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Girls gone mild
Four troubled teenage girls are given a last chance at youth — and a better chance at surviving adulthood

The first time Alicia had a run-in with the law, she was driving a stolen car. The police, she recalls, surrounded the car with their guns drawn, ready to apprehend an adult criminal. Instead, they found an 11-year-old girl.

She had been in the custody of the Department of Social Services (DSS) — the state agency that swoops in to protect young children from abuse and neglect — since she was nine years old. While she doesn’t go into the precise reasons for her DSS placement, Alicia will say that she doesn’t speak to either of her parents anymore. She maintains contact only with her brother, sister, and cousin — because "those are the only people who are positive in my life."

Today, Alicia is 17, with long, wavy brown hair, gold rings on her fingers, and a thick Massachusetts accent. She can rattle off several injustices perpetrated by the Massachusetts juvenile-justice system, and when she talks about getting cuffed — shoving her hands in front of her torso, wrists together — you can tell it’s an experience she’s had more than once. Since the stolen-car incident, Alicia has been in the Department of Youth Services (DYS) system, weaving through several different programs and probation terms. It hasn’t been pretty. But in her final year as a juvenile, she has hope.

Alicia is one of four 17-year-old girls who are the first inhabitants of a brand-new transitional-living facility in the MetroWest area of Massachusetts. (To protect the residents’ safety, the Phoenix agreed not to disclose the exact location of the house or the girls’ last names.) Officially opened on July 18, the home is the first of its kind for girls in the state.

It’s a little like The Real World for troubled youths. The house has room for eight girls at a time. There’s a well-stocked kitchen where the girls prepare their own meals with staff assistance (when I visit, they rave about last night’s mashed potatoes), a living room with comfy couches and a TV, and bedrooms adorned with stylish sheets and comforters. There’s also a large back yard for sports and gardening.

The girls chosen for this program (designed for older teenagers; most participants will be 17) have particularly dicey backgrounds. Many have neither stable homes nor families to turn to for support when they leave treatment facilities and re-enter the community.

"If we try to place them home, they run, they run, they run," explains DYS director of female services Laura Prescott. "It’s not like they’re running to be free, they’re running away."

The new home actually affords a fair amount of freedom. The girls can make phone calls to a pre-approved list of friends — even boyfriends — and can also have visitors. Depending on her educational and vocational needs and interests, each girl will choose her own path, with staffers constantly on hand to offer assistance. Counselors will use dialectical behavior therapy — a skills-based approach that focuses on modifying reactions to difficult situations — to help the girls develop stress-management tools.

In preparing them to live on their own, staff members and counselors will help the girls finish their educations, get jobs in the community, and save money (they must have at least $2500 before they can leave). Once they graduate out of the home and into their own apartments, they’ll get daily visits from transitional counselors. The house also features two extra beds in case anyone has trouble adjusting and wants to come back.

"Two years from now, if they’re going through a personal crisis, [they need] to have a natural support system," says Kendra Marien, the home’s program director, who stresses the importance of teaching female empowerment and personal strength. "Even though they have been in these situations where they haven’t felt particularly strong, it’s a strength that they’ve survived."

As the first residents, the girls will be in charge of naming the program. They liked "Mariposa" (which means "butterfly" in Spanish), but someone told them it sounded like a curse word in another language, and now they’re back to square one. Were it not for an unfortunate translation, the metaphor of transformation would be perfect.


In the past 10 years, the number of girls committed to DYS in Massachusetts jumped a full 168 percent, to 477. During the same time period, the much larger DYS-committed male population rose just seven percent, to 2467. (See "Girls in Jail," This Just In, July 1.) Theories abound as to why the number of female delinquents has soared. The hypothesis put forth most frequently is that law-enforcement officials, lawyers, and judges are simply less lenient with girls than they used to be.

"In the past, if there was a group of kids up to no good, they would arrest the boys and send the girls home," says Lael Chester, executive director of the Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice. "Now, they’re all treated equally."

Oddly, the increase in arrests is also attributable to paternalism among some juvenile-court judges, experts say — a sense of "at least if they’re locked up, they’re safe," says Francine Sherman, a Boston College law professor who speaks and writes often on girls’ justice.

Indeed, many of the girls themselves recognize that they’re safer locked up than they were outside. "I would have died if I wasn’t in DYS," says Stephanie, a shy girl with thin blondish braids, several piercings, and eyes that vacillate between kind and suspicious. "I was always on the street. I wasn’t a bad kid, I just chilled with the wrong people."

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Issue Date: August 5 - 12, 2005
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