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One Thing Leads to Another: Juvenile Delinquency Rises

Statistics showed a rising number of juvenile delinquents in Portland during the war. Vandalism and burglary followed increased numbers of youth on the streets late at night. (Image source: 3)

Statistics showed a rising number of juvenile delinquents in Portland during the war. Vandalism and burglary followed increased numbers of youth on the streets late at night. (Image source: 3)

Youth: a "Perplexing and Troublesome Period"
Wartime social changes led to a rise in juvenile delinquency across the country, an unwanted but not unexpected phenomenon. Social scientists had noted an increase in delinquency during World War I and Britain reported a jump of 50 percent during the first year of World War II. But anticipating the problem did little to untangle the web of complex issues that caused some "alarming" symptoms to surface nationally and in Oregon. Despite the wholesome portrait of unity, sacrifice, and patriotism painted in movies and on posters, shocking and lurid behavior drew the attention of newspapers and government officials alike. Both wondered how so many youths could seemingly careen so out of control.

Statistics point to the problem
Statistics, while not unanimous, generally supported the concern. Nationally, during 1942, the first full year of the war, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported that arrests of "young boys and men" actually dropped off as much as ten percent. But arrests of minor girls increased a staggering 55.7 percent. More detailed numbers showed that arrests of girls under 21 years old for prostitution rose 64.8 percent; arrests for other sex offenses jumped 104.7 percent; arrests for vagrancy shot up 124.3 percent; arrests for disorderly conduct increased 69.6 percent; and arrests for drunkenness rose 39.9 percent. Another source measuring the "rate of juvenile delinquency" saw an increase over the same period of eight percent for boys and 31 percent for girls.(1)

Some Oregon officials saw plenty to worry about too. Portland's acting mayor, William Bowes, wrote in October 1943 that "Portland's problem may be seen very clearly in the report of the Bureau of Police. This shows a 500 per cent increase in delinquency in 1942-43 when compared with the 1940-1941 report. Also it is noteworthy that the age of delinquents has dropped from 16 and 17 years a few years ago to 13 to 15 today." The city's emergency hospitals reported a 400 percent increase in juvenile cases in February 1943. School attendance officers saw truancy cases double in 1943 over prewar averages and one of Portland's truancy or "hookey cops" asserted that "juvenile crime has gone up by one-fourth."(2)

Many probation officers went into the armed forces or higher paying defense industry jobs during the war, leaving fewer people to keep track of at risk youth. (Image source: 3)

Many probation officers went into the armed forces or higher paying defense industry jobs during the war, leaving fewer people to keep track of at risk youth. (Image source: 3)

However, a closer look at statistics for Multnomah County, home of Portland, revealed a more subtle and somewhat less frightening view of the problem, according to Multnomah County domestic court judge, Donald E. Long. He stated that boys delinquency cases rose 14 percent to 898 in the county during 1942 while girls cases jumped from 103 in 1941 to 216 in 1942, a rise of more than 100 percent. He "tempered the sobering statistics" by saying that of the 216 cases, 57 were runaways and 69 were classed as "ungovernable." Most of these came from other counties or states seeking relief from an intolerable home life or looking for a chance to get a job. Among the remaining delinquent girls, Long counted 34 for stealing, 35 for sex delinquency, 17 for persistent truancy, 12 for curfew violations, four for intoxication, four for malicious mischief, and two for traffic violations. Eight had become pregnant and four had venereal disease. The chief county probation officer echoed Long's thrust by claiming that the rate of delinquency had remained the same in the county from 1940 to 1942. His contention was that the "population has gone up 38 per cent in that period, but the thousands of newcomers apparently are contributing only their proportion of juvenile delinquency."(3)

Despite the nuanced reading of statistics by Multnomah County officials, by October 1943 Governor Earl Snell had seen enough. Saying that "statistics and information reaching my desk indicate that juvenile delinquency is rising to an alarming rate," the governor appointed a statewide committee to "secure the absolute facts concerning this problem" and to recommend actions. Governor Snell acknowledged that "several agencies, groups, and individuals have been actively concerned with the delinquency problem and doing commendable work," but he flatly declared that "there should be more." In setting the blue ribbon panel in motion, Snell indicated that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including signing new or amended legislation, to "alleviate the present alarming condition."(4)

