Raven has spent much of her teenage life in the juvenile corrections system. Numerous stints in county detention centers, followed each time by months of parole, have taught her what life is like “inside the fence.”
But her experiences at the county level did not prepare the 15-year-old for life at the Black Canyon School.
Raven, who was sent to the state facility four months ago by a judge after she violated her parole, said the programs and staff at Black Canyon have taught her to control her emotions, take responsibility for her decisions and build positive relationships with adults.
She admits that she would often get angry and act out during her times at the county facilities, but she is confident those days are behind her.
“I used to disrespect a lot of the people in the detention centers,” she said. “But there I felt like an inmate, like a captive. It made me very angry. Here, I feel like an actual person.”
Stories like Raven’s have become common among the residents of Black Canyon School, the state’s only state-run juvenile facility for girls. The implementation of new programs almost three years ago has transformed the school and the lives of its approximately 60 residents, school officials said.
“Before these programs, we would have 20-plus emergency calls a shift,” said Ron Boehn, a supervisor at Black Canyon School. “Now we have at most two incidents a day. Some days we don’t have any problems at all.”
The starting place for the change at Black Canyon was a simple realization: Boys and girls are different.
Girls and boys both enter the state’s juvenile system after multiple stints in county detention facilities. The girls at Black Canyon are found to be criminally delinquent by a judge before being referred to the school.
Historically, juvenile centers at the state and county levels across the nation have been designed to address the needs and physiological development of boys, according to a report by the Child Welfare League.
“No one was intentionally excluding the needs of the girls,” said Kelli Warren, director of clinical services for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. “The assumption was just that what was good for one was good for the other. But there is a lot of research now that shows that girls need something different.”
One major difference creating a unique set of challenges is girls’ likelihood of having been sexually abused.
More than 90 percent of girls entering the juvenile justice system in the United States report that they had been victims of sexual abuse, according to the Child Welfare League. In Arizona, that number could amount to more than 14,500 girls. There were 15,843 girls in the state’s juvenile justice system in fiscal 2008, according to the Arizona Supreme Court.
The prevalence of sexual, physical and emotional abuse among female juvenile delinquents makes it hard for girls to trust the adults at Black Canyon, Warren said.
“These girls are haunted by their past,” Boehn said.
Warren said the girls often experience “transference,” which is a physiological phenomenon that causes them to redirect their anger and fear of men who sexually abused them toward the male officers or staff members at the detention center.
“When girls are sexually abused they don’t see the male officer as being Officer Smith,” she said. “They see him as the father that raped her or the uncle that raped her.”
Past sexual trauma can make it difficult for girls to develop the necessary relationships with counselors, officers and mentors at the detention facility, Warren said.
“When I first got here, I thought that they didn’t care about my problems,” said Tamika, a 14-year-old who has been at Black Canyon since December. “It made me not care too.”
One of the first things counselors and officers try to teach girls entering the facility is how to develop healthy relationships with men.
“We are trying to teach them that they can have a relationship with a man that is not sexual,” Boehn said.
Coreen Talbot, a case manager at Black Canyon, said redefining male-female relationships has been the most beneficial element of the gender-specific programs.
“The girls are taught that they are in control of their bodies,” she said. “Many of these girls come in here saying they hate being a girl. It is empowering for these girls to realize that there is more to being a girl than what they have always known.”
The majority of gender-specific rehabilitation programs implemented by the state since 2006 are designed to help girls develop relationships with the staff and officers at the facility so that they feel comfortable enough to relate and deal with past experiences.
“We have the ability to provide care for everyone,” Warren said. “But we can’t help them if they don’t tell us what is wrong.”
As a rule, Juvenile Corrections makes an effort to staff programs designed for girls with as many female officers and staff members as possible, Warren said. But a shortage of female detention officers makes the presence of male staff members inevitable.
The federal government first recognized the need for gender-specific services in detention facilities in 1992 with the implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which required states to organize alternative treatment and rehabilitation programs for female offenders.
By 2005, though, most states, including Arizona, had failed to design the kind of comprehensive transformation of the male-based detention system that was required by the law.
“We were still finding that a lot of the girls were having to be restrained and confined more than we would like because of violent behavior,” Warren said. “We knew our approach was not effective.”
Juvenile Corrections hired a national consultant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention in 2006 to conduct an assessment of the few existing gender-specific services and provide the department with recommendations on how to properly comply with federal law.
The assessment, like the gender-specific programs that sprung from it, was funded entirely by a federal Juvenile Accountability Block Grant, which has been awarded to the department annually since 1998. The most recent grant awarded to the department provided $45,800 for the development of gender-based programs at Black Canyon School.
The department rolled out the state’s new gender-sensitive corrections regulations in the summer of 2006. The initial steps were designed to account for the physical differences of girls and boys.
Changes included allowing girls to increase their shower time up to 10 minutes from five, shave their legs more than once a week and keep sanitary napkins in their rooms rather than having to always ask for them. Pregnant girls were provided with maternity clothes in the place of oversized T-shirts and sweatpants they had been required to wear for decades.
“They feel like girls now,” said Boehn, the Black Canyon supervisor. “B
efore they felt like inmates.”
The department also created a Girl’s Transformation Team, a component of which allowed the girls living at Black Canyon to vote for the types of career training they would like to see offered at the facility.
“We used to just walk in and say ‘this is what you are going to work on today,’” Boehn said. “But we have started allowing the girls to choose what they will work on.”
Black Canyon now has cosmetology and culinary arts programs, in addition to the standard high school courses.
During a graduation ceremony held last year, 20 girls at the Phoenix facility received high school diplomas, many with additional credits in cosmetology that could be put towards certification in the field after being released.
“They are also teaching us to write resumes and act in interviews,” said Tawana, a 17-year-old who arrived at Black Canyon three months ago. “If I hadn’t learned that here, I wouldn’t have learned it anywhere.”
The number of girls to earn their GED certificates has continued to increase. An additional 9.8 percent of girls have earned a GED so far in fiscal 2009 over fiscal 2008.
“These programs give them the opportunity to see themselves as a successful young person,” said Thomas Potterf, a recreational therapist at Black Canyon School.
He has seen the benefits of developing healthy relationships in the girls.
“One girl told me she was afraid to play softball with the other girls because her boyfriend used to throw balls at her when he was angry,” Potterf said. “That trauma will have to be addressed, but it is great that she is comfortable enough to say this is what happened.” ≠