Where the girls are

One ma'am.

Two ma'am.

Three ma'am.

Four ma'am.

A line of girls in blue scrubs counts off as its members head through a heavy metal door to their cinder-block dorm. They walk in silent, single file, arms behind them, right hands grasping left elbows. They are white and black, short and tall. They are the wards of the Florida Institute for Girls, the state's first maximum-security facility for young women.

Five ma'am.

Six ma'am.

Nothing in their youthful faces, their slouches, their quiet shuffles suggests violence or victimization. But their statistics don't lie. Among the first 10 girls that pass, the rough odds are that seven are here because they committed multiple felonies. The average institute resident has been arrested 13 times. Two out of every 10 wound up here because they failed in or ran away from a different program.

Seven ma'am.

Eight ma'am.

Five or six either have a parent in jail or one who has done time. Seven were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Eight were beaten or raped, or both, before they got here.

Nine ma'am.

Eight have a mental disorder. Two are mentally retarded or learning disabled.

Ten ma'am.

The grim count points to a failure somewhere in these girls' lives -- a failure by their families, their schools, their communities, by a juvenile justice system that couldn't turn them around after their first arrest. They are now so far gone, the courts see them as a danger not only to others but also to themselves.

This is their -- and the state's -- last chance.

The Florida Institute for Girls, or FIG, huddles behind a towering chain-link fence just past a collection of bland industrial buildings on Fairgrounds Road in West Palm Beach. It opened in April 2000 with 50 maximum-security beds and added another 50 beds last year. It operates at a cost of $5.4 million a year. Judges sentence girls from ages 13 to 18 to serve from one to three years at the institute, which is one of only three maximum-security facilities for teen-age females in the country.

Catherine Arnold, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, says the state built the institute so that judges and prosecutors could "apply appropriate consequences within the juvenile system."

Florida is one of 15 states that lets prosecutors decide whether to try and punish those under 18 as adults. Indeed, prosecutors have used this latitude in a campaign to get tough on juvenile crime. The year the institute opened, Florida held more teens in adult jails than did any other state in the nation.

The institute represents the Department of Juvenile Justice's last attempt to head off those adult jail stays by expanding the number of lock-ups where teens still can be treated as juveniles.

But make no mistake: This clearly is a jail. While FIG works to address its inmates' needs through mental-health treatment and education, it does so behind electronically locked doors and within a chain-link-and-razor-wire perimeter. Girls are locked alone in their 6-by-6-foot rooms each night. Looming fences, prison-style uniforms, room inspections, pat-downs and head counts are a way of life. The harsh surroundings and tough discipline satisfy Florida's juvenile prosecutors and judges, who would be more likely to sentence more girls as adults without FIG as an option.

Still, experts are skeptical it qualifies as an appropriate choice.

"A vast majority `of the offenders` can be handled in a less-restrictive environment," says Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at the Boston College School of Law. "There's no evidence that highly secure programs reduce long-term recidivism."

Treatment alternatives for girls address the underlying conditions that preceded their descent into the juvenile system and recognize that girls develop differently than boys. Within Florida's juvenile justice system, statistics show that girls are three times more likely than boys to have been victims of sexual abuse. They are more likely to come from dysfunctional families and to suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem.

In a 1999 study, 70 percent of girls in moderate- and high-risk residential programs in Florida reported being the victim of either physical or sexual abuse. Seventy-five percent had run away from home. Just over half had attempted suicide or reported having suicidal thoughts.

"Girls' entry into the juvenile justice system is paved by a road of prior victimization," says Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of PACE Center for Girls Inc., which operates 19 prevention programs for young women in Florida, including one in Orlando.

Girls often run away to escape physical and sexual abuse. They take drugs to self-medicate for depression or trauma. They become prostitutes to support themselves on the run. They escape or violate parole to avoid home. To many, defiance means survival.

Juvenile courts sentence girls to residential correction for less serious offenses than boys. The courts are significantly more likely to incarcerate girls for violating court orders or parole.

