“Girl Trouble” is a video documentary of the lives of three young girls taking place in a span of four years. These three girls – Shangra, Stephanie and Sheila – shared several commonalities. All girls had experienced being part of the San Francisco juvenile system at one time or another. All three had also worked part time for the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD) whose director, Lateefah Simon was herself a victim of poverty and had experienced brushes with the law. Most important of all, all three girls come from poor and/or violent family background. Fortunately for these girls, the end turned out better for them.
Shangra had no stable home life as she was raised by a mother who has a problem with drug addiction and the family was living in extreme in poverty that they lived in shelter houses and on the streets most of the time. She is devoted to her mother who was already on methadone and would do anything for her even selling cocaine to pay for her medication and get both of them on the streets. Although already working with the CWYD at that time, she was caught dealing with drugs when she was 16, and when she was caught the third time, she was sentenced to an 8 pm curfew any violation of which will result in a weekend lockdown. On her 17th birthday, she violated the curfew and ran away to evade repercussions. Upon her arrest three months later, she was sentenced to 8 months in a residential drug program at the Walden House.
Shangra’s case is classic case of a person who became a victim of circumstances. Living in extreme poverty with a mother debilitated by drug addiction, she had to fend not only for herself but also for her. With the help and patience of the people around her, Shangra completed her probation program with flying colors. Her case proves that poverty and bad family life can mess up a young person’s mind, but given support and chance, he or she can be rehabilitated. It is fortunate that the juvenile justice system stepped into the picture before permanent damage could be done to Shangra, but unfortunately, it also showed that government failed to assist her while she was growing up in the care of a substance abuser that led her to live an unstable life. In addition, as the CWYD representative pointed out, the structured rules of the juvenile justice system is sometimes impractical for girls, such as an 8 pm curfew. Researchers have pointed out the gender bias in the country’s juvenile justice system (JJIE 2015)
Stephanie’s delinquency stemmed from a very bad experience in growing up surrounded by parents who were suffering from substance abuse and destructiveness. Stephanie’s father was a war veteran who turned to heroine and died of overdose when she was 4 or 5. Amid a violent family background, Stephanie grew up angry, defensive and defiant. She was just 13 years old when she was first arrested for trespassing, and had committed a host of other offenses, such as shoplifting, trespassing, truancy, and battery. She was adjudged beyond parental control causing a judge to order her to a group home placement. To evade the order, she adopted an alias and lived on the streets. At 16, she became a mother after impregnated by her 19-year old boyfriend. Violence continued to hound her when her boyfriend took to beating her after their son’s birth. Gradually, however, Stephanie started to get out of the rot she was in, turned herself in, submitted to probation, went to college and broke up with her boyfriend.
Stephanie’s case proves that maturity and motherhood can change a person’s perspectives. While at the start of the documentary, she exhibited quite an attitude, was very defiant and was giving off this tough gal image, at the end of the documentary she was this sober, contemplative person with a very sound and deep outlook of things and life. Maturity does turn a once juvenile delinquent into a gem. However, the first judge’s order to commit her to a group home placement because of a status offense - beyond parental control – seemed ill-advised. Today, there is a move towards deinstitutionalization of status offenders (Neubauer & Meinhold 2013, p. 2830
Sheila seemed to be the most problematic of the three and had the most entanglement with the criminal justice system. Although she belonged to a huge family, she seemed to be the loneliest of the three, even attempting to commit suicide at one time. While the two other were busy grappling and fighting with life, Sheila seemed to have stepped into a quicksand which continued to suck her deeper and deeper. From selling drugs in the streets, she graduated to discharging a gun at her very own younger brother. This was not surprising however, as she had been exposed to violence all her life as her father and brothers were constant figures of jails and prisons in San Francisco. Fortunately for her, her lawyer and the district attorney’s office worked together to give her a pass that made her evade what could have been a very long prison sentence.
Sheila’s story illustrates the classic story of lost children of families who grew up living under a persistent violent atmosphere. Children of such families often do not stand a chance because they grow up wounded without knowing what hit them in the first place. It is evident that in Sheila’s case, the juvenile justice system failed. Although the wife and children were battered by a violent father with substance abuse problems, the system did not step in to provide relief and assistance to children to prevent them from growing up battered and lost. As has been cited, the country’s juvenile justice system is ill-equipped for girls because of its failure to implement reforms geared to meet the needs of this sector of society (Watson and Edelman 2012, p. 1).
The success of the Walden House with respect to Shangra and Sheila seemed to prove the claim that smaller residential homes are more effective than big juvenile detention institutions (Neubauer & Meinhold 2013, p. 284) perhaps because it would allow a more intensive supervision of the juveniles. However, being successful inside does not mean being successful outside of the home and as Sheila and Shangra stated they did not want to go out of the home because they feared that they may not fare as well outside as they were inside.
JJIE (2015). Key Issues. Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Retrieved from http://jjie.org/hub/racial-ethnic-fairness/key-issues/
Leban, L. and Sjako, L. (2005). Girl Trouble. United States: Critical Images.
Neubauer, D. and Meinhold, S. (2013). Judicial Process: Law, Courts and Politics in the United States. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage.
Watson, L. and Edelman, P. (2012). Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States. Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Retrieved from http://www.law.georgetown.edu/academics/centers-institutes/poverty- inequality/upload/jds_v1r4_web_singles.pdf