A development which has, perhaps, hidden the particular safety as well as physical and emotional needs of girls is what has been called the search for equivalence. This refers to the aim of some campaigning groups to gain equivalent public interest in the problems or misdeeds of the other gender where, historically, the focus has been on only one gender. The clearest examples are to be found in family law practice. There we find, for example, the construction of women (rather than just men) as perpetrators of domestic violence and child abuse,[785] and also pres­sure, from men’s groups, for men (rather than just women) to be constructed as victims of parental separation.[786] What such ‘evening up’ may do is to hide the different extents and natures of those phenomena that are united by a common name. This can lead to the assumption that there is no need for gender-specific approaches to dealing with the problems. Specifically, it hides any need to treat girls and boys who offend differently if their needs and family backgrounds are different.[787] It also legitimates the use of gender-neutral risk assessment tools such as those already mentioned.

Arguably, the assessment, supervision and detention of young male and female offenders are not given adequate analysis in theory or in policy. This may well stem from the fact that youth victimology, as Muncie points out, is non-existent and it is still not fully appreciated that young people are often both victims and offenders.[788] The findings of the Girls in Prison report, summarised above, sup­port the finding of many research studies, which reveal that the proportion of offenders with abusive backgrounds is far higher than that of the general popula – tion.[789] A recent survey found that, prior to custody, 83 per cent of the boys and 65 per cent of the girls had been excluded from school, whilst 37 per cent of boys and 43 per cent of girls had been accommodated by the local authority.[790] Further, in 2000, of 15-20 year olds in prison service establishments, 90 per cent had a diagnosable mental health problem.[791] Offending not only re-categorises the child from victim to offender, but also removes him or her – temporarily or permanently – from the family justice system or the mainstream health service. Almost half of all girls in custody have been the subject of that move.[792]

Conclusions

Developments in policy relating to children who offend have significant implica­tions for family life. What we know about the background and treatment of girls who engage in anti-social or offending behaviour suggests the potential for parental behaviour to have differential impacts in relation to their male and female children, and that parents face different outcomes for their male and female children who end up in the youth justice system. Further, the ability of the family justice system and family law to protect such girls must be assessed in the light of the increasing scope, powers and resources of the youth justice agencies. Indeed, Danner[793] has pointed out that the mothers of such girls may be disadvantaged by the movement of resources from social welfare to criminal justice policies, not simply in reduced benefits but also in reduced opportunities for traditional ‘female’ work in social services. Women generally are also being disadvantaged by the extra caring res­ponsibilities resulting from the rising imprisonment rate: they may be left caring single-handedly for (the father’s) children, or they may find themselves looking after the children of imprisoned daughters. Consequently: ‘It is often the women and children who are left out, sometimes unintentionally. . . by the cumulative impact of crime control policies which adversely harm women.’[794]

Yet, despite the media and research focus on the offending of girls, girls and their mothers are virtually invisible in the processes of responding to their offend­ing or their anti-social behaviour, particularly in analyses of ‘youth’ sentencing and punishment. There is now a growing focus on girls in prison but still very little attention to girls punished in the community or diverted to preventative projects in the community. Whilst there is, as now, inequality of opportunity, of societal expectations and of life experiences for girls and young women who offend, dif­ferential treatment is potentially necessary and should be considered in all indi­vidual assessments and in devising general programmes and institutional regimes. As a first step, there should be proper monitoring of gender in the ever-widening youth justice system. The difficulty is currently in finding out what is happening to young female offenders – and those girls being brought within the system because of their risk of offending – and this chapter has, consequently, prompted far more questions than it has answered.

There are, however, signs of change. Anne Owers, as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has given valuable publicity to the shortcomings of prisons for women and girls. Campaigning groups such as the Howard League and NACRO are again focusing on the experiences of girls in the youth justice system and in deten­tion, as references to important research reports have evidenced. Further, the concern about the perceived increasing ‘danger’ from girl criminals is itself forcing policy development of responses. The urgent need, then, is for more empirical research – on boys and girls – and for that research to be brought to the attention of policy makers. Currently, the standard of the conditions in which children are held in penal detention is far below that envisaged by rights conventions. When addressing these shortcomings, there needs to be explicit attention to girls and boys. What is also required is an assessment of the role of, and burdens on, mothers, at least to counterbalance the assumptions about the importance of fathers.

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Chapter 10