Friday, January 18, 2008

Juvenile system officials discuss troubled girls

About 150,000 girls are referred to Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice each year and most arrive with a lot of baggage. Many have drug problems, some have babies, and half have a tendency to injure themselves.

Figuring out how to deal with the troubled girls and their problems was the focus of a Thursday morning community briefing in the AvMed Building.

State Attorney Bill Cervone told the group that when he began his career as a prosecutor in 1973, he was assigned to juvenile court, where it was rare to prosecute a girl.

"Since then it is not just the number of girls we are seeing but the nature of their crimes that has been changing," Cervone said. "Crimes of violence are becoming much more prevalent. We didn't get into this mess overnight. We cannot reverse it in one day or one month."

The mess Cervone was referring to was documented in a recent study conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency on girls in the Florida justice system.

Lawanda Ravoira was among the researchers who worked on the study. She said she found one statistic especially startling: 39 percent of the girls involved in the justice system had been arrested the first time by age 12, and 77 percent had been arrested for the first time by age 14.

The study also found that girls in the justice system had three to four significant treatment needs, for example the need for medical care as well as for mental health and drug treatment.

University of Florida volleyball coach Mary Wise, the moderator for the briefing, encouraged those in attendance to recognize that "girls are motivated differently and respond differently. We need to understand those differences. Embrace them. Applaud them."

Each of the speakers at the briefing talked about the need for Florida to increase what it spends on programs for girls - without shortchanging the boys - in the juvenile justice system.

Roy Miller, who is a founder and president of the non-profit Children's Campaign Inc., urged the attendees to spend this election year going to events where there are incumbents and candidates and make their presence and concerns about the issue known.

"We've got to become stronger voices for kids at the state capital, because kids are largely unheard at the state capital," Miller said.

Miller even suggested how to phrase questions at political forums.

"Tell them, 'I'm an undecided voter and I want to know what you are going to do about,' and then ask your question about children's issues," Miller said. "If you do this together, you will get noticed."

Karen Voyles can be reached at 352-359-5656 or

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