Addressing Girls' Health Needs at Juvenile Detention Centers

Addressing Girls' Health Needs at Juvenile Detention Centers

Now 18, she is in Los Angeles County's juvenile justice system because she violated probation. Latrice says she has been locked up more than 20 times in four years. Petite and talkative, she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and takes antidepressants.

Her health issues — and those of about 9,400 girls in juvenile detention centers around the nation — are serious and complex. Many of the girls don't have regular doctors, so their physical and emotional problems often go undiagnosed and untreated. That continues when they enter a system that was designed for boys and has been slow to adapt to girls.

"Their health needs are different; they are more severe and more complicated than boys'," said Catherine Gallagher, a George Mason University professor and an expert in juvenile justice. "They come in underserved.... They remain underserved."

More than one-third of girls in custody nationwide have a history of sexual abuse, compared with 8% of boys. Girls also have had more physical abuse, suicide attempts and drug-related problems, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Few juvenile justice centers have shown they meet minimum healthcare standards, and girls are less likely than boys to get the care they need.

Research shows that many of their problems could be addressed if officials simply asked the right questions. But most detention center screeners are not health professionals and the questions are not designed for girls. Juvenile justice centers also don't usually request medical records because they know they have the youths for just weeks or months.

Los Angeles County health and probation officials recently began working to better identify and treat the health and mental health problems of about 240 girls in custody. They are using a tool called the Girls Health Screen, a 117-question survey designed by Leslie Acoca, president of the L.A.-based National Girls Health and Justice Institute.


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