By: Dr. Danielle Harris
On March 6th I gave a research presentation to the Health and Recovery Services Management Leadership Meeting in San Mateo County. The purpose of this talk was to present preliminary results from an ongoing study of incarcerated girls using the Multidimensional Inventory of Development, Sex, and Aggression (the MIDSA). The MIDSA is an extensive psychometric assessment that is administered on a computer. Respondents answer a series of questions about their criminal, family, psychiatric, social, education, employment, and sexual history, as well as a number of items that assess their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors.
Subjects included a custodial sample of 30 female adolescents who participated in the “Gaining Independence and Reclaiming Lives Successfully” (GIRLS) Program. The GIRLS program is a gender specific collaborative program involving the court, probation, Mental Health, Human Services, and substance abuse counselors. It is designed to serve girls who have significant substance abuse and mental health problems and other at-risk behaviors. The program promotes growth and positive change in young women by providing intensive probation supervision, frequent court reviews, and therapeutic services.
The girls ranged in age from 15 to 18 years (Mean: 16.43 years) and reported an average of 7.4 arrests (Range: 0-36) and serving an average of 5.8 (Range: 0-25) separate custodial sentences. Of the girls who had siblings, more than half reported that at least one of their siblings had been arrested and more than a quarter reported that at least one of their siblings had been held in a psychiatric facility. Results also indicated an extremely high rate of ‘crimes of survival’ such as running away (77%), using drugs (88%) and selling drugs (48%).
Only four girls (12%) were raised by both biological parents until their sentence. The remaining girls were either raised by a single mother (in some cases with a male caregiver coming in and out of the home) (44%), or in especially chaotic and disruptive environments (44%) that featured frequent moves between parents, grandparents, mental institutions, correctional facilities, foster care, and group homes.
The MIDSA has been administered to over 4000 people so far, enabling the comparison of this sample to other comparable groups of individuals. When compared to both college women and incarcerated boys, the present sample of girls had extremely elevated scores on many scales of psychopathic traits, specifically: lack of empathy, conning/manipulation, impulsivity, hostility to women, and lack of perspective taking.
Next steps include administering more MIDSAs to enlarge our sample size, and further exploring the nature and extent of psychopathy in women. Although there is considerable research on the manifestation of psychopathy in men, the extent to which it can legitimately be extended to adolescents or to women remains unknown. Even though these preliminary results indicate in young girls the presence of many psychopathic traits, the relationship between those traits and the impact of prior trauma, attachment patterns, or the development of coping mechanisms requires further investigation.Tags: Danielle Harris, MIDSA