Cook County hearings: testimony of Taskforce co-founder, Melissa Spatz

28 Oct

On October 21, the Cook County Commission on Women’s Issues held hearings about girls’ health and well-being.  Three Taskforce representatives testified, and we want to share our presentations with you.  Here is the first, from Melissa Spatz, co-founder of the Taskforce:

The Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women was founded in 2009 to develop a comprehensive, citywide approach to ending violence against girls and young women. Today I want to speak about the reality of violence in girls’ lives, and the need to develop services that recognize and respond to that reality.

Girls in Cook County are facing an epidemic of violence, putting their day to day health and well-being in jeopardy. The latest data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), based on interviews with high school students about their health risk behaviors, is astounding. In 2009, 18.9% of Chicago high school girls reported they had been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Among African American girls, a staggering 22.6% reported experiencing teen dating violence. 8.7% of girls reported they had been forced to have sexual intercourse. These statistics are even higher than those we reported in the Status of Girls report last year – a worrisome trend.

We know that girls in Cook County are experiencing violence in many different aspects of their lives. Certainly, schools are one site of violence. In the 2007 YRBS, as we reported in the Status of Girls in Illinois report, 11.7% of girls reported that they had been harassed at school because someone thought they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. Girls may also face their abusive partners in class, making school an unsafe place for young women. Violence in schools is so significant a problem that, according to the 2007 YRBS, more than 1 in 10 Chicago girls had skipped school due to safety concerns.

School, of course, is not the only site in which violence takes place. Research by the youth-led Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team (YWAT) has drawn attention to the fact that girls experience violence on the street in the form of harassment. And girls may, of course, experience violence in their homes, at the hand of family members. We have to broaden our view to understand that nearly every aspect of girls’ lives presents risks to their health and safety. Our responses, then, need to be coordinated and comprehensive.

Although we know that girls are resilient and able to find ways to survive and even thrive when given opportunities, it is also the case that by virtue of their age, they lack power in the very institutions in which they experience violence. It is incumbent upon us, then, to create safe spaces and support systems in multiple institutions. We need to financially support external programs that make a difference in girls’ lives, by providing counseling, education, support and leadership development. And we need to ensure that we are establishing programs within our schools, hospitals, and other institutions, that support girls’ safety, well-being and recovery from violence.

Unfortunately, we are far from having this comprehensive system of support for young women. In their 2007 assessment, the Mayors’ Office on Domestic Violence reported that of the 40 domestic violence agencies they surveyed, 22 provided counseling services to young women. Over an entire year, only 396 youth survivors received counseling through these programs – a drop in the bucket considering the number of youth survivors in our city. Not a single program offered abusers’ services to young men who committed violence. Nor are shelter beds available to girls, who are often desperately in need of temporary safe space.

Beyond this fact, though, we need to develop solutions that work for youth. We all know that girls are experiencing violence. But for too long, we have developed our approaches to ending violence against girls based on an understanding of adult women’s experiences and needs. The solutions that we offer violence survivors – for example, domestic violence hotlines, or the opportunity to go to court to obtain protective orders – are not solutions that youth can or will access. When YWAT surveyed youth in 2004 to ask who they turn to in cases of dating violence, they found that they were “least likely to call a dating/domestic violence hotline for advice; only 12% probably or definitely would do that.” Less than one quarter of youth would consider turning to the court system for help. The assessment by the Mayors’ Office confirms this fact, suggesting that teens are wary of seeking orders of protection, a central component of the system’s response for adult survivors.

Therefore, simply establishing programs is not enough. We have to identify the key aspects of programs that make a difference, and incorporate those factors into our solutions for young women.

So what type of support do girls need if they experience violence? The Taskforce has asked representatives of dozens of agencies across the County, both adults and youth, what factors make support services for young women effective, and here is what we have heard. First, it is important that programs engage youth as leaders, peer educators and supporters to survivors of violence. If we ask young people what they seek in terms of support, the number one answer is that they want to speak with their peers. Young people are, not surprisingly, more comfortable talking with other youth about problems they are facing. We need to engage youth, working in partnership with experienced adult allies, to provide a safe and supportive environment. We must create opportunities for youth to help shape the programs we create.

In January, the Taskforce will be releasing papers written by 2 local programs that show positive evaluations in their work to engage youth as peer educators – the Girl / Friends Summer Institute in North Lawndale, which uses art as a way to engage young people in sexual assault prevention; and the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a program run by young women who are impacted by the sex trade. I urge you, also, to read the YWEP report on girls’ resilience and the issues impacting girls in the sex trade. These groups, and others that we wrote about in the Status of Girls report, serve as examples of programs that engage young women as leaders in making the County safer for girls. We must support such programs.

Agencies also identified a need for programming that addresses the most marginalized girls and young women. A cookie cutter approach won’t work for all girls. Approaches need to be culturally sensitive, and approaches are needed for the unique needs of LGBTQ youth, immigrant youth, incarcerated youth, youth with disabilities, and so on.

Agencies identified a need for safe space for girls. This means, first, a safe space in which girls can access counseling, without peer pressure or the fear of exposure to other young people. We must build support for youth within communities, in places where they feel safe and supported, such as community centers. It also means, though, shelter when girls need a temporary place to stay, something that the system simply does not provide at this time.

And agencies continued to identify a need for peer-led education, both for young women and for young men, in creating a culture free of violence. A third article that we will be releasing in January, by a Loyola researcher named Brenda Arsenault, shows that beginning such education in middle school makes it even more effective.

The Taskforce has brought together stakeholders from across Cook County for Roundtable discussions throughout 2010, to determine what is needed to reduce the levels of violence that girls experience. Through this work, we have begun to identify specific policy recommendations based on these approaches. Today, you’ll be hearing about some initial findings related to the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, from Claudia Garcia Rojas; and Mariame Kaba will be sharing insights as to girls in Juvenile Detention, from her extensive work with Project NIA,which she founded and directs, and the Taskforce, which she and I co-founded.

In January 2011, the Taskforce will be releasing a comprehensive report, and we would like to meet with you then, to discuss our findings and our full recommendations for the county. We are also hoping that, as with the Status of Girls report, you can help us disseminate the report by drawing attention to it online. We look forward to working together with you to build girls’ safety throughout the County.

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Posted by on October 28, 2010 in Data, Public policy


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