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Violent Femmes 

A battered mother takes a shot at her husband in Orleans. A boy — and a boxcutter — come between two young women in South Burlington. A teenage girl pulls a carving knife on a cop in Barre and is charged as an adult. Yeah, we’re “talking ‘bout the bad girls,” and there are a lot more of them in Vermont than there used to be.

Police, social workers and corrections officers are rightfully concerned about the increasing number of women and girls breaking the law. In the last decade the total female correctional population in Vermont has increased fourfold, from 638 to 2318. Juvenile justice workers report that more, and tougher, girls in the system are giving bad boys some serious competition.

“The behaviors we would associate with aggressive males are there with females now,” says Steve Coulman, former director of Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester, and now a manager at Social & Rehabilitation Services. “The girls are much more outwardly aggressive in their infractions with resident males. Girls will drop trou and flash a moon. The foul language is there. Just as guys would get into fist fights, the girls will do that — with each other.”

The emerging female violence in Vermont is consistent with national trends. Women commit 2.1 million — or 14 percent — of the violent crimes each year in the United States, according to a recent report from the Justice Department based on averages between 1993 and 1997. The number of girls arrested for violent offenses more than doubled between 1987 and 1994. The violent crime rate for girls increased 25 percent between 1992 to 1996, while the number of boy offenders remained steady.

Forget about sugar, spice and everything nice. The reality, in Vermont and elsewhere, is that females are closing the gap in corrections. As they take over prison units once occupied by men, it is obvious that state planners underestimated the demand. The 45-bed single-sex facility opening this winter in Waterbury is already too small to accommodate the present population of incarcerated women. Officials expect that number to break 100 soon, based on female prisoner populations in comparable states like Maine and Montana.

The juvenile justice system in Vermont is feeling similar pressure. Woodside — the only locked facility for underage offenders — has no long-term detention facilities for girls. But the severity of their problems have necessitated longer stays, according to Coulman. To meet the growing need, two new residential facilities recently opened in Rutland and Castleton. The legislature recently appropriated funds for additional programs for troubled girls. But that still may not be enough. “We need to address the seriousness of the behaviors coming from females, and program accordingly,” Coulman cautions. “It’s a matter of time before we are looking at a long-term, locked facility for girls in Vermont.”

Why are women and girls acting out in increasing numbers? That’s a question currently inspiring studies, conferences, articles and battered-women’s advocates all over the country. Some blame it on the media — copycat crimes are no longer for boys only. When they held up a bank in Washington state last summer, four gun-toting girls said they were inspired by a film starring Queen Latifa as the lesbian leader of a girl gang specializing in holdups. Others suggest girl violence is not new — only newsworthy in the context of recent schoolyard shootings.

Here in Vermont, too, “the larger question gets rolled around in a lot of circles,” says John Murphy, superintendent of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the only jail in Vermont that houses women prisoners. Although he acknowledges there are more women locked up in Vermont than ever, he thinks the “violent female” theory has been overplayed. He says most women still get arrested on petty property crimes, furlough violations and chronic substance abuse — not serious violent offenses like murder and armed robbery. He suggests tougher drug laws, gender-blind justice and “pro-arrest” policies in domestic-abuse cases may explain the statistical spike.

But the incarcerated women in Vermont tend to be older than the girls making headlines in urban newspapers and justice department publications. And it was the Arizona Law Review that published the research findings of Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School who has done extensive research on both domestic violence and emerging female violence. Hanna claims women in general are becoming more aggressive. “We have been given two opposing explanations,” she has been reported as saying. “That girls aren’t becoming more violent, it’s media hype. Or, the flipside of that, girls are becoming more violent because they’re becoming more like boys; it’s one of the unintended consequences of liberation. I think it’s a little more complicated than that.”

On a given day, only a fraction of the female offenders in Vermont are locked up on Farrell Drive in South Burlington. Most are out on the street, serving their sentences in supervised community settings. Of 72 inmates, fewer than a third are being held for so-called violent crimes. These range from simple assaults, which may be as minor as scratching and biting, to aggravated sexual assault on a child. Only one woman — Dana Osmond-Shepard — is being held on a murder charge. She allegedly stabbed a 62-year-old rival to death over a man.