Yet, the prison system has not been equipped well to deal with young women. According to research done for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, maximum-security facilities are mostly designed to deal with dangerous male adult offenders, not female teen-agers. The report's author, Leslie Acoca, writes that, for girls, this type of environment "is at best developmentally inappropriate. At worst, it will further hinder adolescent girl inmates from re-entering Florida communities emotionally and economically stable as adult women and parents."

PACE's Ravoira agrees. "Large institutional care is not necessarily the best alternative." She supports intensive, community-based programs that she says are designed to better meet girls' needs and better equipped to address their mental-health problems.

Jacqueline Layne, director of Florida Institute for Girls, has read the research on female juvenile delinquents. And she reads it differently.

"The PACE people all say you could do it better if you did it a different way, and they need to be given more hugs and they need to be in a warm, nurturing environment," she says. "We get them ready for that. These girls aren't going to be able to survive in that kind of environment."

When 14-year-old Amanda landed at FIG two years ago on a series of battery charges, her arms and face were ripped up. She was a self-mutilator, a survivor of years of rape by a family member. She refused to speak. The staff had to restrain her physically to stop her from cutting herself. They worked with her and she started to talk. She was released from the institute last year, free of scars. At FIG, this is a success story.

"Did that girl need warm hugs?" says Layne. "No."

"We literally get girls that don't understand what to do with a sanitary napkin," she adds. "Nobody wants to know about those kinds of girls. They don't begin to comprehend what it's like to have a 250-pound, pissed-off girl coming at you. They don't see those things, whereas we deal with them day in and day out."

Most of FIG's girls have been in and out, back and forth in the juvenile system while their crimes -- and most likely their problems -- worsened. They are now in the deep end.

"It's not my fault they got here," says Layne. "All I'm trying to do is fix it."

In a break before lunch, girls drift and chatter in small groups around two cement tables in their dormitory common area. The walls are bare except for a list of AA's 12 Steps handwritten in large red letters. Chipped institutional-blue paint covers the concrete floor. Outside the locked dorm door, across the hall, a sealed surveillance room tracks girls' movement through the facility.

FIG focuses on helping girls get hold of their behavior. Girls enter the program with a handbook, a Bible, a blank journal, rubber sandals and institute-issued clothes. If they want more, they have to earn it by garnering points for good behavior and advancing through a series of 10 levels -- from Level I to Level I+, and so on, to Level V for "victor." Each morning, they start with a fresh point card. Wake up when called; make your bed; brush your teeth: three points. Line up for breakfast; eat quietly: two points.

Monday through Friday, the girls go to school in an on-site classroom. The Palm Beach County School Board furnishes FIG with teachers. The girls' credits will transfer to high school on the outside. Fifteen made straight A's last quarter. Layne secured a federal grant to build a computer lab where girls get vocational training in web design, graphics and print imaging.

After school, the girls head off to group counseling, individual therapy and then dinner. Discussion groups can be found for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Alateen, Alanon. There are groups for social skills, sexual abuse and coping with grief. Following dinner, they spend their time in more group counseling, writing in their journals and doing mandatory homework.

Throughout their day, additional points are earned for arriving on time, following instructions, respecting staff and each other. But it's tough to be good, every day, all the time.

"Eight months I been in here," one girl says. "It's real hard work in here trying to get your level. You got to keep your head up."

At Level 1+, they get tennis shoes, the opportunity to check out a paperback book and one hair tie. By Level IV, girls can keep a personal photo album in their dorm rooms and get to meet other Level IVs once a week for doughnuts. Bit by bit, they work their way up, earning their liberties one point at a time.

Tonya spent seven months in a county jail before she arrived at FIG. She was 16, and one of the first five girls to enter the institute. After two years of point-earning and level-gaining, she's getting ready to leave.

When asked about herself, Tonya's large, bright eyes shoot over to Layne.

"Should I start with my charges?" she asks nervously.

She goes through them quickly, in a low voice: aggravated assault of a police officer, fleeing a marked police car, possession of a firearm, attempted robbery with a firearm.

"My past attitude and the attitude I have now, it's like two different people," she says. "Without the help of FIG, I'd be the same person."

"What did you do?" Layne prompts her.

"I was willing to change," replies Tonya with a nod to Layne and a grin.

