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Complicated Lives: Girls, Parents, Drugs, and Juvenile Justice

Complicated Lives: Girls, Parents, Drugs, and Juvenile Justice

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Complicated Lives: Girls, Parents, Drugs, and Juvenile Justice

346 pagine
5 ore
Jun 12, 2017


Winner of the 2019 Intersectional Book Award from the American Society of Criminology's Division on Women & Crime​

Complicated Lives focuses on the lives of sixty-five drug-using girls in the juvenile justice system (living in group homes, a residential treatment center, and a youth correctional facility) who grew up in families characterized by parental drug use, violence, and child maltreatment. Vera Lopez situates girls’ relationships with parents who fail to live up to idealized parenting norms and examines how these relationships change over time, and ultimately contribute to the girls’ future drug use and involvement in the justice system.  
While Lopez’s subjects express concerns and doubt in their chances for success, Lopez provides an optimistic prescription for reform and improvement of the lives of these young women and presents a number of suggestions ranging from enhanced cultural competency training for all juvenile justice professionals to developing stronger collaborations between youth and adult serving systems and agencies.
Jun 12, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Vera Lopez is the founder of Spirits of the Earth, a travel company specializing in spiritual journeys to sacred sites. She is a transformation teacher, shamanic minister, and Andean priestess, who has received direct initiation from shamanic elders in several traditions, including the Q’eros of Peru. She lives in Sedona, Arizona.

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Complicated Lives - Vera Lopez



I met 17-year-old Quinn on a clear fall day. We sat outside at a picnic table during visiting hours at the Arroyo Verde state juvenile correctional facility. We were the only ones sitting outside as the other girls preferred to meet with their family members in the loud visiting room, perhaps because that’s where the snack and vending machines were located. Quinn, like many of the young women at the state juvenile correctional facility, did not see her family on a regular basis. They lived in another county and were rarely able to make the trip to visit Quinn at Arroyo Verde, which meant that she was willing to meet with me during visiting time. My first impression of Quinn was that she was timid and soft-spoken. As we talked it became clear that she had endured quite a lot in her young life. At the time of our interview, she had been locked up at Arroyo Verde for three months. A striking redhead, Quinn did not believe that she was worthy of being loved. This became clear as we sat and talked on that clear fall day, surrounded by a chain-linked fence topped by razor wire.

Quinn grew up in a mid-sized city in the southwestern United States. She lived with her mother and stepfather, both of whom used methamphetamine and had served time in prison for drug-related offenses. Quinn had never met her biological father and referred to her stepfather as the only father figure she had ever known. Quinn’s stepfather sexually abused her when she was 7 years old. When I asked if she had told her mother about her stepfather, Quinn said, Yes, my mom knew, but she didn’t want to break up with him, so she said I had it wrong, and she stayed with him. As she approached adolescence, Quinn began to skip school, run away, and do drugs. When she was 14, she tried methamphetamine. Eventually, Quinn’s meth use began to spiral out of control. Out on the streets, she began to engage in unprotected, anonymous sexual encounters as indicated by the following story she shared: I was waiting for the bus at the corner of Lark Lane and 25th Street when this guy sat next to me. He was older, but not too old . . . maybe early 20s. We started talking. And then it just went from there. We ended up having sex behind a Big Lots. When I asked Quinn if she had ever feared contracting a sexually transmitted infection such as HIV, she matter of factly said, No. I didn’t care if I got AIDS or if I died. Nothing mattered. I didn’t care about anything. Whether I lived or died. It made no difference to me. Eventually, Quinn met a much older man who began to pimp her out. I was a prostitute. I didn’t care. I did whatever I could to get money, get high. I didn’t care who I was with or what I had to do. After she started engaging in prostitution, Quinn was raped. She struggled with making sense of the assault and asked me: I’m not sure if you could call it a rape? I mean I didn’t want to do it, but can a prostitute be raped? I asked if Quinn had talked about these traumatic experiences during individual therapy sessions at the correctional facility. While Quinn indicated that she had talked about her experiences, and believed that therapy was helping her, she did not feel as if she could successfully stop using meth when she left Arroyo Verde even though she wanted to stay clean and sober.

