DAY NINE: Missing Girls: Displacement, Disconnection and Criminalisation 

In this powerful piece, the authors reflect on missing women, seen as ‘runaways’ in Australia. These women’s experiences and the reasons for running away, are not questioned at all and seen as offenders who leave home as an act of rebellion in the first place. When they are found, it is usually because they have been in contact with the criminal justice system, which further disrupts their access to welfare and their community through incarceration.

Phillipa Evans, Peita Richards, BJ Newton and Maree Higgins

Featured image: shoe on train tracks, reproduced from iStock

Gendered research into contact with the criminal justice system overwhelmingly focuses on contextual vulnerabilities, life experiences, and the issue of recidivism versus rehabilitation for male offenders. Yet in Australia, statistics show that the number of women in contact with the criminal justice system is increasing. Between 2009–2019, the prevalence of women detained in correctional facilities rose by 49%, and the number of women in contact with the criminal justice system for violence-related offences increased from 38% to 46% between 2016-2017. Concerningly, many women in prison have experienced gender-based violence throughout their lives and are at increased risk of ongoing victimisation once they are released from custody. Despite this, research into female offenders, and how they have come to enter the criminal justice system, is still largely overlooked.  

Research has identified that girls and young women are more likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system after being reported missing, or ‘running away’. Studies in the United States confirm that as little as one-fifth of missing girls are reported to authorities, and Australia records an average of 38,000 missing persons each year.

So, we pose the question: where are the missing girls?  

We know that between 40–60% of missing persons are aged 13–17 years at the time of reporting. Previous research has found that girls are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system after they are reported missing or classified as ‘runaways’ from Out-Of-Home Care, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls are over-represented.

What we seek to know is: why are these girls only ‘found’ through contact with the criminal justice system? 

Displacement from family, community, and culture are significant factors when considering the experiences of, and decisions made by, missing girls. For these girls – often classified as ‘runaways’ – the period of time in which they are classified as ‘missing’ is fraught with challenges and fragmented service provision and engagement. Exposure to high-risk situations, such as homelessness, substance use, and exploitative sex work heightens their vulnerability. Engagement with service agencies may be sporadic or non-existent until after initial contact with the criminal justice system is made, further exacerbating displacement and disconnection.  

The term ‘runaway’ conjures up a mix of emotions regarding young women, often leading to stereotyping that their behaviour is an act of rebelliousness, or that they have a clear choice to leave home. The reason that girls run away is complex and may be due to reasons including child sexual abuse and family and domestic violence. When a girl runs away and cannot be located, she is classified as a missing person. However, when she re-emerges or is ‘found’ through contact with the criminal justice system, this welfare approach is disrupted. 

In these cases, girls and young women are instead labelled as ‘offenders’, and their displacement from family, community and culture is often reproduced through incarceration. Their lived experiences in those missing years are often ignored or treated as a mere afterthought during sentencing.   

It may be that the very nature of being classified as missing is more criminalising for girls than it is for boys with similar early life experiences, potentially including removal from the family of origin and placement in Out-Of-Home Care. The complexities of lived experience for girls and young women who go missing have significant implications for both their safety and well-being over the short and long term.

 Specifically, there is heightened concern about girls and young women with lived experience of sexual abuse and/or neglect being further exploited during the years in which they are formally missing. Of particular concern is their exposure to broader social challenges, such as homelessness, drug use, targeted sexual exploitation, and accidental deaths.  

There is uncertainty about how government and non-government service providers are best able to respond to these girls and young women, both after they appear in the criminal justice system, and through interventions that will prevent the commencement of offending in the first instance. Understanding missing girls’ experiences, including the impact of displacement and contextual vulnerability such as experiences of gender-based violence, will drive better outcomes and enable more meaningful engagement with partners, families, communities, and women themselves.  

Authors’ Bios 

Dr Phillipa Evans is the Chief Investigator on the ARC linkage grant – Missing Girls: From childhood runaways to criminalised women. A Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW, Phillipa worked for over 18 years as a social worker in clinical, policy and academic roles across a variety of contexts including youth justice, child protection, and mental health. Phillipa is also currently working on an ARC linkage grant examining the effectiveness of a training and coaching program for youth justice custodial staff. This study aims to increase the interpersonal and behaviour management skills of youth justice staff through specialist training, coaching and supervision. 

Peita Richards is a social psychologist with an interdisciplinary academic history across justice studies, politics, and law. Having recently completed her PhD, Peita joined the School of Social Sciences at UNSW as the Research Associate for the ARC linkage grant – Missing Girls: From childhood runaways to criminalised women. A proud Wiradjuri woman, and former political analyst, Peita is dedicated to solution-based research. You can tweet her @peitalr  

Dr BJ Newton is a proud Wiradjuri woman and Scientia Senior Research Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. BJ’s research focuses on working in partnership with Aboriginal organisations to build evidence and support Aboriginal families interfacing with child protection systems. Her current research, Bring them home, keep them home, is the first of its kind to investigate the rates, outcomes and experiences of successful and sustainable restoration for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. 

Dr Maree Higgins is a Senior Lecturer and convenor of the Social Work Honours Program and UNSW. Maree undertakes research on human rights priorities of people from refugee backgrounds, those with disability, older people, and missing girls. She is an Associate of the Australian Institute of Human Rights and is affiliated with the Forced Migration Research Network, the Kaldor Centre, and the Gendered Violence Research Network. You can tweet her @MareeHiggins  

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