San Diego Union-Tribune

Experts look at ways to cut crime by girls

Summit addresses increase in arrests

By Jeff McDonald
November 23, 2002
San Diego Union-Tribune

They are statistics that worry even the most seasoned professionals: Arrests for violent crimes committed by girls in San Diego County are up more than 100 percent in the past 10 years.

Not only that, overall arrests among women under 22 climbed 8 percent between 1980 and 1999, while the number of men taken into custody over the same period dropped 18 percent.

The trends prompted a group of local experts to organize "What's Up with Girls?" a one-day summit aimed at exploring ways to lower the number of young women entering the juvenile justice system.

Hosted by the Girls' Issues Group, a collection of professional educators, probation officers, volunteers and others, the series of workshops and keynote addresses was held yesterday at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego.

Nearly 500 nurses, social workers, family counselors and others attended the summit, where child-development specialists outlined the often conflicting roles faced by young women growing up in 21st century America.

"Girls today are going to be the mothers and leaders of tomorrow," said Ashley Gardner, an organizer of the summit, which the group plans to make an annual event. "Once a girl gets on the road to Juvenile Hall, it's a short step to Las Colinas."

Speakers at the event detailed entire societal and governmental structures that they said are skewed in favor of men and boys – the family, the workplace, schools and even the courts.

Without deeper understanding of all that being a woman in this day and age entails, more girls may continue to end up pregnant, in jail or on probation, experts said.

Barbara Owen, a criminology professor at California State University Fresno who opened the summit, said girls take their cues not only from friends and siblings, but largely from their parents.

In households where mothers are subjected to violence, mistreatment or a general lack of respect, daughters typically assume that sort of behavior is normal, Owen said.

"If you have a mom who's in jeopardy . . . that becomes your definition about how women are supposed to be treated," she said.

Owen said girls are vexed with a continuing stream of mixed messages – by peers, by their family and, especially, by media. She displayed a portrait of pop singer Britney Spears, wearing very little and grasping a snake across her shoulders.

"What do you think this tells a 12-year-old girl?" Owen asked. "We need to understand these images."

Studies have shown that boys are granted much greater latitude in growing up, she said. They leave earlier and stay out later; they travel farther from home; they do more in the time spent away from home; and they are excused more frequently when they get into trouble.

"There are different definitions about what's appropriate for girls," Owen said.

Government leaders should develop gender-specific policies to address the needs of girls and young women, Owen said.

They also should create local and state programs that target at-risk girls, and fund them appropriately, and conduct more research into what leads young women into delinquency.

"The most potent weapon we have in improving the lives of girls is the notion of being an advocate," Owen told the audience.

Ute Powell, a public health nurse who works with pregnant teen-agers in Chula Vista, said she would incorporate many of the recommendations she heard yesterday into her caseload.

"I should research their background," Powell said of her patients. "Maybe they need more counseling, rather than just parenting classes."

Sarah Taylor, a director with the San Dieguito Boys & Girls Club, said the summit would help her recognize and attack some of the stereotypes young women encounter in their programs.

"Hopefully, I can implement some of these strategies," she said.

The Girls' Issues Group is planning a two-day summit for 2003 that will focus on the influence of media in the development of young women. For more information, call (619) 690-2805 or log onto

Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585;

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.