What has changed, and made the incarcerated population appear to be more violent, is the number of women being held on charges of domestic assault. About a half-dozen of the females under lock and key have been charged with battering — a term coined to criminalize the abuse routinely inflicted by abusive boyfriends and husbands on their girlfriends and wives. Of 605 arrests made so far this year for domestic violence, 141 have been women. Just last week a 22-year-old woman was arrested in Burlington for bloodying her boyfriend because “she was mad at him.”

Hanna is not surprised by those statistics, or the challenge they pose in regard to traditional thinking about domestic violence. “Twenty-five years ago, when your boyfriend or husband slapped you across the face, I think somehow you were programmed to take it. Maybe you became self-destructive, medicated yourself or got depressed. Now I think your boyfriend hits you and these girls hit back. They are choosing fight, not flight.”

“Sight” may have something to do with it, too — that is, the way police look at the violence between intimates. Once criticized for taking domestic abuse too lightly, now “pro-arrest” police are throwing the book at everyone. “Oftentimes if there has been a fracas and both people are injured, both people get arrested and both people get charged, “ says Maureen Buell, director of women offender and family services for the Vermont Department of Corrections. “That has really changed. There is not a lot of attention paid to determine who is the ‘predominant aggressor.’”

The state’s Chief of Domestic Violence Services, Jean Cass, confirms that trend, noting police often have the attitude, “We’ll let the courts figure it out.” But she also blames a bigger “backlash” for the increase in arrests of female “batterers.” After years of money and training to eliminate domestic violence through aggressive prosecution, “men have become very wise to the system and have learned how to use it,” she says. “Having their partners arrested, using institutions against them, is another form of abuse. Now it’s a race to the phone.”

Further, she says, when the cops show up, women admit more readily when they have been aggressive — even if they are fighting for their lives. “They’ll say, ‘Yes, I kicked him. Yeah, I threw the ashtray.’” Cass says women are also more likely to plead guilty “to get it over with.” Battered-women’s advocates are justifiably alarmed by this trend. They claim arresting a woman for kicking and scratching diverts attention away from the fundamental power imbalance in an abusive relationship — one that all too often results in the death of the woman.

If recent murder victim Patricia Sears had fought back, instead of going through the proper channels to stop her abuser, she might be knitting right now in a day room in South Burlington — her offenses spelled out in the daily “head count.” “You see ‘domestic assault’ and you think, ‘Oh, she’s a violent woman,’” Buell says. “But then you look and see that she has no history of violence — only as it relates to that relationship.” Buell questions whether those women really pose a threat to society. “I do see more women coming to jail with serious assaultive offenses, and some of them need to be here,” she says. “But I don’t think all of them do.”

“Predatory violence,” as Buell calls it, is what sets a dangerous woman apart from a dysfunctional, addicted or mentally ill one. Such cases are still rare among women incarcerated in Vermont. In general, “the women are in here for far less serious crimes than men are,” says Buell. Most of the offenses are petty property crimes: passing bad checks, shoplifting, forgery. “They are taking food, household items, clothing, that sort of thing. Women aren’t doing big huge hauls out the back door of Wal-Mart.” She adds, “There has been some talk around the country of how that might be related to welfare reform.”

More likely it is related to substance abuse. Murphy says the vast majority of crimes committed by women are to support drug or alcohol addictions. If staying sober is a condition of supervised release, which it often is, a few ill-timed pops can put her back behind bars. The most prevalent charge appears to be “violating conditions of probation.” Apparently, the stresses of finding work, transportation, housing and child care on the outside often lead women back to the comfort of their old addictions. And in many cases, to their former partners in crime.

Whether they are fighting, forging or finding a fix for them, a man is almost always in the picture. More often than not, according to Murphy, “women are not committing crimes by themselves. They are usually with their partner,” driving a getaway car, passing false information or playing some other accessory role.

