01/24/2012

New Study Urges Closure of State Juvenile Girls Facilities

A new study released today urges the closure of the Alabama Department of Youth Services’ (DYS) Chalkville facility and the DYS-contracted Working on Womanhood (WOW) program. The study determined that girls held at these juvenile facilities, many of whom are the victims of abuse, would fare much better in their own communities, where they would receive better rehabilitative services.

“The Alabama Department of Youth Services should close this facility and instead invest in providing services within our communities,” said Ebony Howard, juvenile justice policy specialist at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “This would ensure better outcomes for these girls while keeping Alabama communities safe.”

The national juvenile justice and children’s services experts who reviewed the facilities met with service providers, advocates, court personnel, and DYS staff and leadership, and also conducted several interviews with girls currently held in these secure juvenile facilities.

They found that the girls are often victims of abuse by family members rather than perpetrators of serious crimes. The study reveals that the girls are low-risk, high-needs youth who have experienced multiple traumas – including sexual and/or physical abuse, multiple placements, a history of school failure, and in some instances, a history of self-injurious behavior. As a result of their experiences, they have difficulty trusting adults and forming relationships. 

“Many of the girls held in the Chalkville facility suffer from emotional disturbances due to their life experiences,” said James Tucker with the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. “These girls have talents and dreams, just like other children. Our juvenile justice facilities must provide children with the individualized services they need to cultivate their potential.”

The study notes that most girls at Chalkville appear to spend week after week isolated in their rooms even though studies show that programming for girls should be relationship-centered, trauma-informed, and emphasize praise rather than punishment in an emotionally safe environment. The study found that the aging Chalkville facility is incredibly costly to operate and consistently operates far below its capacity of 60 girls.

The study also recommends cancelling the University of Alabama’s contract for WOW, noting the program’s slow development. The study proposes developing two alternative types of programs that emphasize re-entry as well as family and community support.

Additional suggestions to improve services for Alabama girls in the juvenile justice system include:

  • Develop and pilot a strong transition/reentry role for Chalkville staff to support girls as they make a transition out of the facility.
  • Stimulate systems of care for girls in communities across the state.
  • Enhance DYS staff’s capacity and their expertise in serving delinquent girls and their families, and build public and private agency awareness of girls’ special needs.
  • Market and manage the change in DYS’s approach to serving girls.

“Alabama has a real opportunity here to build on the very successful reforms it has accomplished in the past three years,” said Robert Fleischner of the Center for Public Representation.

The study was commissioned by the SPLC, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) and Center for Public Representation (CPR).

Alabama has significantly improved its youth services since reforming its juvenile justice system some three years ago, but SPLC, ADAP and CPR believe that services for girls in the juvenile justice system warrant further attention. There is now an opportunity to create a statewide, locally run model system of care for girls so that Alabama can again demonstrate its commitment to a rehabilitative correctional approach to troubled youth.