The idea of a reform school for girls seems to come straight out of a B-movie from the '50s, complete with stock characters like the naïve innocent, the hardened mean girl with a heart of gold who ends up plotting a way for them both to escape, and an evil warden who gets in their way. It's hard to believe that such a place could still exist.
Until August of this year, the notorious Beloit reform school for girls in Beloit, KS did exist, and the school, founded in the 1890s, only recently shut down because the state could no longer afford to house the remaining 21 girls to the tune of $200,000 a year.
Although the school's founders had good intentions, Beloit's dark history includes the severe mistreatment of girls, many of who were running away from physically and sexually abusive homes. In effect, the abused were shipped off to be further abused. How bad did it get? In the '30s, a superintendent who was influenced by Nazi eugenics practices had 62 of her charges involuntarily sterilized. To read more about the history of Beloit and how it evolved, read more
Beloit was founded and in part funded by the suffragist and pro-Prohibition group The Women's Christian Temperance Union in the 1890s. Sometimes, the girls there were practically "indentured" by farm families in this rural town in order to earn the food they ate. (This was all before the state took over.)
At the time, according to Russell Jennings, commissioner of the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority, girls "were really viewed in our society much more as property." They didn't even have to run away to be deemed "incorrigible" or "wayward." They only had to be, as he put it, "a pain in the neck."
In a file from a girl housed (incarcerated?) at Beloit in the '30s, her offenses were that she "associated with Mexican men" and "became intoxicated at dances." Another woman was sent to the reform school for "being immoral (with father)."
A federal law passed in the mid-1970s ended the practice of sending girls to reform school when their offenses, if they'd been committed by adults, would not be considered crimes. But their incarceration continued in Kansas until 1983. Now, troubled teenage girls are sent to community centers where they can get the help that they need.
In spite of its history, for some who stayed there, Beloit was a haven from abuse at home. "I will always believe that because of Beloit and the staff, I am where I am today," said a 50-year-old who is happily married with three children and counsels survivors of sexual abuse. "They saved the lives of unwanted children."