Those bad relationships that got them into jail in the first place continue to torment them on the inside. Instead of using violence to hurt each other, inmates engage in what Hanna terms “female competition” — sexual discrediting in the form of rumor. “If I want to hurt you I say I’ve been sleeping with your boyfriend, or he has been writing me,” Murphy says. “Or I write your boyfriend and say you have been sleeping with someone else.”

Working with the female prison population has its challenges — as in male inmates are from Mars, female inmates are from Venus. Some guards are extremely reluctant to do it. Others, like the one accused of raping two female inmates in South Burlington last month, clearly shouldn’t be allowed to. “They say the women are difficult. All they want to do is talk. They won’t take no for an answer,” Murphy says. “Women want to feel that you are hearing them, you are taking the time to listen to them. You go into a male unit, you tell the inmates to lock in. They’ll complain as they move to their cells and lock in. You try the same thing with women and they will turn around and say, ‘Why, why, why? What are we locking in for?’”

Children are an added stress on women behind bars in Vermont. Approximately 80 percent have kids, as evidenced by photographs posted over nearly every bunk. “A very common thing is, a woman will hear from somebody else that her child is being hurt. Or that a caretaker for the child hasn’t come home two nights in a row,” Buell says. It is easy to see how incarceration can perpetuate a cycle of crime, violence and sexual abuse. Roughly 85 percent of Vermont’s incarcerated females have suffered prior sexual or physical violence.

It is more than ironic that these women are now living in high-security quarters once inhabited by men, complete with stainless steel toilets — without seats — in the corner of each cell. The ceiling in the day room still bears the damage of the ice storm riot two years ago. “Why bother fixing it,” one woman offers in anticipation of the eventual move to Waterbury, “when the men are just going to destroy it again?”

The women in South Burlington are as ready to leave that facility as male inmates are to reclaim their space — overcrowding in South Burlington in particular is driving male inmates out of state. But in addition to separate space, the women need gender-sensitive programs designed to address their problems, according to Buell. Vermont is looking to Minnesota for creative solutions. “We do need to deal with the issues of women’s violence,” Buell says. “But we can’t do it with the same models we use for the men.”

Getting through to girls may be even more urgent, given that national reports show young females outpacing boys in every criminal-offense category. Without effective intervention, the delinquent girls of today may become the female inmates of tomorrow. Those may not be girl gangs hanging out on the streets of Montpelier, but Corporal Mark Moody confirms “a general concern there are more girls in the system, and more aggressive activity on the part of females than there was in the past.” For four years, he has been the man in Montpelier schools, following up on “juvenile issues.”

Similarly, South Royalton is not exactly ground zero for girl violence, but it is home to Cheryl Hanna, a national expert on the subject. A former assistant district attorney in Baltimore, Hanna first raised feminist hackles with an article in the Harvard Law Review advocating mandatory victim participation in domestic-abuse cases. Last spring she published a paper that looks at young female offenders in a cultural context, noting the coincidence of sex, violence and the girl-power movement. “You go to the record store in Montpelier and there are 13-year-olds buying Spice Girls albums and listening to Queen Latifa,” she says. “They are doing the same things that girls in New York City are doing.”

In “Ganging Up on Girls: Young Women and Their Emerging Violence,” Hanna cites bad-girl role models like Courtney Love, Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even the Disney character Mulan to explain why girls may be acting more like boys. Juxtaposing lyrics by Helen Reddy and Fiona Apple, she suggests the “emergence of girl violence is as much about the sexualization of violence as it is about juvenile crime.” She also challenges the social constructionist viewpoint of the nature of violence by contending that “aggression is a part of human nature for both men and women.”

Hanna’s most controversial ideas, however, center around the notion of “female competition” — her book proposal on the subject has been met with “hostility” by female editors at various publishing houses. Hanna states with uncompromising, albeit heterosexual, clarity, “In the end, what girls really want is not to be boys, but to attract them. Herein lies the paradox of girl power. Girl power is seductive. Aggressiveness is sexy ... It is empowering to be fun, fearless and female. And men love it.”

“Granted, some female violence is, at its core, a battle between the sexes, an extreme manifestation of our hatred for men,” Hanna writes. “However, this article suggests that most female violence is a battle among the sexes, rooted in our hatred of other women, an extreme manifestation of our love for men.” Sadly, crime statistics bear this out. Three-quarters of the violent crimes committed by females are simple assaults on other women.

