MINNEAPOLIS — The first time Michelle shoplifted something, it was a lock to put on her bedroom door. She stole it to keep her brother from sexually assaulting her.
The first time she spoke after 2-1/2 years of silence was to curse at a judge. She was 15 at the time and had been in more than 30 foster homes. She then entered Minnesota's juvenile-justice system.
Since the early 1990s, as the overall crime rate has declined, the number of young girls like Michelle who've tangled with the law has increased dramatically, particularly for violent crimes.
While the numbers are still relatively small - girls make up about 26 percent of all juvenile offenders nationwide - the sharp increase in the percentage of young girls in trouble has raised alarms.
It's also exposed the inadequacies of the traditional, male-oriented juvenile-justice system in dealing with young women and spawned a national grass-roots effort to create new programs to help girl offenders get back on track.
"Their needs are not adequately being addressed, clearly," says Sheila Peters, a national expert and consultant to the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "Girls tend to stay in detention two to five times longer than boys do, and that's due to a lack of appropriate agencies and services designed for them."
While detention centers are sometimes painted pink, curtains are put up, and women staff brought in, rules made for men still dominate the nation's entire juvenile-justice system.
And that, Ms. Peters and other experts say, creates even more problems for young female offenders, who develop emotionally very differently than boys.
"Boys develop in relationship to rules and regulations, and are far more likely to follow them," says Mike Wolf, director of the St. Croix Girls Camp in Sandstone, Minn. "But girls develop in terms of relationships. They're far more important, and the girls will probably break any and all rules to maintain a relationship."
Indeed, parole officers often joke that they'd rather have two boys for every girl they have to deal with, because girls can be so difficult.
"Girls get a bad rap: 'They're too emotional ... they're crazy,' " says Ines Nieves-Evans, director of the Harriet Tubman Residential Center in Auburn, N.Y. "It feeds into that mentality that the differences are viewed as deficits. But we are different: We are emotional, we view the world differently, and we think differently. There's nothing wrong with that."
St. Croix's Girls Camp was one of the first correctional facilities in the country to incorporate what's come to be called a "gender specific" approach to dealing with young female offenders.
It was started in 1980, and Michelle was sent there several years after it opened. She credits the program with allowing her to take the first, healthy step toward a new life.
"It was the first time I was given choices," says Michelle. "Before, I was always told where I would go, when I would go, and what to do."
Michelle and 10 other girls lived in cabins in the woods. They underwent survival training, learned to rock-climb, talked about their feelings, and camped solo in the woods. The goal was to build self-esteem and to create a trusting relationship with their peers and the staff.
"I always thought it was just branded on my forehead, the rapes and the abuse," she says. "But when the focus quit being on what happened to me, and the focus was on me as a female, me as a girl, me as a kid, I began to get better."
Michelle, in many ways, fits the profile of the average female offender in the nation. It's estimated that at least 70 percent have been the victims of sexual abuse, with some detention centers reporting percentages as high as 90 percent.
Almost 70 percent of offenders are also from broken homes. A recent California study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) found that 58 percent of juvenile female offenders also reported witnessing violence between their parents and caretakers.
More than 45 percent had been beaten or burned at least once, and 25 percent had been shot or stabbed on at least one occasion.
"It's very important to recognize the extent to which they are not just perpetrators, but are also seriously wounded themselves," says Leslie Acoca of the San Francisco-based NCCD.
Ninety-one percent of the girls in Ms. Acoca's study also reported failing a grade in school between one and three times. Michelle attended 32 different high schools before she finally graduated. She was still determined to go on to college.
She is now a thirtysomething mother of two, owner of a business with 32 employees and a student finishing up her doctorate in speech pathology.
Recently, she's also begun to speak at conferences to raise awareness for the need for gender-specific correctional services around the country.
Minnesota was one of the first states to mandate that women and men in the juvenile-justice system receive equitable services. It was also one of the first to recognize the special needs of adolescent girls.
As a result, it's considered one of the national leaders in both raising awareness about and implementing gender-specific programming.
"I always find it both flattering and depressing that we're ahead of the curve, because we're still way behind," says Mary Scully Whitaker, director of planning for female offenders for the State of Minnesota.
Currently, there are just over a dozen "gender specific" programs like St. Croix in the US.
And while they all focus on setting up healthy, mentoring relationships with the young women and building self-esteem, they also have different focuses.
The Harriet Tubman House, directed by Ms. Nieves-Evans, focuses on women's historic successes. A wall in the entryway is dedicated to famous women and posters of women and their accomplishments
"I wanted to create an environment where girls can feel good about themselves," says Nieves-Evans. "I wanted to show them, 'You can be something,' and that women are important and women can accomplish [things] just like men."
At the PACE Center in Florida, another model program, the staff and clients celebrate "girlhood."
"So often when we look at girls in the juvenile-justice system, we look at their pathology, their charges and arrest files," says Lawanda Ravoira, the head of PACE. "We forget that these girls have lost the experience of being kids either because of sexual abuse, or parental drug or alcohol abuse. They've never gotten to experience their girlhood."
Letting girls be girls
While adhering to a strict educational regimen, the girls also sing, play "Red Rover," and blow bubbles. "We giggle and have pajama parties - these are things that these girls have never experienced," she says.
Michelle believes she was given an opportunity to be a kid again after she went St. Croix Girls Camp. With the help of councilors there, she decided to go onto a more intensive treatment center to help her deal with the scars from her childhood.
It was there she celebrated her birthday and holidays for the first time in her life. She says it was as if she was allowed to go back and begin all over again.
"I guess I can handle a lot more than most people," she now says smiling.