"There's nobody at home anymore. Pop and Bud joined the Navy. Mom's on the swing shift." Large numbers of youth had to fend for themselves during the war. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

"There's nobody at home anymore. Pop and Bud joined the Navy. Mom's on the swing shift." Large numbers of youth had to fend for themselves during the war, often in less than ideal homes. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Some causes of juvenile delinquency
Officials recognized numerous and varied causes for the rise in juvenile delinquency, but some of the problem boiled down to teenagers "having a tough time--at a tough time." In other words, it was difficult enough for anyone to go through the developmental challenges of adolescence, even without the complications of war thrown in. A National Recreation Association booklet noted that youth has always been a "perplexing and troublesome period" consisting of "restlessness; of revolt against, yet dependence upon, authority; of being girl-crazy or boy-crazy; indolent or violently active in turn; of 'crushes'; of vague daydreams about the future; of being very grown up one day and very childish the next." War, according to the booklet, served to intensify and aggravate problems and make solutions more difficult to find.(5)

Beyond the intensification of the usual teen angst, officials cited other causes, with lack of parental supervision high on the list. Fathers were often separated from their families by either working in distant war industries or, beginning in 1943, being drafted into the armed forces. Meanwhile, mothers often took full time jobs, sometimes working evenings or nights. Many officials were highly critical of what they saw as a lack of responsibility of parents towards their children. They noted that many parents returned home from work "too tired to pay attention to their children; or they go out and leave them alone." Dr. Thomas Meador, health officer for the City of Portland, saw a bargain with the devil in the making: "Many mothers apparently prefer $60 a week now to good health and behavior for their children later." Problems of parental neglect frequently were exacerbated by the absence of older brothers and sisters in the household, many having joined the military or gone off to work in defense jobs.(6)

With both parents working, some youth fell into bad habits such as shooting craps. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

With both parents working, some youth fell into bad habits such as shooting craps. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

The widespread migration of families to crowded war industry centers, such as in Portland, added to stress. Children and youth were often uprooted from their friends and familiar surroundings only to be placed in crowded communities where resources and services were already overtaxed by increased population. Many lived in trailer camps, hastily built shacks, or other "unwholesome" places, which often lacked privacy, safe places to play, and regular sleeping and eating routines. Officials claimed that overcrowded housing led to increased disease, which, in addition to causing more absenteeism at work, also resulted in children returning to class too soon after illness, thus aggravating the health problem. Moreover, the strain of family illness could lead children to develop bad habits. One Portland school principal cited a case in which a "mother was in the hospital and the father working night shift, so the children were going out after he left for work" and getting into trouble.(7)

School overcrowding caused similar problems. In 1943 Portland's grade schools had to make room for 7,000 new students. The crunch was felt particularly acutely in North Portland near major shipyards where three schools went on "double shifts" to cope with the influx. This meant that "thousands of youngsters, particularly in the 9 to 12-year range, suddenly had all morning or all afternoon off. Hundreds of these must spend long and idle hours on the streets because no one is home to look after them." This led to predictable mischief and worse, including an incident in which a "gang of eighth-grade 'keyhole kids'--those with keys to their unattended homes" took a female schoolmate to such a house and "staged a party that later shocked their elders."(8)

"'Course, I'm working myself, after school. I've got lots of money to spend, and don't forget it. Heck--why shouldn't I have some fun?" With more money and less supervision, more youth abused alcohol. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

