The System


The Film

Shangra, wearing a white blouse and black jacket, sits in the courtroom with her lawyer. They are both listening intently. 

Stephanie, hair pulled back, wearing glasses, holds and kisses her baby boy

Profile of Sheila in an orange jumpsuit and black vest, at the forefront of a large room in juvenile hall; three guys in orange jumpsuits are seated against the wall

“You need to ask for what you want in the system or the system will lock you up.”
—Lateefah Simon

Although the youth crime rate in San Francisco has declined in the past decade, the number of girls in the juvenile justice system has doubled. GIRL TROUBLE, an intimate documentary by directors Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko, goes beyond the statistics and chronicles four years in the lives of three teenage girls struggling to free themselves from San Francisco's complex and flagging juvenile justice system.

The girls at the heart of GIRL TROUBLE, Stephanie, Shangra and Sheila, have grown up in a harsh world defined by neglectful or abusive family members, drug use, homelessness and poverty. Stephanie is pregnant, and police have a warrant to arrest her for running away from a group home. Shangra, who sells crack to earn money, is torn between taking care of her homeless mother and taking care of herself. Sheila, whose abusive father and brothers are in and out of jail, is falling deeper into drug addiction. These girls, and many like them, aren’t just “at risk”—they are in deep trouble.

One place where the girls can turn for help and hope is the progressive Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD). The nonprofit organization, led by women under 25 years old, was created in 1993 to empower San Francisco’s marginalized young women. All three girls have part-time jobs at the Center, which offers support groups, training and access to jobs that pay a livable wage.

Posed black and white portrait of Lateefah Simon, an African American woman, her hair pulled back, wearing glasses, elbows resting on chair, hands clasped, listening
Lateefah Simon

As the girls face problems with the law, family, boyfriends and school, as well as the challenges of day-to-day survival, the Center’s dynamic 22-year-old executive director, Lateefah Simon, provides some stability. Simon, who grew up on the same streets as the girls she mentors, offers straight talk, a shoulder to lean on and hope that there is life on the other side of the system.

While the documentary tells the compelling stories of Stephanie, Shangra and Sheila, it also opens a window onto the juvenile justice system, exposing its failure to break the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration that consumes vulnerable young women. While girls now represent 28 percent of the U.S. juvenile detention population, they receive only two percent of delinquency services, according to a 2001 study by the American Bar Association.

With GIRL TROUBLE, filmmakers Leban and Szajko present an honest, unsentimental look at three girls on the fringes of society reaching for a last chance at survival.

Get background information and updates on Stephanie, Shangra, Sheila and Lateefah >>

Learn more about the juvenile justice system >>

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