If you want to understand just how miserable a childhood can be, 16-year-old Jane Doe is a good place to start.
Thats what the authorities in Connecticut call her to protect her identity. She was removed a few days ago from an adult prison where she had been confined by herself for two months not as punishment but because the state said it had nowhere else to put her that would be safe.
Now Jane is in a girls detention center in Middletown, Connecticut. Shes one of almost 70,000 American youths incarcerated on any given day and a reminder of how ineffective our programs for troubled children are.
Like many detained kids, Jane has been through hell. Because her father was in prison and her mother was a drug abuser, she was raised by relatives. At age 8, she says in an affidavit provided to the courts, her cousin began to rape her anally, causing her to lose control of her bowels.
My grandfather made me sleep outside on the porch for two days because I couldnt hold my stool and had an accident, she recounts. He told me, only animals do that, and if I didnt stop he would treat me like one.
A history of abuse is common for troubled kids. One study of 2,500 people sentenced to life imprisonment while juveniles found that almost half had been physically abused. Among girls, 77 percent reported sexual abuse.
More than 60 percent of incarcerated youths in America are confined for nonviolent offenses. Two-thirds are children of color.
Jane, who is Hispanic, seems to have had little help as a young child, when social services are most effective. But at 12, she says in the affidavit, she was placed by state authorities in a school for troubled youths. Even after coming under state supervision, she recounts repeated sexual abuse by staff, relatives and other youths.
Jane was particularly vulnerable because she is transgender. She was born male but identifies as female.
At 15, Jane was living on the streets. A pimp sold her for sex, she says; she eventually escaped but continued to sell sex herself.
All I wanted was someone to tell me they loved me, that everything would be all right, she says in the affidavit. But that never happened.
She was periodically violent to staff and girls in the youth centers she was sent to, court documents show. Connecticut cited that history of violence, and a need to protect others, in isolating Jane in an adult prison beginning in April.
It was devastating for her, says her lawyer, Aaron J. Romano. (Connecticut officials deny that it was so grim and say that she had educational opportunities.)
Now that Jane is out of prison and in youth detention, the aim is to provide her care that, both her advocates and the state say, would ideally lead to placement in a loving foster-care family, with outside support to help the transition.
Were already looking for an appropriate foster family, Joette Katz, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, told me.
Through her lawyer, Jane answered questions I sent to her. She was scornful of the juvenile justice system: It doesnt work, she said flatly. But she spoke poignantly of her desire to become a nurse and a mentor for other transgender children.
I would love to be a role model for young trans kids, she said.
The larger lesson is the way we systematically over-rely on the criminal justice toolbox to deal with youths, rather than on social services or education. The United States incarcerates children at a rate that is 10 or 20 times higher than in some other industrial countries.
A generation ago, perhaps it was plausible that the shock of juvenile detention would scare a kid back to the straight-and-narrow path. Now thats not tenable. Robust research shows that incarcerating kids often just turns them into career criminals.
The cost of detaining a youth is about $100,000 a year. And one study found that the cost to society of a high-risk 14-year-old who doesnt straighten out is at least $3.2 million over his lifetime.
Thus it would be economically efficient, as well as humane, to invest in interventions from the beginning of life that reduce delinquency. That means home visitation to at-risk families, lead abatement, early education, and schools for low-income children that are as good as those for the middle class.
As a result partly of costs, youth detention rates are dropping since peaking in about 1995. But we still fail systematically to invest adequately in children like Jane, who is a reminder that its much easier to help a child at 6 than at 16.
Everyone thinks I am some kind of wild animal, she wrote despairingly from prison in May. If this is helping me, then Im all set with being helped.
Nicholas Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm in Yamhill.
Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times since 2001, won the Pulitzer Prize two times, in 1990 and 2006.