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Powerless Girls in the Most Powerful City in the World: A Project to Disrupt the Abuse to Prison Pipeline

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By Rebecca Burney, Esq., 2017 Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by PepsiCo, Inc.

Photo of Rebecca Burney
Rebecca Burney

“I’m sorry you had to come all the way here! You can go home. Criminals don’t usually get sexual assault advocates.” This is what the forensic nurse examiner told me when I arrived at the hospital at 3 a.m. ready to perform my duties as a sexual assault counselor nearly five years ago. I remember watching in horror as a young woman with torn clothing and bruises was shackled to an examination bed, preparing for a forensic exam while a male police officer watched. She had been arrested for public intoxication and drug possession, but on her way to jail she told the officer she had been raped earlier that evening and he brought her to the hospital according to protocol. Once alone, she told me her story of sexual abuse, child molestation, homelessness, and a string of abusive relationships that resulted in her being sex trafficked since the age of fifteen. When I asked about the drug use, she said, “I just wanted to feel something again.”

The year I spent serving as a sexual assault advocate, witnessing the destructive power of sexual violence and the criminalization of trauma, inspired me to go to law school and later design my Equal Justice Works Fellowship project. Since those hospital waiting rooms, I have worked with countless survivors. I have witnessed the long-term effects of sexual trauma, and the negative impact that justice system involvement can have on a young woman’s life. I designed my project in collaboration with my host organization Rights4Girls so that I could help create replicable strategies to dismantle the Abuse to Prison Pipeline in Washington, D.C., and disrupt the gendered pathways leading girls into the juvenile justice system. I knew that this project was ambitious. Girls of color are disproportionately impacted by policies designed to criminalize their trauma, and I knew that for my project to be successful, I would have to educate and train stakeholders while also empowering the girls most impacted to become their own advocates for change.

The gendered pathways that girls take into the juvenile justice system are complex and often the result of sexual trauma. Throughout my Fellowship, I have focused my legislative and policy advocacy on two major pathways into the juvenile justice system: school pushout and domestic child sex trafficking. For example, I testified before the DC Council on behalf of Rights4Girls, in support of the Student Fair Access to Schools Act of 2017, which ensured that girls would be free from harsh exclusionary discipline policies for minor infractions, such as dress code violations, and that schools would adopt a trauma-informed approach to school discipline. When girls are suspended or expelled from school, they are at a greater risk of sexual exploitation and juvenile justice involvement. As a former teacher, school pushout was one of the pathways I felt most passionate about, and I knew that I needed to create a space for girls to discuss the challenges they faced and their personal experiences with the justice system.

My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has given me the opportunity to engage lawmakers, community members, and other stakeholders in discussions about the impact our current policies have on girls in the juvenile justice system. I have had the opportunity to advocate for important policy initiatives, train judges on domestic child sex trafficking, and help publish important research on girls in DC’s juvenile justice system. While I have appreciated all aspects of my project, the most fulfilling component has been the youth workshop series I created in partnership with the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative. This workshop series was designed to empower girls of color who have touched the juvenile justice system through either their own experiences or those of a friend or family member, and give them the skills necessary to be their own advocates. The participants learned about sex trafficking, conditions of confinement, school pushout, adultification, self-care, public speaking and a variety of other topics.

Rights4Girls Workshop
Rebecca Burney’s clients at a Rights4Girls workshop

I owe much of the success of our workshop series to the support of my sponsor, PepsiCo, Inc. At the beginning of my Fellowship, PepsiCo asked how they could support the project. I suggested they contribute snacks and refreshments, since I knew food costs could add up quickly if we had to provide them on our own. While PepsiCo was happy to fulfill this request, they wanted to do more, and were dedicated to helping empower our girls and young ladies. I shared with PepsiCo that during one of our workshops, the girls had expressed the desire for mentorship and the need for role models who looked like them. I had hoped that maybe one member of the PepsiCo team could speak to the girls at a future workshop, but PepsiCo had much better ideas.

Immediately after I mentioned the need for mentorship, PepsiCo pulled together women of color on their team and invited our girls to their corporate office in Washington, D.C. The women shared an amazing Saturday afternoon with the girls discussing career paths and overcoming adversity. Meanwhile, our girls and young ladies gave the women their insights about which Pepsi products they liked the best. The girls told me it was the best workshop they had been to, and couldn’t believe that women at PepsiCo chose to spend their weekend with them. While this workshop alone was more than I could have hoped for, PepsiCo wanted to do something extra special for our girls the following weekend too. The following Saturday, PepsiCo brought our girls to watch Michelle Obama discuss her book, Becoming. The girls were overjoyed at seeing the former first lady, someone who looked just like them, share her story. As we were leaving, one of the girls said to me, “Ms. Rebecca, I just feel so inspired. Like I can do anything.”

I often think about the young woman I met in the hospital room nearly five years ago, and wonder from time to time what happened to her after she left the emergency room with the police officer. I know that the odds were stacked against her and research shows that young women who are trafficked often cycle in and out of the justice system. I wonder what her life would have been like if she didn’t need to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, because she was provided with the resources and support necessary to deal with the significant sexual violence and trauma she experienced. My project has confirmed for me that when our society invests in our most vulnerable girls, there are no limits to the amazing things that they can accomplish in life.

To learn more about Rebecca and her Fellowship, view her profile.

My project has confirmed for me that when our society invests in our most vulnerable girls, there are no limits to the amazing things that they can accomplish in life.

Rebecca Burney /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow