Rock County program supports female juvenile offenders

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Saturday, March 17, 2012
— Judging by the way they sat on the deep couch, you would think the two young women had been friends forever.

They complimented each other.

They asked questions.

They talked easily with each other and the adults in the room.

It hadn’t always been that way, they said. A few months earlier, their attitudes had been quite different. To demonstrate, one of the young women crossed her arms and scowled. The frown chased away what had been a pretty smile.

“I did NOT want to be here,” she said. “Remember how I said I would fight any girl in here?”

Months earlier, no one had doubted her. She had a history of fighting at school and at home. The scowl was a tough one.

Then she returned to the present. She laughed and flopped back onto the couch. Remembering how far she has come after a few months of meetings, she brought back the pretty smile.

“I changed my mind about girls,” she said.

The 17-year-old was one of three teen girls at a recent Developing and Inspiring Value Among Sisters group meeting. The girls-only group is one of the Rock County Juvenile Justice Division’s youth development and diversion programs. It is new among Rock County’s program choices, which makes it unique across the state said Amanda Galaviz, the county’s juvenile justice diversion programs supervisor.

Rock County is one of the few in Wisconsin offering diversion programs for juveniles. So far, staff members are pleased with the results of the gender-specific programming, Galaviz said.

Rock County diversions staff members invited the Gazette to a DIVAS meeting. The Gazette did not have permission from all the participants’ parents to identify the girls, so names are not used.

Building them up

“OK. You can’t laugh when I say this,”

“I won’t.”

“You’re really … reliable.”

The girl cringed, worried she used the wrong word. The group leaders and their supervisor melted at the compliment.

It was one of several exercises in the 90-minute meeting. The group leaders—juvenile diversion specialists Jennifer Fay and Mary Dempsey—asked each participant to say something nice about the other two girls.

One of the teens suggested they give compliments to the adults, too. They squirmed a bit to hear their peers say nice things, but the exercise ended in smiles. The ability to give and receive compliments is an important skill, Galaviz said.

“We try to build them up,” she said. “They might not hear it otherwise.”

Unique pressures

Weekly meetings of up to eight girls are held at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 54 S. Jackson St., Janesville. Separate meetings takes place each week in Beloit.

The girls meetings are a small part of the services Rock County provides for juvenile offenders and at-risk youth, including group meetings, drug and alcohol treatment, community service opportunities and study support. Young people can be ordered to participate in programming as an alternative to juvenile detention. In some cases, the programming is preventative and geared toward juveniles who are likely to get into the criminal cycle.

The county started gender-specific programming to help address the unique social pressures facing teen girls, Galaviz said. Rock County formed the girls groups in late 2011 to fill what juvenile justice workers saw as a gap for services for girls, she said.

The gender-specific programming is designed to support girls’ physical, sexual, intellectual, relational, emotional, spiritual and cultural development. Lack of development or skills in any of those categories can lead to delinquent behavior, Galaviz said.

So can depression or anxiety, which are more prevalent among girls, Galaviz said. Such mental illnesses can cause girls to be aggressive. Girls also might act aggressively to avoid victimization, she said.

Some juvenile offenders are victims of physical or sexual abuse. Many are frequent runaways.

“Constant fleeing leads to illegal behavior and activity in a lot of cases,” Galaviz said.

Another unique risk for girls is the pressure for those experiencing early-onset puberty to get into relationships with older teen boys.

“The girls group was really formed to address the unique issues that young girls are facing on a daily basis,” Galaviz said.

‘Nobody is excluded’

A recent meeting was not the first brush for any of the girls with the juvenile justice system in Rock County.

One girl participating in the meeting said she had been ordered to “juvie,” or Rock County Youth Services Center, on more than one occasion. She typically got referred for running away or fighting at school. Another girl said she was referred for disorderly conduct—yelling and swearing at school, she said.

Another was referred after she ran away from home, came back and got in a physical fight with her mom. Running away or fighting are two of the most common reasons juveniles, including females, are referred to authorities, Galaviz said.

All three girls were enthusiastic about how much more they liked the all-girls group compared to the mixed groups they had attended. Even though more than one had shared the “I don’t like other girls” attitude prior to their first meeting, they had learned to enjoy each other’s company. They were learning to disagree with each other without getting mad, they said.

They could ask questions about even sensitive subjects without fear of making any boys laugh, they said.

One girl said she participates more in the all-girls group than she did in a mixed group.

“Nobody is excluded here,” she said.

Last updated: 7:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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