When Tonya left county jail for FIG, they were able to stipulate that if she successfully completed the program, the court would waive the rest of her adult sentence. They are getting ready to go to the judge and ask for her release.

After she leaves FIG, Tonya will go on to a day program at Associated Marine Institutes (AMI), which operates 28 centers in Florida, including two in Orlando. For 90 days she'll be bussed to and from AMI. During the day, she will work on putting her new life together. At night, she'll return home.

At the end of those three months, though, Tonya will go her own way. Staff at AMI will call her once a week for a month to see if she's making it. Case managers from FIG will call her once a week for six weeks, then once a month for six months. She can call FIG, collect, any time she wants.

Layne gets calls from girls who get scared and girls who just want to say they're OK. She even has been invited to two high-school graduations. But she can't see the girls once they're on the outside. It's the rules.

"We've got that one year, two years, and we keep them safe and make sure we give them as much as we can as far as an arsenal of tools to protect themselves," says Layne, "After that ... they make their own choices."

Another girl, Stephanie, has been out for nearly a year, and has held a job for most of that time. She started in the juvenile system in middle school on theft charges. She was expelled from high school and ran away from home. She racked up more charges and escaped her rehabilitation program before finally landing at FIG.

"They know whether or not you're working with the program," she says, "I wasn't able to fake it."

When she realized this, she started to work on getting out. She avoided girls who brought her down and decided to keep mostly to herself. She paid attention to counseling on how to cope, how to form healthy relationships, how to make better decisions. Her therapist was a big part in her recovery, she says.

"If it wasn't for her confidence in me that I could make it, I wouldn't have made it," she says.

Still, not enough girls have been out long enough to predict FIG's success rate. The Department of Juvenile Justice does know that the institute's first year wasn't perfect.

FIG's first-year review by the department's Quality Assurance Division found that the girls' treatment plans were incomplete or generic. Layne says the treatment plans were the casualty of the institute's rapid start-up; when her new and inexperienced staff faced the huge initial intake of girls, staff members drew up cookie-cutter plans just to get them in the program and working on some goals. Now, girls work with a therapist and case manager to develop and redevelop an individualized plan.

The review also found that staff members placed girls in disciplinary confinement for minor offenses, such as writing a love letter and cursing a staff member. After the review, Layne saw to it that no kid could be put in confinement without her direct approval. She moved the holding rooms from the isolated intake area to the dorms. Confined girls are no longer left alone: A staff member sits with them. Since her changes, the staff is less apt to put a girl in solitary lockdown.

Thus far, FIG's biggest challenge is staff burnout. Since opening, the institute has seen a 75 percent turnover among those who work directly with the girls. Layne invested in more training. Staff churn has slowed down in the past three months, a crucial improvement: Girls are socialized to value relationships. They learn from adults they can trust.

But there are other challenges as well. In the 2002 budget year the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice spent 10 percent more to treat kids in juvenile correctional facilities than it spent two years earlier. It spent 9 percent less on keeping them out. It's a pattern that shows where the emphasis lies.

Research conducted for the National Council for Crime and Delinquency concludes that "the state of Florida has come full circle. Legislation and funding streams have moved from training `programs for troubled girls` ... to even more restrictive and costly lockups. The momentum of these shifts has swept girls ... into its wake."

"We create this vicious cycle and it continues," says Layne. "I'm having the same conversation `today` I had 10 years ago. ... As long as you don't put money in prevention and diversion, I will have a job."

That fact makes the successes so much better. From the mess of papers on her desk, Layne pulls out a picture of a former institute inmate in her homecoming dress. The girl had run away from home and become a prostitute to support her drug habit. But in the glossy photo, taken after she left FIG, she smiles, fresh corsage on her wrist, her lanky date grinning behind her. Standing in a hallway in her black velvet gown, she's the girl next door: your daughter, your high school buddy, most likely to succeed. But more than anything, she's a survivor.

"We're not perfect. We've made mistakes. Every place does," says Layne. "But I always remember when I was first getting into this business what my supervisor told me. ... 'First, do no harm.' I think that's it, just that -- just don't hurt them anymore."


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