Quinn’s story is not unique. The vast majority of young women in the juvenile justice system have grown up in families characterized by parental drug use, domestic violence, parental incarceration, high rates of residential mobility, and poverty (Acoca, 1998; Gaarder & Belknap, 2002; Lederman, Dakof, Larrea, & Li, 2004). Growing up in troubled families places girls at significant risk for being neglected, physically abused, and sexually victimized (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2013; Gaarder & Belknap, 2002; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). While boys and girls experience similar rates of neglect and physical abuse, girls are more likely to be sexually abused than boys (Hennessey, Ford, Mahoney, Ko, & Siegfried, 2004). According to gendered pathways theories, childhood trauma and victimization often lead to depression and other internalizing disorders among girls, which frequently lead to running away and self-medicating behaviors such as drug use (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2013; Gaarder & Belknap, 2002; Kempf-Leonard & Johansson, 2007; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). The underlying premise of this theoretical perspective is that girls run away from home and use drugs to escape and cope with victimization and trauma, which often leads to their involvement in the juvenile justice system. Implicit in this perspective is that families—usually parents—are at the root of girls’ problems. In this book, I wish to expand upon this typical framing of girls’ drug use and delinquency by also considering how larger sociocultural contexts and structures influence girls, their relationships with parents, and their eventual involvement in the juvenile justice system.


This book presents the life experiences of 65 system-involved girls growing up in multistressed families characterized by parental drug use, domestic violence, and child abuse/neglect. System-involved refers to girls who are involved in the juvenile justice system. All of the girls in this study had used drugs and had been court ordered to live outside their home in a group home, residential treatment center, or correctional facility. Many of the girls interviewed for this book were also involved in the child protective and behavioral health systems. Although the 65 interviews with system-involved girls form the backbone of this book, I also draw upon focus group data with 19 drug-involved Latina girls and 8 clinicians who work with them. These interview and focus group data along with my observations and experiences derived from a 12-month clinical internship at the Arroyo Verde state correctional facility for girls informed the writing of this book.

To be included in this study, all girls had to be between the ages of 14 and 18 and have a history of using drugs other than marijuana or alcohol. In the majority of cases, girls used hard drugs with methamphetamine being by far the most popular drug of choice. As indicated in Table 1, this study was composed mostly of Latina girls (65%) of Mexican origin and White girls. While the study also included biracial girls, no African American girls participated in this study, perhaps due to the relatively small African American population in the state of Arizona.

The fact that 65% of the interviewed girls were Latinas is worth emphasizing given that Latina/o youth are disproportionately overrepresented at all levels of the Arizona juvenile justice system. While Latinas/os made up 38.8% of the state’s youth population in 2006, they made up 49.3% of youth assigned to intensive probation, 55% of youth remanded to juvenile corrections, and 59.2% of youth prosecuted as adults (Children’s Action Alliance, 2008).

TABLE 1   Study Participants’ Background Characteristics and Circumstances

*Living arrangements were constantly shifting for many of the girls. The living arrangement while growing up reflects the type of living arrangement they most often lived in while growing up. †I was interested in interviewing girls with histories of drug involvement. If girls reported drug use other than marijuana or alcohol, they were eligible to participate in the study. Most girls reported using heavy drugs that went beyond marijuana use.

Another striking characteristic of the sample is that most of the girls interviewed for this book had lived in many different settings and with many different people over the course of their young lives. At the time of the interviews, all girls were living in a group home, residential treatment center, or the state correctional facility for girls. A breakdown of where the girls were living at the time of the interviews is presented in Table 2.

TABLE 2   Race/Ethnicity by Placement Type

*Only Latina girls were recruited at this site.

TABLE 3   Girls’ Family Problems

Girls also reported a high rate of residential mobility as their parents moved often or they were shuttled back and forth between various relatives. The high rate of residential mobility among this sample is not surprising given that residential mobility has been linked with drug use and delinquency in adolescence (DeWit, 1998; Gasper, Deluca, & Estacion, 2010).

Many of the young women interviewed for this book also grew up in families characterized by parental drug abuse, domestic violence, and parental incarceration. In short, their early lives were characterized by an extreme degree of chaos, change, and uncertainty. As can be seen in Table 3, a large percentage (70%) of girls reported that either their mother or father had used drugs at some point during their childhood. Sixty-eight percent of the girls also reported that at least one of their parents had been in prison/jail, and 66% reported having witnessed a physical altercation (domestic violence) between their mothers and at least one of her male partners. (For more information about the study participants and research methodology, see Appendices A and B in the back of the book.)


