juvenile justice system, as well as the neighborhoods where referrals are coming from. They’ve also started to inquire with the people who make the most complaints, mainly the police and adults at schools.
New research from Georgetown’s Center on Poverty and Inequality has provided an additional clue. It explores a concept called “adultification," where Goodkind explained, “adults view black girls as less innocent, less in need of protection and support than white girls.”
The study provides empirical evidence that indicates this phenomenon is real and suggests that, if authorities view black girls as less innocent than their white counterparts, they also view them as more culpable for their actions and, thus, punish them more harshly.
“I think that is exactly what we see reflected in these different referral rates,” Goodkind said.
This link has been demonstrated with boys, but more research needs to be done with girls.
Judge Clark cited poverty as one cause of adultification.
“If you’re growing up as any child, but particularly as an African-American child – male or female – and you have kind of been, because of poverty and other issues, left to really be taking care of yourself and younger siblings,” she said, “you are going to appear older because you have had a role of responsibility within your family that other children may not have had.”
In addition, black children are disproportionately likely to have an incarcerated parent or to know someone who’s been murdered – traumas that can easily expose them to adult issues.
“But they are still children,” Clark said. “And the thing is, they need to have the opportunity to be children.”
For Clark, this is a point that the the juvenile justice system and other systems meant to support children must remember.
Coverage of issues of social justice and racial and economic equity in Pittsburgh on 90.5 WESA is generously supported by the Heinz Endowments.