Crittenton Services Guides Young Women

“We are not bad girls!”

Those words resonate for Crittenton Services Inc. officials as they plan for Paint the Town Pink, the largest annual fundraiser for the nonprofit organization that helps at-risk teen girls develop into confident, productive young women. With a New York City backdrop, Pink and the City is the theme for this year’s Paint the Town Pink festivities, which include dinner and dancing, at the Wheeling Artisan Center, beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16.

The Christian Fellowship Foundation is the gold sponsor for the eighth annual Paint the Town Pink. Chef Rocco Basil is preparing a full dinner menu to be served in stations with a New York theme. Redline, a band from Cleveland, is the featured entertainment. All proceeds from the event go to the Crittenton Foundation.

A few weeks ago, Kathy Szafran, president and chief executive officer of Crittenton Services Inc., accompanied a young woman, a “graduate” of the Crittenton program, to Washington, D.C., for a leadership caucus presented by the Rebecca Project for Human Rights: Health, Safety and Dignity for Vulnerable Families. The former Crittenton client and young women from similar programs around the nation testified at a congressional briefing, offering heart-wrenching accounts of the abuse and victimization they experienced before being rescued. They also told of their journey through treatment to become self-affirming, independent young women. Present were “60 people and not a dry eye in the room,” Szafran said.

After listening to her compatriots’ stories of loss, despair, growth and redemption, a young woman from a Crittenton program in California surveyed the circle of women and declared, defiantly and triumphantly, “We are not bad girls!”

That statement has remained with Szafran because, she believes, it describes accurately the vulnerable, at-risk teen girls who are referred to Crittenton Services in Wheeling for education, therapy and treatment.

Using gender-specific programs, Crittenton caseworkers and counselors help girls develop a sense of self-worth and equip them to face life back home or in an independent setting.

The Rebecca Project for Human Rights is a nonprofit national and legal policy organization that advocates for public policy reform, justice and dignity for vulnerable families.

Founded in 2001 by Malika Saada Saar, who was then a student at Georgetown Law School, the advocacy group provides nonpartisan leadership on issues affecting vulnerable women and girls.

Szafran said that “10 providers and 10 young women who have come through our system” were invited to participate in the leadership caucus. The group included four girls from Crittenton programs and six from similar agencies.

The conference ended with a briefing with the young women and members of Senate and House staffs and key departmental directors. “We had some key players” in attendance, she said.

As the young women shared their stories, Szafran said she and the others heard a pattern of how these young girls had been “categorized and criminalized and put in horrible high-risk environments and were trying to survive,” either in urban areas or rural settings. She commented, “The majority of girls in our program have similar situations.”

For example, the former client, who is now emancipated and rearing her daughter out of state, came to Crittenton Services in Wheeling from rural West Virginia. Jessica (not her real name) had a drug-addicted mother and, at age 12, was allowed to go live with her father who had just gotten out of prison on drug trafficking charges, Szafran said.

The father established a crystal meth lab and introduced his young daughter to the illicit drug. “He gave her the pipe and the rocks and a lighter and said, ‘You’re going to really love this,”‘ Szafran related.

Not surprisingly, Jessica became “extremely behaviorally challenged in school,” Szafran said. After meeting with school officials, the father was allowed, inexplicably, to homeschool Jessica. Her “education,” however, consisted of learning “how to make the crystal meth and how to sell it to his friends. This included some of his friends having sex with her,” Szafran said.

At 12 or 13, Jessica was having sex with one of her father’s friends, a 23-year-old married man. She didn’t tell anyone of this sexual abuse as “she felt guilt because he was married,” Szafran said.

Visiting a county fair, Jessica, in a rage, attacked a woman so severely that the woman had to be hospitalized. The teen was arrested and taken to a detention center where she went through “crystal meth withdrawal without any support or help,” Szafran related. During Jessica’s 40-day stay at the center, it was discovered that the 13-year-old was pregnant, and she was referred to Crittenton Services. “Abuse, neglect, addiction, and we’re 13,” the director said, describing the girl’s background.

Jessica was reading at a second-grade level, but “she loved to read books. She wanted to read to her baby,” Szafran recalled. At Crittenton, she did well in the program and worked very hard in school.

After giving birth to “a beautiful baby girl,” Jessica said, “I’m now living for this child.” Jessica “decided she had to have a different lifestyle. She wanted to have a good life for her daughter,” Szafran said. Jessica, now 17, is rearing her daughter, working and attending college classes at night.

“She (Jessica) came into this system as, many would think, a delinquent,” Szafran commented. “But what she really, really was, was a young girl who was incredibly exploited. If she’d been left to the juvenile justice system, she might have become more criminalized.” Instead, the young woman has been “rehabilitated – so independent and self-sufficient,” her mentor added.

During the leadership caucus, Szafran said she heard accounts from young women who had been selling drugs and prostituting themselves, while “under the influence of these adults who misused their innocennce to operate in a way that made them (the girls) the bad guys. Through no fault of their own, they’re in these life situations.

“It takes all of us to guide them and help them become independent,” the Crittenton leader said. Participation in a treatment program “stops that cycle of recriminalization and helps these kids come to terms with their trauma.”

Szafran explained that Crittenton espouses “a gender-specific philosophy” based on the elements of being female. “Girls respond differently than boys in treatment environments,” she commented. “Women are so much more relational, while men are more competitive … Women need to build relationships. It takes just one person.”

Crittenton Services has a 42-resident capacity and always has a waiting list, Szafran said, explaining that referrals are assessed based on risk.

The leader also recognizes that ongoing assistance and resources are necessary for girls who complete treatment. “For these kids, it’s a lifetime. It doesn’t end here,” she said. “We have bumps in all of our lives. We need somewhere for all to go when these bumps come.”

To meet those needs, the National Crittenton Foundation is launching an initiative, funded by Walmart, to provide more long-term physical and mental health programs for at-risk young women. Szafran said they are working with the Kennedy School of Policy at Harvard to develop “evidence-based, best practices for working with this population.”

She reflected, “It’s an exciting place to be right now. But it’s also sad that these kids have to go through such horrendous experiences in West Virginia, in Ohio County, not just Harlem. But it’s good to see how resilient they can be.”