Helping Girls in NYC’s Juvenile Justice System: An Interview with Shabnam Javdani

Adolescent girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population, but according to the U.S. Department of Justice, there’s a lack of effective interventions to help them.

Steinhardt’s Shabnam Javdani, assistant professor of applied psychology, was awarded more than $645,000 by the National Institute of Justice to evaluate an intervention called ROSES – Resilience, Opportunity, Safety, Education, Strength – and measure its effectiveness with girls in the juvenile justice system. She is partnering with the Metro Center and the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, Division of Youth and Family Justice.

In a randomized controlled trial, Javdani will follow 300 girls – half participating in ROSES, half not – and will collect data about their mental health, recidivism and offenses, including violent and drug offenses. Her goal to measure the effectiveness of ROSES and identify key strategies for reducing crime among the girls.

Despite that the number of crimes by girls is growing, little attention seems to be paid to adolescent girls in the juvenile justice system. Why is this?
There are a few reasons for this. First, girls have been historically underrepresented in research on juvenile justice because – decades ago – they did not make up a large proportion of arrested and incarcerated youth. For this reason, they were termed the “invisible few.” We simply did not know what caused them to become system involved, and what types of programming (if any) worked for girls. In the last several decades, girls’ arrest and incarceration rates have increased – by over 200% for certain offenses. We actually do not know what part of this spike is due to changes in policy or changes in girls’ behavior – it is likely a combination of both. However, our research has not caught up and, all too often, we apply models of delinquency programming developed for boys to girls’ lives. What we find is that we are not very good at curbing girls’ system involvement – once they are in the justice system, they remain there for years and “age in” to the adult criminal justice system. We think of crime and behaviors associated with it as a male enterprise, and this limits our understanding of why girls engage in these types of behaviors, and how we can prevent or intervene to reduce girls’ risky behaviors and system involvement.

What exactly does ROSES do to help girls in the juvenile justice system?
At its core, ROSES is a community-based advocacy program that aims to increase girls’ access to resources. Justice-involved girls are paired with a highly trained paraprofessional advocate who works with or on behalf of each girl for 10 hours per week for about 10 weeks. ROSES has an explicitly focus on girls’ strengths, is delivered exclusively in girls’ natural communities, and is directed by the girls’ themselves – in other words, girls get to decide what goals they want to work. This model of intervention is also in keeping with trauma-informed approaches that provide consistent opportunities for girls to engage in decision making about their own lives. Through the program, girls work on a multitude of different need areas that include goals as diverse as getting a job, completing their terms of juvenile probation, applying to college, obtaining independent housing, accessing healthcare, and cultivating creative goals. Thus, because my and others’ research on girls’ offending suggests that girls’ engage in risky behaviors when they experience limited opportunities in resource poor environments, ROSES targets girls’ opportunities directly to reduce their risky behavior.

What are you hoping to learn from this study?
In the pilot phase of this intervention, we learned that that ROSES indeed increases girls’ access to resources and reduces mental health risk (e.g., depression, anger), risky behavior (e.g., violence, substance use), and increases self efficacy and resilience. However, this study was conducted with a small cohort of 50 girls and we did not have a comparison control group.

One of the key goals of this larger study is to examine the extent to which participation in the ROSES program is linked, in a causal way, to reductions in risk and improvements in health and mental health. Thus, we will follow 150 girls randomly assigned to ROSES over a period of one year and compare them with 150 girls who are receiving services they typically receive in the justice system. One of the exciting aspects of this study is to examine the extent to which a program that is largely about changing girls’ contexts can influence their individual risk and health profiles, and reduce their justice system involvement.