For more black girls, a violent cycle

Young women make up nearly one quarter of juvenile offenders.

When "Nikki" got beat up by a gang of angry girls after school, she joined one set of statistics: Young Black women are twice as likely as young white women to be victims of violence.

But Nikki decided she'd never be an easy mark again. The Brooklyn teen learned to fight, and fight hard - in school, after school, and when she skipped school, which she started doing often after the attack.

The result: Nikki ended up in the juvenile-justice system and joined another set of statistics. Young black women are picked up by police at three times the rate of young white women.

"It's a cycle of violence and we see it everywhere," says Isis Sapp-Grant, the founder of the Youth Empowerment Mission in New York and a former gang member. "We're not really addressing it on the level we need to."

The striking increase over the last decade in the rates at which young African-American women are both victims of violence and involved in the criminal-justice system is setting off alarms, spurring research, and drawing attention to the cultural needs of young black girls. Many live in neighborhoods where guns, gangs, and drugs are common. And many come from families with at least one relative in jail, making prison terms more of a norm than a social rarity.

But between the budget crisis and a surge in young women of all races being caught in the juvenile justice system - they're now almost 25 percent - enthusiasm for culturally sensitive programs has diminished. Some experts say there just aren't enough resources to help girls of any race, let alone young black women.

But some researchers, such as Monique Morris of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, argue that unless society addresses these young women's needs, the cycle will only spiral - taking thousands of girls with it. "I certainly think we're facing a challenge, but it's ... very doable, with the right commitment," says Ms. Morris. "We have to build a spirit of resistance in these girls. We have to get them and their families to accept their value."

Morris has analyzed criminal-justice and census data and come up with some startling findings.

• The rate at which black girls were charged with property offenses soared by 92 percent from 1985 to 1994, compared with a 38 percent rise for girls overall.

• The number of delinquency cases involving young black women increased by 106 percent between 1988 and 1997, compared with an increase of 83 percent for all girls.

• Black children are nine times as likely as white children to have a parent in jail.

Researchers have long tied involvement in the criminal-justice system to early abuse and victimization. Girls, Inc., a national nonprofit advocacy group, has also tracked the violence that young women experience in their daily lives. And minority women suffer disproportionately more violence than their white counterparts.

• Six percent of young black women have been injured in school fights, compared with 4 percent of Hispanic and 2 percent of white girls.

• 14 percent of black teenage girls report being injured by boyfriends, compared with 11 percent of Hispanic girls and seven percent of white girls.

"Disproportionately, young African-American and Latino women go to school in ... communities where violence is more common," says Heather Johnston-Nicholson, research director for Girls, Inc. "If you're learning violence as a way to survive, you may resort to it."

The key to breaking the cycle, according to Ms. Johnston-Nicholson and other experts, is creating places where girls are comfortable and safe, released from the perceived need to fight, carry knives, or hang out with other tough girls.

That's what Ms. Sapp-Grant set out to do with "Blossom," an after-school and weekend program designed to give young women like Nikki constructive ways of spending time. Housed in what were once the cluttered closets of The First AME Zion Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York, it offers everything from writing workshops to step-dance classes. Sapp-Grant based the concept for the program on the very things she was looking for when, in high school, she joined the notorious Deceptonettes gang.

"Blossom has a strong sense of cohesiveness and protection and love - all of those things that young people crave," she says. "We take the things that make the gangs so exciting and attractive to young people and adopt them."

Nikki didn't want to come. But it was this or the juvenile-justice system. And after two months, she's glad she came. "I didn't want to be helped at first," she says, cuddling a visiting puppy. "I never wanted people bothering me or talking to me." But Nikki hasn't had a fight since. She smiles more. And she's found something she wants to do "when I grow up": be a cosmetologist.

That's the kind of success that gives Sapp-Grant hope for expanding her two-year-old program. She'd like to see Blossom's concepts woven into the juvenile-justice system. And, indeed, most experts agree that the system still has strides to make in dealing with all kinds of young women.

"We keep hearing that the needs of young women in the juvenile-justice system are unique, as if they were rare birds instead of a quarter of the population," says Johnston-Nicholson. "Until we start getting people competent in understanding the lives of these young women, we're going to continue to have this increase."

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