What fuels the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline?

The sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline leaves youth highly vulnerable to the juvenile justice system, disproportionately affecting girls, gender expansive, trans and gender nonconconforming youth. And even moreso, youth of color.

illustration by Michele Abercrombie

To understand why victims of childhood trauma pose a higher risk of being placed in detention, researchers point to a phenomenon commonly referred to as the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.

Girls go behind bars for status offenses like skipping school, drinking alcohol and violating curfew. Studies say these actions are often driven by adverse childhood experiences, including sexual abuse, neglect, family dysfunction and mental illness, leaving many girls –– disproportionately girls of color –– susceptible to arrest and imprisonment.

“Sexual abuse is a primary predictor of criminalization in girls,” said Yasmin Vafa, the executive director of Rights4Girls in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of at-risk youth, particularly girls and gender-expansive youth.

In 2015, 81% of girls in South Carolina’s youth detentions said they’d experienced severe and repeated sexual abuse, according to “The Girls’ Story,” a report by Rights4Girls and The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

In the 26 years since the founding of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, executive director Jessica Nowlan said that of the 38,000 young people the center worked with, the overwhelming majority have suffered physical and sexual violence. 

The San Francisco nonprofit provides jobs, education, healing and a voice for system-impacted youth, even visiting facilities to assist kids prior to their release.   

“We are talking about young people who have very little power in terms of our society,” Nowlan said. “These are young people that have been pushed to the margins.”

Now 41, Nowlan spent much of her childhood at the mercy of systems she now works to reform. Addiction and abuse were among the adverse experiences Nowlan often witnessed in her childhood home, though she said the child welfare system was riddled with trauma of its own.    

By age 13, Nowlan was homeless in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.  

Shoplifting and parole violations fueled the 17 incarcerations in Nowlan’s past before she found the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Through the center’s work and healing programs, Nowlan broke away from the systemic cycle. 

A sense of belonging, a safe place to go or a person to confide in can be pivotal factors in a child’s life, forces that are strong enough to even deter them away from the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline, Nolan said.  

The pipeline part, it’s complicated. It’s not just ‘You get sexually assaulted at 16, you’re going to go to prison,’” said Danielle Arlanda Harris, a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University in Australia. “It’s being exposed to situations that make the likelihood of prison more possible.” 

Harris said the wide net cast by the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline over multiple vulnerable populations is what makes the phenomenon’s classification as a “pipeline” somewhat problematic. 

Difficult to recognize, escape or heal from, Harris said the pipeline is better represented as a colander. While not all youth impacted by sexual abuse will end up incarcerated, the chance at-risk kids receive the help they need to before passing through the strainer and falling into the system is unlikely, she said. 

The psychological impact of repeated sexual trauma during pivotal developmental years is what makes the abuse to prison pipeline sometimes hard to recognize and can occur in tandem with other adverse childhood experiences. 

Francine Sherman, a clinical professor of law at Boston College Law School and co-author of study “Gender Injustice,” said girls with histories of abuse are often dually-involved with the welfare and juvenile justice systems.

According to the 2015 report, 47% of girls involved with child-welfare were referred to court for status offense charges.

 “It’s a whole lot less about the girl’s initial behavior, than it is a colossal failure of our response,” Sherman said.  

Sherman noted that systems like welfare and education are in place to provide solutions for at-risk youth, but often fail to address the root of their trauma and behavior. This lack of understanding can push children further down the path of arrest or incarceration.

“Girls’ trauma is different. Girls’ responses are different,” said Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, an advocacy group that addresses disparities of race and class nationwide. 

Advocates like Epstein push for a more gender-responsive justice reform that addresses the needs and driving risk factors for girls who’ve been led into the system, especially policy that supports low-income girls and girls of color.

“It’s important to recognize the dual effects of girls, race and gender in examining how she’s perceived and treated and responded to in our public systems,” Epstein said.

While the driving forces behind the sexual abuse to prison pipeline tends to target girls, gender expansive, transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, experts and advocates notice and acknowledge that race heightens these risks even further.

“White girls and girls of color share certain challenges, but they’re also very unique. Girls of color and low-income girls are the voices that are most consistently absent from the conversation,” Epstein said.

Minority girls are at an increasingly high risk of sex trafficking and arrest, due to racial disparities in socioeconomic status. Even more, black youth overrepresented in the justice system, accounting for 53% percent of all prostitution arrests, according to a 2017 data report by The U.S. Department of Justice. 

“Incarceration and detention [are] never appropriate for children, particularly girls, because of their unique pathways into the system, because an overwhelming majority of girls behind bars are survivors of sexual abuse,” Vafa said.

Often the needs of incarcerated victims of rape and abuse go untreated and ignored while in detention, leaving kids at a heightened risk of revictimization. 

Girls tend to lash out in response to retriggering events while incarcerated, pushed further into the justice system through a process that Vafa refers to as “bootstrapping.”

“It is retraumatizing to incarcerate them,” Vafa said. “Things like being forced to strip and cavity searches…constantly having your movements controlled by others…being subjected to really harmful techniques like isolation and solitary confinement.”

Girls disproportionately represent 76% of all “prostitution” charges, despite being younger than the legal age of consent, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Survivor advocate Withelma “T” Ortiz Pettigrew said harmful conditions inside of many juvenile detentions often mirror the environment that sex traffickers subject their victims to.

“Many times when they’re put in a detention facility, it’s almost like a dog in a kennel,” Pettigrew said.  

Pettigrew, along with Rights4Girls, launched the “No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute” campaign in 2016 that successfully eradicated the terminology “child prostitute” in the media. For youth justice advocates and survivors, the change is big step towards understanding young victims of sex trafficking.

“It changed the idea that these are willing participants, it changed the idea that they were complicit in and in agreement,” Pettigrew said. “It allowed people to understand that this is something that’s happening to them, not something that they’re willingly participating in.”

In doing this, Vafa said these systems would have to acknowledge and address the intersectionality of girls who are impacted by the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline. 

“It’s really a matter of getting systems to understand the connection between childhood trauma, abuse and incarceration,” Vafa said.

Haillie Parker is a San Diego native and a master’s student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. After earning a bachelor’s degree in film from ASU in 2015, she then worked as an actor for the Walt Disney Company. Since joining the Cronkite School, Parker has reported stories of everyday people — stories rooted in emotion and human connection. She has interviewed psychic healers in Sedona, Arizona, and traveled to one of the southernmost parts of Panama to report on the struggles of pregnant migrants on their way to the U.S.

Chloe Johnson is a senior studying multimedia journalism at the School of Global Journalism and Mass Communication at Morgan State University. Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Johnson is an anchor for Morgan News Now at MSU. She also serves as the feature news editor for Morgan State’s student-led newspaper, the MSU Spokesman, where she was previously campus news editor. In 2019, she reported on the opioid epidemic in Baltimore County as a part of the “StoryBridge” project, a collaborative project with MSU and West Virginia University. In 2018, Johnson studied in Berlin, looking at the political influence of the European Union.