The focus of this book is on understanding how system-involved girls view their relationships with parents, many of whom used drugs, had been in jail/prison, and had been involved in violent relationships. Consistent with the overarching gendered pathways to delinquency perspective (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2013; Kempf-Leonard & Johansson, 2007; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009), this book discusses how girls’ early experiences growing up in so-called troubled or dysfunctional families influenced their later decisions to run away, use drugs, and commit delinquent acts. Girls’ stories are presented in full even when doing so presents their parents and families in a negative light. On the other hand, alternative views of system-involved girls’ parents that are often not seen in the social science literature, on the late night news, or in other forms of popular media are also presented, including girls’ happy childhood memories of parents. Central questions that are addressed throughout this book include: How do system-involved girls make sense of their relationships with parents? How do their relationships with parents influence their decisions to run away, use drugs, and commit delinquent acts? Once girls are in the system, how does the system respond to them and their parents? How are these responses gendered, racialized, and classed? And, finally, how can we better address the needs of both system-involved girls and their parents without further pathologizing, stigmatizing, and blaming them for their problems?

Although the primary focus of this book was to better understand system-involved girls’ relationships with parents, it is important to recognize that these relationships are embedded within larger sociocultural contexts and shaped by larger social structures such as socioeconomic status, race, and gender. Thus, system-involved girls’ relationships with parents were situated within these larger contexts and structures. Doing so required using a variety of lenses and angles to conceptualize and analyze the girls’ narratives. First, a narrow focus was used to examine girls’ interactions with parents as they related to girls’ decisions to run away, use drugs, and engage in other delinquent behaviors. This approach required focusing primarily on girls’ narratives as the basis of understanding their relationships with parents over time. A wide-angle lens was then used to examine how larger sociocultural contexts and structures influenced girls’ relationships with parents, partners, and juvenile justice professionals. These goals were accomplished by relying on a critical approach to family studies that was grounded in an ecodevelopmental framework and an intersectional approach to consider how context, processes, and structures shaped young women’s identities and interactions over time and placed them at risk for drug use and involvement in the juvenile justice system.


The ecodevelopmental framework represents a useful starting point for thinking about how various contexts influence individuals’ development over time from early childhood to adolescence (Szapocznik & Coatsworth, 1999). This framework is based on social-ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1986) and incorporates an emphasis on child development and social interactions. In brief, the ecodevelopmental framework recognizes that a child’s development is shaped by her social interactions with others, which in turn are influenced by other relationships and contexts beyond her direct experience, as well as larger social institutions, structures, and cultural ideals (Szapocznik & Coatsworth, 1999). These interdependent influences on a child’s development are usually depicted as concentric circles with the individual child being at the center of this ring of circles. The innermost circle is called the microsystem and is characterized by the child’s direct relationships with other individuals (e.g., parents, peers, teachers, probation officers, clinicians, social workers), settings (e.g., home, neighborhood), and institutions (e.g., school, group homes, juvenile correctional facilities, residential treatment centers). The next circle represents the mesosystem and relates to the interactions that people in the microsystems have with each other (e.g., parent–peers, parent–teachers, parent–probation officers, parent–caseworkers). The exosystem, which is represented by the third circle, is the wider context that relates to the broader community in which the child lives, but does not directly participate in. The exosystem can include parents’ social support networks, legal services, welfare services, parents’ work environment, prisons, local government, and the mass media. Although the child may not directly participate in or interact within these contexts, they still impact her development because they impact other people in her life. The final layer of the child’s social ecology is the macrosystem and is represented by the outermost circle. This layer contains the attitudes, ideologies, laws, and norms of a particular culture. Examples of macrosystems include political laws and rhetoric (e.g., minimum sentencing drug laws, anti-immigration legislation), cultural ideals (e.g., about what constitutes normal families and good parenting, beliefs about meritocracy and personal responsibility), norms (e.g., drug use norms), and attitudes (e.g., attitudes that support violence against girls and women).

