WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What landed Mia Paz in jail was the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child.
For three years, the Miami girl was abused by her uncle, a trauma she dared not speak of. Instead she ran.
“I had so much fear, I didn’t know how to manage it, and I lashed out. I ran from police until my first charge was for resisting arrest at age 15,” Paz said.
“I was arrested again at age 16. The police officer he sat on my back and he lashed my feet to my hands. What that policeman did, it felt not much different from what my uncle did. I could speak about the police, but I couldn’t talk about my uncle, the fear was deep inside.”
One in four girls will experience some form of sexual violence before the age of 18, and without care and support, the trauma goes unrecognised and many of these girls become truants and runaways who end up in prison, according to a new report.
Paz, now 29 and a law student in Florida, recounted how her childhood sexual trauma paved the way toward incarceration at the launch on Thursday of the report, “Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”.
Compiled by The Human Rights Projects for Girls and Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, it calls for an overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system to identify and treat sexual abuse trauma that lies at the root of victimised girls’ arrests, particularly girls of colour.
“Girls are the fastest growing numbers in the juvenile justice system, and it’s not because they are becoming more violent or gang members. It is because they are sexually abused,” said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Human Rights Project for Girls and an author of the report.
While data is incomplete on the full extent of the problem, one U.S. Justice Department report found that 31 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have been sexually abused, more than four times the rate for boys.
Some states report alarmingly high rates. In South Carolina, for example, 81 percent of girls said they were victims of sexual abuse and in Oregon 76 percent.
Girls of colour are even more likely to be thrown in jail than whites, the report noted. African American girls are 14 percent of the general population, but 33 percent of girls detained and committed.
One contributing factor to the higher arrest rate could be that lower income families cannot afford mental health counselling for sexual abuse, and African Americans generally are poorer than whites, it said.
Sex trafficking is the most glaring example of how race, poverty and sexual abuse trap girls in a cycle of abuse and imprisonment, the report said.
Girls who “act out” are placed in a child welfare system that does not recognise sexual abuse as an underlying cause of their problems. Traffickers are known to prey on homes where vulnerable girls are placed and lure them into the commercial sex trade.
Arrested for prostitution, the girls are thrown into jail - punished as perpetrators, rather than supported as victims. And 59 percent of all sex trafficking arrests are African Americans and mostly girls, Saar said.
Once inside, a punitive environment can retrigger trauma and violent behaviour, which leads to even harsher sentences for victims of childhood abuse, the report said.
Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Alisa Tang; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org