Mother Jones


Why thousands of girls have been jailed for talking back, staying out late, or skipping school

IT WAS LATE on a weekend night and Kara was bored. Her adopted mother, Dotty—nearly 70, arthritic, and having recently recovered from heart surgery—was asleep upstairs. Talking with her cousin on the phone wasn’t easing Kara’s restlessness. She wanted a snack from the corner store a few blocks away, so the 12-year-old told her cousin she was going to drive her mom’s car.

“That is not a good idea,” her cousin warned.

“I’ll be all right,” Kara said before hanging up. She went outside, turned the ignition of Dotty’s burgundy Oldsmobile, and carefully stepped on the gas.

Kara, who was in seventh grade and had been assessed as a gifted student, drove a few blocks—passing near the spot where she’d gotten into a fight with a gang of girls who’d beaten up her friend, and then by the local fast-food joint where a woman would later be shot during a robbery. Then she tried to park and swiped a dumpster, scraping the front of the Olds. Panicked, she drove home, parked, and slipped upstairs.

When Kara woke up the next morning, two policemen were standing at the foot of her bed. Dotty had seen the scratch, called the cops, and told them that she suspected her increasingly hard-to-handle daughter. Kara confessed. The officers saw an elderly, single mom and a cocky adolescent in need of some discipline. Not long afterward, Kara was summoned to juvenile court.

Kara was born in 1991, while her biological mom was in prison for stabbing an ex-boyfriend. To keep her out of the foster system, family friends Dotty and Ralph adopted Kara. (Their names and those of others appearing in this story have been changed.) Both were then in their early 60s. Kara became attached to Ralph, but he died when she was only six years old, and she started to act out. Tantrums gave way to drinking with friends and smoking cigarettes. Dotty struggled to keep up.

In front of the judge, Dotty’s frustrations poured out: Kara was always talking back, always disobedient. She took advantage of

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