While the ecodevelopmental framework is a classic theory that is quite popular in family studies and child development research, it has not been used to better understand the lives of system-involved girls. Furthermore, most researchers who rely on this framework continue to focus only on the micro- and meso-systems with scant attention given to the exo- and macro-systems. Perhaps most importantly, while the ecodevelopmental framework stresses the importance of understanding how larger macrosystems influence individual development; no mention is made of how these systems variously impact individuals with intersecting identities and social locations. Finally, the ecodevelopmental framework is not critical nor does it benefit from a social justice perspective. For all these reasons, I advocate pairing the ecodevelopmental framework with an intersectional approach.

FIGURE 1   Ecological framework for system-involved girls. Created by Tyson Koerper of TK Creative, LLC.

Rooted in traditions of Black feminist criminology, intersectionality is an approach that recognizes that systems of power such as race, class, and gender do not act alone to shape our experiences but rather, are multiplicative, inextricably linked, and simultaneously experienced (Burgess-Proctor, 2006, p. 31; Potter, 2015). Intersectionality acknowledges the importance of considering multiple intersecting identities while also considering how these identities are related to individuals’ views of themselves and others in relation to their unique social, cultural, and contextual locations. Although most of the young women interviewed for this book shared a similar class background, they differed with regard to ethnicity and generation status. Thus, this book considers how gender, ethnicity, class, and nationality shaped young women’s views of themselves, their relationships, and their experiences across a number of contexts and systems over time.


This section presents a more detailed discussion of how an interdisciplinary and critical approach to family studies can be used to better understand system-involved girls’ experiences and relationships across a number of ecological contexts from childhood through adolescence. These experiences and relationships are situated within a broader sociocultural context while simultaneously considering how girls’ experiences are gendered, racialized, and classed.


The three microsystems that were examined for the young women interviewed for this book were their homes, the streets they ran to, and the youth facilities they lived in. Girls’ homes were usually characterized by their relationships with mothers, mothers’ partners, and siblings. Other relatives, family friends, and parents’ drug-using acquaintances were also sometimes present. The focus was primarily on girls’ relationships with parents (including nonresident fathers) given that the quality of the parent–child relationship plays a critical role in children’s development.

Parenting characterized by a high degree of warmth, support, monitoring, involvement, and consistent but not overly harsh disciplinary practices has been found to be predictive of positive youth outcomes across a variety of cultures and contexts (Kotchick & Forehand, 2002). Harsh, neglectful, and abusive parenting, on the other hand, has been associated with adverse emotional and behavioral youth outcomes (Becoña et al., 2012). One thing is certain: Parents play a powerful role in their children’s development and when the quality of the parent–child relationship is compromised, children suffer. For the girls interviewed for this book, parental substance use definitely compromised the quality of their relationships with parents.¹ Previous research indicates that mothers with histories of substance abuse/dependence often demonstrate poor sensitivity, unresponsiveness to children’s emotional cues, and heightened physical provocation and intrusiveness (Suchman, Pajulo, DeCoste, & Mayes, 2006, p. 211). Furthermore, parents with substance use issues frequently flit in and out of their children’s lives as a result of jail, prison, drug binges, and/or drug and mental health treatment and this was certainly the case in the current study (Kroll & Taylor, 2003; National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1999). Parental substance abuse has also been found to be associated with child abuse and neglect, and this was also true for the girls interviewed for this book whose parents sometimes neglected and/or inadvertently placed them in harm’s way as a result of their drug use (Kroll & Taylor, 2003; National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1999).

The nature of girls’ relationships with parents changed over time from childhood to adolescence. During childhood, many of the young women assumed adultified roles and helped their mothers care for younger siblings along with serving as their mothers’ relationship advisors and attempting to protect them from violence. They assumed a high degree of control and responsibility in their homes, and as a result of these responsibilities, they were exposed to adult problems (e.g., domestic violence) and contexts (e.g., drug houses), which forced them to grow up fast. By late childhood and early adolescence, many of these young women were already skipping school, drinking alcohol, using drugs, having sex, and hanging out with older peers. Like many adolescents, they bickered and argued with their parents when their parents attempted to discipline and monitor their behaviors. Conflicts with mothers about boyfriends, staying out late, and drug use were common. While such conflicts are not uncommon in adolescence, they do not typically threaten the fabric or integrity of the parent–adolescent relationship (Smetana, Campione-Barr, & Metzger, 2006). This was not the case for many of the young women interviewed for this book. Their problems with parents, which were rooted in childhood, came to the forefront during adolescence.

