Alternatives to secure care and custody: guidance

Guidance for local authorities, community planning partnerships and service providers on developing a whole system approach.

6. Working effectively with girls

For youth offending the same model of criminogenic risk factors apply to both boys and girls (anti-social attitudes, pro-criminal associates and peers, lack of parental supervision and unconstructive leisure time). Whilst gender is not found to be a risk factor on its own certain factors have stronger correlations for girls. These include: victimisation (which includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse), weak support networks (includes school and low parental supervision), peer influence of boys involved in offending, unsupervised leisure time, low self esteem and material deprivation.

The majority of available provisions to address offending behaviours are based on the principles of 'what works' which are derived from theories about male offending and do not necessarily meet the needs of females. To date there is a limited evidence base about 'What Works' for girls, much of the research evidence is based on anecdotal evidence 74 .

The emphasis on risk assessment means that girls are often considered to have a high level of need and subsequently assessed as 'high risk'. In addition a 'welfare'-based approach to female offending also means that girls are often considered to be in need of greater protection than boys. Due to the emphasis on females' domestic responsibilities and enhanced levels of vulnerability, young women are often pushed higher up the sentencing tariff. Thus official Prison Statistics for Scotland indicate that the use of custody for female offenders has risen. Young women (16-17 years old) are five times more likely to receive a custodial sentence as opposed to a community sentence, compared to young males who are only twice as likely to receive a custodial sentence in place of a community sentence 75 .

Under the auspices of 'What Works' and assessment of risk, girls are often subject to the same intensive cognitive behavioural programming as boys. However a body of literature argues that this approach is divisive for girls because it assumes that cognitive deficits are the root to a young person's decision to offend (i.e. the problem is in their thought processes and not their social circumstances). Such interventions, usually based on male experiences take it for granted that females will be afforded the same opportunities to change. In reality, however females have fewer legitimate options in society and 'as important as enhanced thinking skills are, they can only be, at best, a prerequisite to empowering women to make better choices if the choices genuinely exist'. 76

The literature argues that it is not appropriate to simplify girls' needs to discrete criminogenic factors as some of these needs are not necessarily 'treatable' dynamic factors. Interventions therefore are required that reflect the distinctiveness of female experiences. For instance generic anger management programmes are insufficient to address female needs as research shows that what prompts aggression is different between girls and boys. Girls' aggression is often tied up in gendered expectations about female sexuality. Evidence on the backgrounds of young women in custody show that for many young women feelings of unresolved grief and anger in response to experiences of abuse and neglect are triggers for the onset of offending. For many young women exposure to violence is an everyday reality and rather than being an irrational response to intimated harms, is a reasoned response and often a 'necessary means to establish respect, to protect against and pre-empt victimisation and preserve self-integrity'. 77

Evidence also suggests that girls display higher rates of mental health problems with a prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and low self-esteem. Girls display different coping mechanisms through negative emotional behaviours such as self blame, self harm and risky sexual behaviour. Girls require a more individualised assessment process as risk factors related to recidivism are different with poor parenting, dysfunctional family environment and absconding being the greater influences. 78

The consensus within the 'What Works' literature is that interventions need to become increasingly gender specific with age and should be matched to developmentally appropriate risk factors 79 . This would reduce the risk of girls disengaging from services which were not seen as meeting their specific needs.

  • girls require a more individualised assessment process. Assessment tools and screening processes need to reflect the needs of girls and actuarial risk assessment tools need to be supplemented by other measures which explore the reasons behind problematic behaviour, particularly in their relation to mental and emotional health and self esteem. In-depth interviews should be undertaken to explore needs and strengths in order to create an individualised and effective plan and gain access to appropriate services.
  • interventions for girls should be based on an approach that addresses multiple problems (physical, emotional, mental and sexual health, self-esteem/self-worth, substance abuse, victimisation and trauma) in a holistic way. This requires a particular focus on addressing behaviour problems within an interpersonal context, which is an informal, female only safe environment, that allows girls time for reflection and which will meet their learning needs.
  • family and individual interventions that include a social skills training component are evidenced to be particularly effective for girls
  • contact with sympathetic and understanding pro-social workers is crucial in the engagement of girls, highlighting the need for specific training for workers in areas such as gender identity and female development.
  • there is mixed evidence for the use of single sex education. Numerous studies, however, have pointed to the positive benefits of single sex education for girls, although literature recommends that gender differences can be sufficiently accommodated within the mixed gender classroom setting via implementation of gender-inclusive strategies 80 .


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