Raised by a single mother, Tanya was physically and emotionally abused by her on regular basis and was also repeatedly sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriends and male friends. In an effort to get help, Tanya told her mother about the sexual abuse but was told that it was her fault. To escape her life — the pain, betrayal and abuse, she continually ran away taking refuge on the streets. Eventually, she was picked up and detained for running away. In court, her mother told the judge that Tanya was incorrigible. She was placed in a secure juvenile detention facility and after being released she was returned to her mother.

After returning home she discovered that nothing had changed and so she continued to runaway to escape the abuse. One night while out on the streets, she was propositioned by a man to have sex for shelter. Tanya was so frightened by this that she called the police herself. At this point, she was sent to a shelter and later with the involvement of her caseworker she was placed at Florence Crittenton Services of Charleston, SC where she was able to begin the process of healing. Tanya’s experience mirrors that of many of the girls that end up in the juvenile justice system. Detained for status offenses for actions that were cries for help, not criminal behaviors, Tanya’s time in juvenile detention only served to further traumatize her.

Tanya didn’t need to be detained, what she needed was a safe and caring environment where she could begin the process of learning to trust and to build positive relationships. But perhaps most of all she needed therapeutic services to help her heal from the trauma created by repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse and the betrayal it signified.

Tanya has a high ACE score. What does this mean? The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) data provides us with insight into the impact of childhood exposure to abuse, neglect and household dysfunction prior to age 18. Scores range from 0-10 with increasing likelihood of further victimization, chronic disease, addiction, poor work performance, and more — including a reduction of life expectancy. Understanding ACE helps us to more clearly define the challenges and root causes of the involvement of girls and boys in the juvenile justice system.

A recently released article reported that “disturbingly high rates of ACEs” were found in 64,329 juvenile offenders in Florida — 27 percent of males and 45 percent of females reported 5 or more ACEs.” Similarly, in a sample administration of ACE in 18 states through Crittenton agencies 62 percent of girls who had involvement with the juvenile justices system had score of 4 or more with 4 percent having scores of 10. But the importance of ACE is not the level of adversity. The real story is the resilience and courage of the youth who survive and thrive. Early assessment and the provision of support and mental health services leverages their internal strengths and assets. We need to focus more on healing and less on detention.

So what can you do to ensure status offenders don’t end up in the system? Tell Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and eliminate the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception to the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) protection to ensure status offenders don’t end up in the system. You can also show your support for legislation already introduced in Congress to do just that. To help keep kids safe, Rep. Cardenas (D-CA) has introduced HR 4123, a bill that calls on states to phase out use of the VCO exception within a year of passage.

Today at 37 years old, Tanya reflects back and describes the support she received from Florence Crittenton as a “…bridge to a different kind of life.” She goes on to share,

I had no way of knowing at the time, that self-love would be something that I would have to first learn that I was missing, and then fight like heck to reclaim it in order to be happy…I have come to learn that life and its successes unfold incrementally, so that in each moment we can see some measure of success. Some days this may simply mean[s] that I decide to keep moving forward, on other days, I may have honored my personal truth a little more. Healing does not EVER happen overnight, but incremental success does.

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa


This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation’s landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.