During adolescence, as posited by the gendered pathways to delinquency perspectives, many of the young women began to run away from home. While some ran away to escape abuse and victimization, others were also attracted to the street life that they saw all around them in the neighborhoods where they lived. The streets represented a gender salient context that was particularly dangerous for young women given their age and gender, as most of the young women lived in areas characterized by drug use, violence, and in some instances, gangs. When they ran away, they often ended up interacting with older adult drug users and becoming romantically involved with men who used and/or sold drugs.

Due to their out of control behaviors, the young women interviewed for this book eventually came under the scrutiny of outside officials including concerned school officials, law enforcement, social workers, and juvenile justice professionals. Eventually the state removed these young women from their homes and remanded them to an out-of-home youth placement, which is where I interviewed them. The girls interviewed for this study lived in either a group home (Moonlight, Green River, Oak Canyon), a residential treatment center (Desert Star) or a juvenile correctional facility (Arroyo Verde). These facilities and the relationships embedded within them represented important microsystemic influences on the girls’ development. The facilities differed in terms of how secure they were as well as how they framed and responded to girls’ problems. Not surprisingly, many of the young women struggled with following rules in these settings, because they often placed them in the conventional role of child or adolescent despite their adultified experiences. Similar to research on adult women prisoners, many of the young women interviewed for this book felt isolated from their friends, families, and communities (Arditti, 2012; McCorkel, 2013; Siegel, 2011).


System-involved youth are typically involved with a number of youth professionals across a variety of systems including the juvenile justice, behavioral health, and child protective services systems, which means their parents must also interact with these professionals as well. This book focuses primarily on the mesosystem that involved parents’ relationships with youth professionals across these various youth systems and contexts. Parents of system-involved youth often feel as if their contributions on behalf of their children are not valued (Aldridge, Shute, Ralphs, & Medina, 2011). For example, in their interviews and focus groups with parents of gang-involved youth, Judith Aldridge, Jon Shute, Robert Ralphs, and Juanjo Medina (2011) found that parents often felt like the juvenile justice staff belittled, patronized, and blamed them for being bad parents. Joanne Belknap and colleagues found that some juvenile justice professionals blame parents for their daughters’ problems (Belknap, Holsinger, & Dunn, 1997; Belknap, Winter, & Cady, 2003). I certainly found this to be the case when I conducted focus groups with clinicians at the residential treatment center about the Latina girls in their care. While these educated, middle-class, mostly White women seemed to genuinely care about the young women in their care, they often relied on cultural deficit thinking rooted in stereotypes to explain why Latina girls end up in the system and seemed to blame Latina mothers most of all (Lopez & Chesney-Lind, 2014). Lisa Pasko and I (2015) found that juvenile justice professionals in Colorado operated under a similar premise and tended to blame the Latina/o culture for girls’ problems and viewed both girls and their parents as being reluctant to comply with state rules and regulations as opposed to considering the possibility of language barriers, transportation issues, and a general distrust of the system as reasons for Latina girls’ parents’ seeming indifference and reticence to advocate on behalf of their daughters.


When thinking about system-involved girls, it is important to also consider how other interactions and contexts beyond their direct experiences impact them. Unlike most other youth, system-involved girls’ parents are often entangled within a complex web of ever-changing interlocking institutions and systems. As previously mentioned, many of the young women interviewed for this study had parents who were either current or former drug users, were violent and/or victims of violence, or had been in jail/prison. Like their daughters, many of these parents were involved in a number of systems including the criminal justice system. Parents’ involvement in the criminal justice system no doubt had a tremendous impact on their daughters given that parental incarceration often results in the breakup of the family, which leaves many children feeling sad, stunned, and shaken, particularly if they were living with the parent who has been incarcerated (Siegel, 2011). Joyce Arditti (2012) framed parental incarceration as an ambiguous loss where the incarcerated parent is physically absent, but may or may not be emotionally present. Either way, the children of incarcerated parents often do not know when their parents will be released, which can further contribute to this ambiguous loss. They also must contend with the stigma of having an incarcerated parent, which can preclude them from the same types of social supports that might be available to other children whose parents are absent as a result of death or divorce. Furthermore, children’s parents are often incarcerated in prisons that are far away, which makes it unlikely that children will be able to visit them, which can further contribute to their feelings of confusion and abandonment (Siegel,

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