The positive effect of girl power may go awry when young females have limited social and economic options, Hanna writes, in communities affected by drugs, violence, poverty, racism and sexual abuse. Like their older sisters in crime, most violent girls are victims of chronic molestation. She observes, “Girl gangs illustrate how the worst social conditions can heighten female competition as well as how cooperation can be the ticket our of this conundrum.”

Moody sees similar dynamics in the schools and on the streets of Montpelier. Girl groupings, he says, seem to fulfill a function for young women who feel forgotten and neglected “where the family is lacking.” He adds, “Before, it was accepted that boys would act out, stand up, fight for their independence. Now we realize girls have the same problems.” Starting in seventh grade, he sees more girl-on-girl harassment, “over boy issues, over friendship issues. There are some physical threats involved,” he says.

Moody plays a preventative role in the capital city, identifying problem kids and bringing parents, teachers, coaches and employers together to head off crises. Two weeks ago he escorted a local girl to Woodside for what staff there refer to as a “scared-straight tour.” It was a typical situation, as Moody describes it. “Her needs at home weren’t being addressed, so she was on the street, looking for young boys to pay attention to her … When you can’t get your needs met in a good way, you get them met in a bad way.”

Coulman at SRS says he has seen at least one case in which an older girl raped a younger boy. But the majority of offenses are not so serious. It can be a long road from the principal’s office to locked detention at Woodside, along which a girl may or may not pass through “foster care” and or other community-based programs. Most kids in SRS custody are called “children in need of supervision” — the subcategories are abused, neglected or unmanageable. But when a juvenile commits a violent crime, it almost always gets her “delinquent” status. From that point, SRS and the juvenile court system decide where she goes.

The judicial system used to be partial to girls — a patriarchal tradition Hanna refers to as “chivalry.” But Lisa Elder, a teacher at Woodside, suggests the law, and society, now take a harsher view of juvenile female offenders. Women judges and prosecutors have less sympathy — or sexism, depending on your ideology — for their little sisters. “In the past, they would be like, ‘Let’s get this girl home.’ Now they are like, ‘This girl is very aggressive, very assaultive. She can’t be at home.’”

But there aren’t that many alternatives. Woodside saw about 80 girls this year. From there they get farmed out to a half-dozen long-term settings, including rural Camp E-Wen-Akee in Benson and the Bennington School. The Allenbrook programs in South Burlington also take females. A new program in Castleton, run by Spectrum Youth & Family Services, offers “short-term crisis stabilization” — just for girls. Asked if she would ever make the switch to a girls-only facility, Elder’s response was “not in a minute. The girls are much more aggressive than the boys. They are biters and kickers. For my own personal safety, I would rather work with the boys.”

The newest facility for females in Vermont is Rutland’s two-month-old Stratton Road Program, run by Easter Seals of New Hampshire. So far there have been 18 escapes, or “runs,” according to supervisor Brian Cross. With only five girls in residence, that is not a great start. If this trend keeps up, Coulman says, “Vermont may have to look into sending young female offenders out of state.”

The clientele at Stratton Road is tougher than expected, according to Cross. “Most of the children we deal with weren’t born bad. They have been abused by just about everybody on the face of the Earth. That brings on lot of problems, and aggressions,” he says. “They do whatever they need to do to survive. To put them back together is like Humpty Dumpty. It makes you want to cry sometimes.”

Hanna might call that a “rational response to the pathological world in which they live.” On the one hand, Elder says, “we are teaching females to be more assertive. They don’t have to be somebody’s slave or whore.” On the other hand, they still get the message they are nothing without a man. “I never met a female who was shooting heroin with another female,” she observes.

Although she doesn’t offer many solutions in her paper, in person Hanna champions the importance of team sports “to teach girls to compete in positive ways.” She also supports single-sex education. But most of all she believes that facing “the feminine side of violence” — however painful it may be — is a prerequisite to helping girls, “before what is good about girl power becomes bad.”

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

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Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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