Young girls and the road to hell

Karen Kissane reports on prize-winning research on juvenile girls and crime in New South Wales.

JUDY LOST her mother, through no fault of her own, and then lost control of her life. She spent the rest of her childhood living between the homes of two related foster families. By the time she was a teenager she was a regular in the Children’s Court, for being uncontrollable, destitute and exposed to moral danger. She had been raped by men in both the foster families, from which she kept trying to escape. The courts and welfare officers knew this but still sent her back to one of the families.

After taking a near-fatal overdose, she was committed to a state institution for the third time. Judy escaped the system literally: her file closed only when she disappeared after absconding from the youth detention centre.

Her story is told in the newly published book `Offending Girls’ (Allen & Unwin, $21.95), by Dr Kerry Carrington, a sociology lecturer at NSW’s University of Newcastle. The book is the result of Carrington’s research into more than 1000 cases of girls who had records with the NSW Juvenile Criminal Index. Dr Carrington had sought to prove the feminist thesis that offending girls are punished not for real crimes but for being sexually active and in other ways “unfeminine”. What she found, instead, is that girls were criminalised not just for their gender but for their poverty, their race and their position as wards of the state.

“The major predictor of whether you became officially classified as a delinquent has been whether you were abused as a child and ended up in the child welfare system,” Carrington says. She asks why Judy, a state ward, ended up in detention rather than in a house for incest survivors.

Carrington says feminist writers have wrongly suggested that it is always male figures like magistrates and police officers who overuse the law to deal with difficult girls. “What’s much harder for feminists to confront is that it is mostly women who are social workers and psychologists who are doing things like this to girls like Judy, in their capacity as expert witnesses before the courts.”
Carrington does not dismiss all of the feminist analysis; she agrees that female delinquents are particularly vulnerable to the old- fashioned view of women and girls as “guardians of our morality”.

Judy was once incarcerated after problems including an incident on a school bus where boys stole her comb and refused to give it back unless she bared her breasts, which she did. Carrington writes: “It was her sexuality and not that of the boys which was considered central to the incident. By being represented as an evil seductress and a temptation to naturally playful young boys, Judy was made responsible for the sexist behavior of the boys … In relation to Judy’s experience of incest, it was her sexuality and not that of the three men in two different foster families who sexually abused her over a period of about eight years which was scrutinised, moralised and subject to court action.”

Aboriginal girls were even more likely to be treated this way.

Carrington found cases of girls being charged as a result of hanging about in parks, streets and shopping centres. “The mere public display of the black female body was sufficient in itself to be regarded as `harmful to the local community’ – an often quoted phrase in court reports.” One sexually active girl was taken into custody “because of fears that respectable parents and citizens of the town would be upset at the prospect of white boys being seduced by an Aboriginal girl who hangs around on the street.”
In 1991, Kerry Carrington’s work, originally written for her doctorate, won the Jean Martin Award for the year’s best PhD in the Australian social sciences. It was a triumph for a woman who had graduated from the juvenile justice system herself with a major in truancy. Carrington is the youngest of six children and the only one to complete school and go to university. The difference between her and other girls like her, she says, is that she had a probation officer who was determined to keep her out of the system. He largely succeeded, and she laughed to find herself spending a year in a girl’s reform school during her research. She worked in an old cell as she read through 8000 documents.

Carrington chose this area of research because “I wanted to turn my anger into something positive. Back then, everything was presented to me in terms of benevolence – `This is going to help you’ – and, of course, it had the exact opposite effect. I don’t deny the good intentions of a lot of people, but good intentions don’t necessarily have good effects. In this work I looked not at the rhetoric or intentions, but the effect the interventions had on the lives of the clients.” She was shocked to find that one fifth of those who became state wards travelled the fast track from care to detention.

BY THE standards imposed in many of the cases she researched, Carrington argues, most teenagers are `delinquent’. At some point they are involved in under-age smoking, drinking or sex, or commit offences such as shoplifting or truancy. The difference between those who finished up in detention for such “petty behaviors” and those who went undetected – or at least unpunished – was poverty. Carrington analysed the cases by local government area and found that most came from Housing Commission areas or Aboriginal communities.

Too often, children were taken from families in which they had never been hurt or abused but in which the material standard of living seemed inadequate to middle-class eyes. Children were removed to punish mothers who failed to cooperate with welfare officers’ diagnoses of, and recommendations for, their children’s problems, or who failed to measure up themselves: “They didn’t like mothers who went to the TAB. They didn’t like women who sought leisure activities in pubs … (When you are poor) you are vulnerable to this very petty supervision. Welfare workers come in and count how many bits of food there are in the house, how many children there are to a room. You can easily be classified as a dysfunctional family.”
In fact, Carrington found more evidence of sexual abuse in foster homes than in natural ones. “One of the foster girls actually had a baby to her foster father. She was hidden away in one of those institutions for pregnant mothers and then her baby was taken away from her and made a state ward. It was always the wrong people being punished.”
The case-file documents she found hardest to bear were the begging letters from parents, asking just to be allowed to see their children.

Some were pathetically eager to please “the welfare” but had no clear idea of how they were found wanting. Truck driver Mr Drake and his wife applied to get back their daughter Maree, who had been taken away because the family was destitute, partly because of Mr Drake’s drinking problem.

Wrote the district officer: “Mr Drake seems to spend most of his time trying to make his wife and son behave in the way `the welfare’ expects a good family to behave … Mrs Drake says she is made to scrub at the clothes until her knuckles are red and raw because her husband … insists that a good family must have white sheets …

Recommendation: that Maree is not returned to her parents.”
Since Carrington made her study, the situation in New South Wales has improved. Children on criminal charges are dealt with separately to those in welfare matters, and some `status offences’ such as uncontrollability have been removed from the books (although others, such as `frequenting a public place’ have been reinstated by the conservative government). The number of girls in care proceedings has dropped significantly as a result. But she still fears that at least one in five of those taken into care end up in the justice system, and worries about the unscrutinised power exerted by the welfare officers who advise judges, and the privacy of the decisions being made in closed children’s courts.

“The shield of invisibility did prevent the urge for change in the system,” Kerry Carrington says. “There needs to be more research to render the system public, and the department should take up that role itself, setting up long-term evaluation …. It’s a real human rights issue, the vulnerability of clients to forms of power which are totally unchecked.”

First published in The Age.