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Inaugural gender/justice symposium focuses on women of color
by Liz Baudler
2017-12-13

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Calls for trauma-informed intervention were heard throughout the first ever Gender and Justice Symposium at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital on Dec. 7, led by the state's attorney herself.

"What we know far too often when we look into the history of the perpetrator they too have been victimized," said Kim Foxx.

Foxx touched on her own history as a survivor of sexual abuse, and said she felt it was "inevitable" that she would enter the criminal justice system, although, she joked, she didn't expect to do it as lead prosecutor. She admonished the room full of community organizers, therapists, and others to learn about the populations they worked with so as to prevent further harm.

"I want to make sure everything we do is informed by everyone we serve," said Foxx.

Deanne Benos, of Women's Justice Initiative, talked about her experiences working in with the correctional department and how staff was "dismissive" of the traumatized female population. Throughout the morning, the audience heard various statistics about incarcerated and detained women. Foxx stated that more than 80 percent of the girls in the juvenile justice system experience violence, while Benos added that 98 percent of incarcerated women have a domestic or sexual-abuse history. She added that confinement likely triggers trauma, getting these women labeled as aggressive.

"We are killing women and girls that enter our justice system," she said. However she pointed out that Illinois recently passed a law requiring gender responsive, trauma informed polices and procedures in the prison and parole system.

The first of two panels made up of practitioners, activists and formerly incarcerated women discussed the importance of gender. Panelists agreed on the need to properly train those who work with incarcerated women. Mariela Villanueva, one of the formerly incarcerated women, now is an artist who works with Free Write, said many correctional employees told her she was "just a check" to them.

Benos had pointed out that incarcerated women were "disproportionately" of color, and moderator Anna Buckingham identified the intersection of race and gender as a crucial variable in this population. Therapist Sequoya Hayes discussed how Black women and girls often play a dual role in households; that of protector versus victim or survivor. She saw Black women as cycling between "resilience, repression and response."

Filmmaker and activist Valerie Goodloe added, "being Black, a woman, and poor is a triple threat." Goodloe told the room about visiting Cook County Jail and seeing a room full of what she presumed to be butch lesbians. Upon talking to one of them, Goodloe learned that this woman had been raped repeatedly by her father and others starting at age 11. At 28, she had 10 kids, and in Goodloe's words, "did not feel worthy of being a women".

Despite the symposium's inclusive title, LGBTQ issues were often addressed sparingly, although many panelists and speakers recognized the identity as an important intersection. Villanueva talked about employees isolating LGBTQ girls and telling them they were "going to hell."

The panel also discussed the myth that working with girls is hard, a myth they partially agreed with. "Women are different," Goodloe said. "We have more challenges and more things we have to be accountable for."

Theology professor Dr. Stephanie Crumpton said she'd had to learn that "everybody's not my daughter and I'm not everyone's mama." Villanueva echoed that trust was the key to building relationships with women and girls in her situation.

Keynote speaker Shakira Washington, of the National Crittenton Foundation, pointed out that often the offenses that put girls in contact with the criminal justice system were "behaviors reflective of the complex lives which they live". Many of girls' initial violations were status offenses such as missing curfew or simple assault, often in the context of a family dispute, situations which Washington said posed "little to no risk to public safety."

Washington explained the effects of ACES, or adverse childhood experiences, such as a divorce, physical abuse or emotional neglect. Those with an ACE score above 4 are four to five times more likely to be socially or cognitively impacted by their trauma. Certain ACES, such as sexual abuse, are much more likely in girls.

"Trauma goes well beyond what ACE asseses," Washington said. She added that girls of color are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white girls, and that 40 percent of detained girls are LGBTQ. While Washington ended her speech on the note of resilience, she acknowledged that girls and youth were often failed by the systems supposedly designed to help them.

"Too often we expect young people to be resilient under conditions no one should have to be resilient under," Washington said.

In the face of the grim statistics, the day's second panel focused on moving forward. Yet moving forward seemed impossible for Hannah Perez, who told the room about giving birth while incarcerated. In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Perez was in a room with no air conditioning, in temperatures approaching 100 degrees and with no cold drinks. She said people rarely responded when she yelled, and after she gave birth and could hardly walk, she was still followed to the bathroom. Officials didn't allow her mother with her as she gave birth, and gave no information to the family about the health of the baby, she said.

The rest of the panel seemed to echo Perez's dark tone, initially. Mark Payne, former executive director of CeaseFire, talked about noticing an uptick of girls being shot but city officials not expressing "a lot of interest" in his observation or bringing in experts to deal with gender. Dr. Kisha Roberts-Tabbs, a Cook County juvenile probation officer, expressed consternation that there was no outreach to the juvenile justice system for dealing with human trafficking. Roberts-Tabbs said she'd gotten over 1,000 calls on the matter since taking her position in 2015.

Roberts-Tabbs also shed light on why girls were more likely to rack up status offenses, pinpointing cultural expectations. "When my daughter's not home, it says I'm not doing something right," she explained.

Payne's advice for progress was to work with organizations that excel at specific outreach and to expand existing programs. He also added that activists were important to policy change, citing an example of the trans community protesting lockup procedure leading to a change in that procedure.

Symposium organizer Liz Alexander closed with a story of the Masaai in Kenya, who often greet each other by asking, "Are the children well?"

"Our children are not well," said Alexander. "The system has failed them." Yet it was clear that to her, the day had served its purpose. "We have come to a point where we can acknowledge all this," said Alexander. "We must create what has never been created before."


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