"'Course, I'm working myself, after school. I've got lots of money to spend, and don't forget it. Heck--why shouldn't I have some fun?" With more money and less supervision, more youth abused alcohol. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Young people also worked more during the war, drawn by the high pay. Much of the work was at night and sometimes included exposure to health and accident hazards, along with "unwholesome influences that make the path to delinquency an easy one." Officials also noted that many youth jobs carried too little adult supervision or too much responsibility. A federal report claimed that "employment of younger boys and girls in places where liquor is sold, in dance halls, 'honky tonks,' 'juke joints,' on the streets, and so forth, often brings them into undesirable surroundings or into association with persons who contribute to their becoming delinquent. When they leave their jobs late at night, tired and unprotected, it is hard for them to withstand the tempations [sic]." Young girls likewise migrated from rural areas to cities to "seek employment without adequate guidance," often finding themselves stranded without money or a place to stay, a very dangerous situation.(9)

The money earned from jobs led to problems as well since many young people dropped out of school to go to work. With their paychecks, it was not uncommon to develop "exaggerated feelings of self importance and attitudes of defiance toward parental control." As a delinquency booklet put it: "Because seventeen-year old Bill is able to earn $30 a week we assume that he will know what he ought to do with it--Bill, who never had more than $2 in his pocket at one time in his life! Is it any wonder that Bill begins to step out, high wide and handsome? Or that he takes a girl friend along with him? ...Bill is no pantie-waist and has money that is burning a hole in his pocket."(10)

"You used to be able to get a good game out at school--but the coach went in the Army and that new one is sure a drip."

"You used to be able to get a good game out at school--but the coach went in the Army and that new one is sure a drip." Many experienced teachers and coaches left school during the war, leaving some students less connected to positive routines. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Experts pointed to other causes of juvenile delinquency as well. Schools and youth services agencies lost many of their best trained employees to the armed forces or to higher paying war industries. One city reported a great lack of men teaching in junior high schools, especially in the physical education departments: "In some of the junior high schools there wasn't even a man on the faculty." Teachers often could earn several times their old salaries by taking jobs in shipyards or other war industries. Multnomah County suffered chronic staff shortages in the boys department of the probation office just at a time when more services were needed. Likewise, the Portland health office was operating in 1943 at 80 percent of its peacetime staffing levels. Other deficiencies added to the problem. Youth services programs lacked coordination. Churches and education boards were failing to do enough to provide healthy outlets for "youth's energies." Many communities lacked organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Experts also cited a "spirit of excitement and adventure inspired by war, coupled with tension, anxiety, and apprehension on the part of the parents" that led to problems for young people.(11)

"Betty May--she was my girl friend. But now all she does is run around with soldiers." Khaki-wacky girls left boys without attention. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

"Betty May--she was my girl friend. But now all she does is run around with soldiers." Khaki-wacky girls left boys without attention. (Folder 4, Box 36, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Shocking stories of youth run amok
Whatever the causes, the symptoms of juvenile delinquency were undeniable. Boys, often as young as 10-years-old, increasingly were caught vandalizing parks and other public property and wandering the streets in the middle of the night. Others were stealing everything from bottled beer to automobiles. One city reported that "many of the boys hang around on the street corners, make ribald remarks to women who pass by and shoot craps brazenly in the open." In Portland authorities broke up several gangs of teenagers, some of them under 16-years-old after a string of burglaries and hold ups. A 14-year-old boy was shot by a tavern owner after an attempted burglary. Police caught an eighth-grade boy with his fourth stolen car. Oregon State Defense Council official Harriet St. Pierre lamented that "from all sides one hears a note of alarm over the 'gangs' of young people on the streets late at night, attending the late movies, the late dances and night 'joints' of one kind or another. The Portland public schools are now in session and yet this morning at ten o'clock enroute to my office I ran into half a dozen young people of grammar school age."(12)

Girls, it seems, were finding themselves in even worse situations. Nationally, the term "khaki-wacky" joined the language, referring to girls who hung around drugstores, bus depots, and other places where servicemen on leave congregated. The most promiscuous of these became known as "Victory girls." According to one observer, these girls had a misguided sense of patriotism leading to the belief that having sex with servicemen was contributing to the war effort. Some of the Victory girls became aggressively promiscuous, leading the Navy to build a fence around an armory in Detroit just to keep them out. Meanwhile, New York City social workers reported that more than 60 percent of venereal disease cases among soldiers were contracted from girls under 21 years old. Another major city reported that 70 percent of cases came from girls under 21 and 35 percent came from girls under 18.(13)

