Violence & Criminalization: Innovative Models

Innovative Models, Innovative Models — By on January 7, 2011 4:32 pm


Every night, between 25 to 50 young women lay their heads on their pillows and try to sleep, locked into dingy cells called “rooms” because they are in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC), formerly known as “the Audy Home.” Across the US, approximately 650,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are processed in the juvenile legal system annually.  Girls may be detained for periods of several days or months and sometimes more than a year, as they wait for trial in juvenile or adult court or placement. Some stay until they are transferred to the adult criminal system, others go home in a few hours.

Girl Talk is a program that gives voice and visibility to the needs, issues, and strengths of girls and young women involved in the juvenile justice system.  The program works directly with girls who are or have been incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC).

Girl Talk began in 1993 as a volunteer collaboration between the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) at Northwestern University School of Law and the Chicago Women’s Health Center.  The initial impetus for the program was the results of a survey conducted by the CFJC with the girls at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC).  The girls’ responses revealed many pressing questions and concerns about a myriad of issues, and exposed a critical need for programs and services to address some of these matters during their detention.  The JTDC officials agreed to allow a small group of women to conduct an eight- week pilot project, which grew and expanded into a weekly, 1 ½ hour year-round program.  Girl Talk later became an independent organization headed by the amazing energy and beautiful spirit of, now deceased, Wenona Thompson who had herself spent time locked up at JTDC.  The organization officially ended its operations in 2005.

In 2010, after discussions with staff at the JTDC, Taskforce co-founder Mariame Kaba and Dr. Laurie Schaffner, associate professor at UIC, agreed to spearhead a revival of Girl Talk at the JTDC.  The revived program, led by a terrific leadership team of young women of color,  is a bi-weekly film screening followed by discussion and art activities.  Girl Talk is being incubated by Project NIA in 2011.

Girl Talk consists of bi-weekly film screenings accompanied by an art project on Saturday afternoons in the Cook County JTDC with the young women there. Led by the Girl Talk Leadership Team and volunteer program facilitators, the group passes out snacks, watches a film (featuring a young woman who faces different challenges in life, ie, The Whale Rider; Crooklyn; Akeela & the Bee) and then works together creatively to talk about themes that came up in the film as we work on our art projects.

Girl Talk proves that a group of dedicated volunteers can come together to make a difference in the lives of girls in conflict with the law.


A 2009 study by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP), a Chicago group led by and for girls and transgender girls impacted by the sex trade and street economy, focused on girls’ resilience and survival strategies. The girls collected qualitative data and had 205 responses, including transgender girls (18), homeless girls (54), pregnant girls (44) and girls who said they were mothers (52). All of the girls were involved in different aspects of the sex trade and street economies.  YWEP’s findings highlighted the resilience and resistance methods girls used when experiencing both individual and institutional violence. One of the study’s key findings is that

“the individual violence that girls experience is enhanced by the institutional violence that they experience from systems and services.”

The study found that girls are denied help from systems that are designed to help them. The Division of Children and Family Services, the police and legal system, hospitals, shelters, and drug treatment facilities were all identified by girls as denying them assistance because of their involvement in the sex trade, because of being transgender, or being queer, because of being young, because of being homeless, and because of drug use.  Despite this persistent institutional violence, girls in the sex trade have well practiced methods of fighting back and healing. The young women of YWEP have also organized themselves to address the institutional violence that they experience daily.  They launched the “bad encounter line.”  The Taskforce is looking forward to sharing more about this initiative in an upcoming occasional paper that will be written by the young women of YWEP in the coming months.  In the meantime,  YWEP has already produced two zines capturing the stories that they have received on the bad encounter line. Click here to download a copy of the first issue of the Bad Encounter Line (BEL) zine. You can also listen to Catlin Fullwood, an adult ally of YWEP, discuss how committed the young women were to conducting their own research below: