In the “Out of the Archives” section, we told you about the two women, Alice Wells and Lola Baldwin, who contend for the title of the country’s first female police officer. Regardless of who was first, they shared a common responsibility: administering to the female and juvenile populations of the prisons where they were assigned.
One hundred years later, in a fiscal climate that has put the squeeze on discretionary funding and in an era when a staggering 85 percent of the country’s prison population has done time in foster care, the youth who are shuttled through the foster care systems of the 50 states – and thus at high risk of winding up in the juvenile justice system — are once again on the minds of women. Junior League women, to be exact. Though they may not wear badges or patrol cell blocks twirling billy clubs, these Junior Leaguers are intent on filling in the gaps created by absent parents, and advocating for those the system forgot.
In a variety of ways they are doing what they can, both to nurture self-confidence and positive decision-making that can sway a teenaged girl away from a life of crime, and, in the cases of those who’ve already been detained, developing in-detention programs custom-made for girls, a novel concept in a system dominated by men and boys and where violence and physical force prevail.
Jennie Krapf of the Junior League of Seattle is the current chair of Life Skills, a program that since 2005 has brought Junior League volunteers together to mentor adolescent, at-risk girls from all over King County. The program is made possible through a partnership with Treehouse, a non-residential facility that provides educational support services, funding for extra-curricular and summer activities, college and career planning, and clothing and supplies to children and teens in the foster care system.
“This is the age range that is typically forgotten,” said Krapf, who explained that most of the girls enrolled in the program are between 12 and 15 years of age. “Junior high and early high-school kids are the ones who have the fewest number of programs available to them. Everyone focuses on the little kids or the older high-school kids as they prepare to age out of the foster care system and, in some cases, apply to college.”
In semi-monthly gatherings, Junior League of Seattle members dispense lessons the girls are likely to have missed while bouncing around between foster homes – personal finances; dinner- party etiquette; the pitfalls of credit cards; parenthood; holiday shopping on a budget – while attempting to keep the experience informal and social. About 20 girls show up at each meeting, and many remain enrolled for more than a year.
Seattle League member Janelle Stewart recalled an occasion, right before Halloween, on which a foster care girl arrived at a meeting carrying a Sweet 16 balloon that she had purchased for herself because her “family” was not planning a celebration of her birthday the following day. Thinking on her feet, Stewart decided that she and a few other girls would transform the cookies, previously destined for Halloween decorations, into Sweet 16-themed cookies so that the birthday girl could bring them to school the next day for her friends.
“We were able to give her something small as she celebrated this big milestone in her life,” said Stewart. To date, some 150 girls have graduated out of the program.
The link between foster care and the juvenile justice system is this: The longer the time children spend in foster care, the more likely they are to fall prey to its dark side: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Once the abuse occurs, and self-esteem is compromised, young girls are more likely to drop out of school and engage in self-destructive and criminal behavior, including running away, cutting, using drugs, violence, committing sexual offenses, and otherwise. It’s then only a matter of time before they get caught and wind up behind bars.
“Germaine Lawrence is one step away from lock-up,” said Beth Llewellyn, President-Elect of the Junior League of Boston, and former project chair of the League’s work with Germaine Lawrence, a 100-bed residential facility that teaches coping skills and provides therapy and educational support to at-risk girls from all over Massachusetts.
“These are the girls nobody talks about,” she said, adding that 98 percent of the girls who reside there have been physically or sexually abused. “They’ve been in and out of foster care, they’ve been involved with gangs, they may have abused substances.”
In the five years she spent volunteering as a big sister in the facility’s Amiga program, Llewellyn mentored a young woman with an absentee mother who ultimately was accepted into college.
On Mother’s Day one year, when Llewellyn’s own mom was not in town, the two made plans to spend the day together. When they said goodbye to one another at the dorm, the girl handed Llewellyn an envelope and made her promise not to open it until she got into her car. When Llewellyn opened it, she found a note that said, “Thank you for being the closest thing to a mom I ever had.”
“It is not an understatement to say these girls have never had a positive role model,” she said. “This exposes you to a different world and gives you a fresh perspective. You realize that your worst day is never as bad as what they have to deal with.”
On the down-spiral to a life of crime, not all young women are lucky enough to encounter someone like Beth Llewellyn, Janelle Stewart, or Jennie Krapf. More than 14,000 girls are currently incarcerated in the U.S., according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and they are disproportionately more likely than boys to have been victims of physical and sexual abuse, which results in emotional and social difficulties. These difficulties are further compounded in a tough and traumatic prison environment that emphasizes control tactics such as physical force, restraint, and isolation rather than open communication, peer relations, and esteem-building. And now with dramatic cutbacks in funding for intervention and prevention programs across the country, the female juvenile offender population is on the rise.
Vicki Lopez Lukis is the Junior League’s poster child for juvenile justice. Incarcerated in a federal women’s camp in Coleman, Florida in 1999, Lukis, who is currently a sustaining member of the Junior League of the Palm Beaches and a former member of the Junior League of Miami, recognized the need for a more constructive, gender-sensitive approach toward women in prison and girls in detention. She successfully advocated on behalf of her fellow inmates for access to healthcare, family visits and education, among other types of basic rights.
A few years after her release, she found her cause in the Girl’s Advocacy Project (GAP), Florida’s only comprehensive initiative to serve girls in detention, and for which she now serves as executive director.
“Yes, the behavior of these girls is often egregious,” said Lukis. “But they are children behaving in response to short lives full of intensive trauma.
Predicated on the fundamentals of prevention, intervention, and education, the award-winning program aims to re-direct female juvenile offenders from repeating the cycle of crime and incarceration by providing them with social services while they are in the juvenile justice system — a writing workshop based on the work of playwright and activist Eve Ensler was one recent highlight — and educating juvenile justice authorities about how to handle girls during and after detention.
“Fifty percent of the adult population in detention served time in juvenile detention,” she said. “Juvenile detention is a breeding ground for adult prisons.”
Under Lukis’s leadership, GAP, which began in Miami in 1999, has expanded in large part because of development of community projects on the part of the Junior Leagues of Fort Myers, Greater Orlando and the Palm Beaches, to Fort Myers, Orlando, and West Palm Beach. It operates in partnership with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Junior League volunteers provide mentoring and presentations to girls in detention on issues pertinent to their lives. More importantly, their presence twice a month dispels the notion that only these young girls meet challenges and adversity in their lives. Junior Leaguers often share their personal stories about overcoming adversity and provide the necessary love, care and concern all young at-risk girls need while moving through difficult phases.
Lukis is also active in the Junior Leagues of Florida State Public Affairs Committee providing advocacy expertise gained during her years as a SPAC delegate and as a sustainer advisor to the executive committee.