Crime & Justice

Helping girls in juvenile detention get medical, psychiatric help

The corridor of a juvenile detention center.
The corridor of a juvenile detention center.
Photo by Richard Johnstone via Flickr Creative Commons

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L.A. County is expanding its use of a screening tool designed to identify the most pressing medical and mental health needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.

The county had piloted its Girls Health Screening for four years at Camp Scott, the detention facility for girls. Moving forward, all girls entering the juvenile justice system will get the screening. 

The tool asks 117 questions designed to identify urgent physical and mental health issues. It then flags them for county providers. 

"It’s like battlefield medicine. It identifies and prioritizes the most important needs," says the tool's creator, Leslie Acoca of the Girls Health and Justice Institute.

Acoca, a marriage and family therapist, says other screenings leave out details that are relevant to female mental and reproductive health.

The pilot phase of the program revealed that of the 331 girls screened, 10 percent had experienced sexual assault, according to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Twenty percent had been pregnant at least once.

County officials say that sort of information helps them connect the girls to the care they need.

"If you’ve been sexually assaulted within the past five days, it’s both a medical problem and a mental health problem," says Acoca. "They can’t be separated out."

Girls might be afraid to ask for treatment for a recent assault, she says.

Once girls get their most urgent health needs addressed, county health professionals can address other issues, such as trauma brought on by things the girls saw before their arrests, says Acoca.

The pilot found that about 20 percent of the girls at Camp Scott were homeless within the year before they entered the system. Nearly 30 percent had witnessed the traumatic injury or death of a loved one.

County officials and Acoca agree that connecting girls with treatment for mental and physical health needs will reduce future criminal behavior.

"Not every traumatized child is going to act out, but every traumatized child in the juvenile justice system needs their trauma identified and treated so that they don’t come back in," says Acoca.