Officials also noted other alarming behavior by ever-younger girls, many 11 to 16 years old. The trend was for the young girls to dress and wear makeup to look older. They would then "frequent night clubs and taverns and have promiscuous and loose relations with men in uniform. Taverns and bars claim they cannot tell their age, and therefore sell them drinks." High school and junior high school girls were becoming more brazen out in broad daylight too, according to some reports:

"They walk down city streets, six or seven abreast, breaking as they pass civilians, but holding on to each other's arms as they approach a soldier or a sailor, forming a very flattering net around him. As the walk progresses, the line gets shorter, as girl and boy pair off and leave the group. It's a childish, very effective get-your-man plan used by girls around fourteen and fifteen years old!"(14)

One young girl, commenting on her behavior of going out with older men, declared defiantly: "Sure, I knew it was wrong! But...he took me to a good hotel, and we had a swell dinner, and some drinks, and we danced, and I never had so much fun in my life!"(15)

Portland officials found plenty of troubled youth. (Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Portland officials found plenty of troubled youth. (Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA)

Oregon authorities also reported increased inappropriate behavior by young girls, including "sex delinquency." The Portland Women's Protective Division reported that "increasing scores of young girls can be seen on the streets late at night." The 13- and 14-year-old girls "sometimes stay away from home for several nights in a row, some of them at good hotels where they seem to have enough money." And the problem was not just restricted to Portland. Tillamook County officials, reporting on "social protection" in September 1942, noted that "there is some concern with regard to the morals of the young girls of the town, both married and unmarried. It seems that many girls of the 14, 15, and 16 year old group have become very much interested in the soldiers. Also there are quite a number of young married girls in town whose husbands are in the Service. Many of them have been married but a very short time. Some of both groups are suspected of having rather loose morals." Meanwhile, the February 1943 Cosmopolitan magazine ran a story that referred to two Oregon girls, ages 12 and 13, "who ran away to San Francisco and for three long months cut a lurid swath across the city's night life."(16)

Notes:
1. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 7; Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 148.
2. Letter from William Bowes to Roger Folgate, October 26, 1943. Folder 48, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA; "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1.
3. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1.
4. Press Release by Governor Snell Re: Juvenile Delinquency, October 23, 1943. Folder 36, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA.
5. "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Pages 5-6, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
6. "The Needs of Youth in Wartime" Report, New York State War Council, 1943. Page 4, Folder 48, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA; "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1.
7. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1; "A Community Program for Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency in Wartime" Report, U.S. Department of Labor, September 1943. Page 5, Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
8. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1.
9. "National Go-To-School Drive" Handbook, U.S. Department of Labor, Federal Security Agency, 1944. Page 17, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA; "A Community Program for Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency in Wartime" Report, U.S. Department of Labor, September 1943. Page 5, Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA;
10. "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Pages 10-11, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
11. "The Needs of Youth in Wartime" Report, New York State War Council, 1943. Page 4, Folder 48, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA; "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1; "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Page 7, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA; "A Community Program for Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency in Wartime" Report, U.S. Department of Labor, September 1943. Page 1, Folder 1, Box 28, Defense Council Records, OSA.
12. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1; "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Page 8, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.; Letter from Mrs. E. W. St. Pierre to H.C. Seymour, January 1, 1943. Folder 1, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA.
13. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 148; "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Pages 8-9, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
14. "Teen Trouble: What Recreation Can Do About It" Booklet, National Recreation Association, 1943. Pages 6-10, Folder 5, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
15. Ibid.
16. "Youth on the Loose," The Sunday Oregonian, April 4, 1943, Magazine Section, Page 1; "Composite Report on Tillamook Area," U.S. Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services and U.S. National Resources Planning Board, September 1, 1942. Page 15, Folder 29, Box 32, Defense Council Records, OSA; Letter from Mrs. E. W. St. Pierre to H.C. Seymour, January 1, 1943. Folder 1, Box 24, Defense Council Records, OSA.

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