Violent Female Offenders

A Girl's Path to a Life of Crime

Posted Jan 29, 2018

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

It will come as a surprise to no one that a traumatic childhood can lead to a troubled adult.  When I worked with inmates at a maximum-security prison, it was the rare man who didn’t come from a background filled with abuse or neglect.  It was also the norm to discover glaring warning behaviors during the inmate’s elementary school years; school suspensions or expulsions, fighting with or bullying peers, early drug or alcohol use.  All too often, the child was labelled a troublemaker, dealt with strictly as a disciplinary problem and denied help at a time when it would have done the most good.  Fortunately, more adults now recognize that underneath a boy’s problem behavior often lurks a kid in pain who might need professional help more than punishment.

However, it’s a different story with girls.  It’s not that girls aren’t abused; according to the Department of Justice, 82% of female offenders suffered serious physical or sexual abuse as children. It’s not that females aren’t violent.  Since 2010, the female jail inmates have been the fastest growing correctional population, increasing almost 50 percent between 1999 and 2013.  From 1995 to 2005, the number of girls arrested for assault increased by 24%.  Unlike abused boys, however, the vast majority of abused women who end up in jail fly under the radar during childhood.  It’s not that they aren’t having problems; it’s that they tend to be overlooked. 

Invisible Girls

While there is a small subset of at-risk girls whose childhood behavior mimics that of their male counterparts, a longitudinal study recently revealed that, as children, female offenders internalized their pain.  They weren’t angry and rebellious; they were depressed and anxious.  They didn’t get in fights with peers; they withdrew from them.  They weren’t expelled from school although they might have developed stomachaches or other physical symptoms to avoid going.  As girls, these female offenders tended to be the quiet girls, the ones who faded into the woodwork and hid out in their rooms.  Until they reached puberty and all hell broke loose. 

The Transition to Mean Teen   

Much has been written about teens’ use of relational aggression, i.e., behaviors in which relationships serves as the vehicle of harm.  For example, it’s not uncommon for an adolescent to talk behind someone’s back, spread a rumor, or exclude someone intentionally from a party or event.  Not all teens engage in this form of bullying and most who do are typically acting in response to anger or hurt.  For example, a teen girl may post something spiteful about an ex boyfriend’s new love, or ignore a friend when she is upset with her.  Fortunately, most “mean girls” grow out of their back-stabbing ways and mature into well-adjusted adults.

However, just as the subtle signs of future trouble are there for preadolescent girls, the mean teen who ultimately wind up behind bars often gives us clues during adolescence.  Even in the cut-throat arena of high school society, these girls stand out; while they lash out in response to hurt or anger, they also use relational aggression earlier, more often, and in unique ways.  In other words, she uses relational aggression as a strategy to gain control and status rather than as a response to hurt, threat or anger. 

This is the teenager who pretends to befriend someone just to gain their trust so she can exploit them, or who steals a classmate’s boyfriend just for fun.  This is the girl who’s just as likely to threaten to tell an embarrassing secret in order to get what she wants as she is out of jealousy over a love rival.  This is the girl who spreads rumors or gossip in order to elevate her social status even though her target has caused her no harm. 

The Complex Road to Crime

Why some female victims of abuse become criminals – and most do not – is likely due to a combination of factors.  It may be that those abused girls who have internalized their pain during childhood reach a threshold as puberty hits, causing their repressed emotions to surface violently and be directed towards others.  Some research suggests that these girls are also more likely to perceive their parents as overcontrolling and restrictive and, during adolescence, rely more and more on manipulating peer relationships to regain a sense of power and control.  Unfortunately, this behavior often goes unchecked by adults who either don’t take it seriously, overlook it, or see it as a normal part of growing up.  This can result in two victims – the target of the relational aggression and the perpetrator, who fails to learn more effective ways of getting her needs met and, as an adult, continues to victimize others until she is caught.   

 In addition, girls who are abused as children are at increased risk of replicating this in their adult relationships; the overwhelming majority of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence.  Some abused girls may choose abusive, criminally-engaged partners who introduce them to a lifestyle they might not otherwise choose.       

The Bottom Line

In contrast to abused boys, at-risk and traumatized girls are likely to be socially withdrawn, anxious, and depressed elementary school students.  As teens, they are more likely to use more extreme and premeditated forms of relational aggression to deal both with painful emotions and to gain status and control.  They are also more likely to choose abusive partners who engaged in criminal activity.  Unfortunately, many abused girls who wind up behind bars are invisible at times when they need the most help.  Recent research is a good reminder that a troubled child isn’t always a troublemaker and that, by addressing the underlying emotional issues that fuel relational aggression, we may be able to prevent targets from suffering and perpetrators from escalating.