Q&A: Lawanda Ravoira of the National Girls Institute on Helping Girls Steer Clear of the Juvenile Justice System

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Lawanda Ravoira

Each year thousands of young women run away from home. To survive, some girls steal. Some sell their bodies for money or a place to stay. Many use drugs and alcohol to cope with life on the streets. Eventually, many girls end up in the juvenile justice system.

NCFY spoke with Lawanda Ravoira, director of the National Girls Institute, about how to keep homeless young women out of trouble, out of jail and engaged with programs that provide support.

NCFY: Which girls are most at risk for becoming involved in the juvenile justice system?

Ravoira: Girls become involved in the system from all over, but one of the first predictors is school failure (uneven grades, suspensions and expulsions). The other big thing is trauma. We know that 92 percent of girls entering juvenile justice have been victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Girls coming into the system have much higher rates of trauma and victimization than boys.

NCFY: How do girls respond to trauma differently from boys?

Ravoira: Girls internalize that pain much more and are more likely to self-medicate for depression and attempt suicide. One of the coping strategies you’ll see is running away.

NCFY: What can homeless youth programs do to keep at-risk girls from entering the system?

Ravoira: We need to break the cycle of what happens on the streets because once she’s on the street, she’s at a higher risk of the behaviors that land her in the juvenile justice system. The longer we can keep a girl connected to the shelter the better off she is.

Girls center everything around their relationships. So it becomes really critical that shelters have a deliberate policy and process and commitment to creating a culture that takes into account girls’ need for connections with others. Because when she doesn’t get that connection in the facility or shelter she’ll often develop unhealthy relationships with another boy in the shelter or someone outside the shelter.

NCFY: How can programs keep girls engaged?

Ravoira: Girls need to have time to talk and process with staff. How are intakes being conducted? Are they just for gathering information, or are they giving girls time to share their story through their lens? Even if a girl finds one person who’s a safe person, you’ll increase the likelihood that she stays [in the program]. Every girl should have a go-to person that she knows she can talk to when she really needs to talk. If that person leaves, it’s important to communicate. Say, "Okay, here is my colleague, and while I’m away she’s going to be your go-to, and she knows that if you have a crisis she has my cell phone number." A girl shouldn’t be told to wait until a counselor gets there or until her appointment tomorrow.

Visit the National Girls Institute website to find resources for girls, people who work with girls, and caregivers. The institute, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, also provides free onsite training and technical assistance. 

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