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A film warning

Shangra was 16 when she was arrested for drug possession. Sheila got busted for running away at age 14. Stephanie was 13 when she was caught trespassing.

Once these three girls from San Francisco entered the system, California-based filmmakers Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko began documenting their lives. Over the course of four years, Stephanie had a baby with her abusive boyfriend, Shangra was arrested for selling cocaine, and Sheila, in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze, shot her brother in the shoulder.

The girls’ struggles were captured in the film Girl Trouble, which State Representative Kay Khan (D-Newton) screened at the State House on Monday.

The movie ends happily. Stephanie, Shangra, and Sheila managed to extricate themselves from the destructive cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and physical trauma, thanks to support they received individually from a 22-year-old director of a local program for girls, as well help from group recovery homes.

Khan showed the film to illustrate the need for similar programs in Massachusetts, where young women are entering the criminal-justice system at higher rates than ever before. In the past decade, the state Department of Youth Services (DYS), which operates more than 100 programs and facilities for juveniles, handled a 168 percent leap in the number of female offenders. Young women currently make up 18 percent of DYS’s caseload, and the majority are between 15 and 17 years old.

At present, our juvenile-justice system doesn’t do girls enough good, says Maureen Norton-Hawk, an associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at Suffolk University, who spoke on the post-screening panel. In fact, there’s a "definite pathway to incarceration for women," she says, because too few resources are funneled directly to female-specific services.

However, under the stewardship of brand-new DYS commissioner Jane Tewksbury (the first female to lead this state agency), things could change. On July 18, the Bay State’s first transitional-living facility for girls is slated to open in Westboro. Initiatives like these push the state toward achieving what Stephanie articulates at the end of the film: "What it comes down to is having people on your side."

To learn more about the film or to order copies, visit www.girltrouble.org.

Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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