A Court’s All-Hands Approach Aids Girls Most at Risk

PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN (New York Times) | JANUARY 28, 2014

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Toni J., an effervescent 16-year-old who talks on speed-dial, lives with 11 family members in West Oakland, on a street buffeted by gang activity and poverty. Her mother died of an overdose, her father in a revenge shooting. In ninth grade, she was raped while on probation for shoplifting.

At odds with the law from a young age, Toni has appeared in court 38 times. But things are suddenly starting to change thanks to an unusual collaboration between the judicial and social service systems. Toni is now doing well at school and even mentoring other at-risk girls.

“You’re stepping up to the plate,” Judge Rhonda Burgess said to Toni from the bench before recommending that she be taken off probation.

Like Toni, who was picked up along International Boulevard in Oakland, a major West Coast hub for sex trafficking, the vast majority of teenage girls who appear before Judge Burgess in the Alameda County Girls Court, a special tribunal for girls, have been recruited as child prostitutes or, like Toni, been considered at risk for involvement. (All those mentioned in this article are minors.)

Girls Court brings an all-hands-on-deck approach to the lives of vulnerable girls, linking them to social service agencies, providing informal Saturday sessions on everything from body image to legal jargon, and offering a team of adults in whom they can develop trust. And while still in its early years, the system is showing promise.

Founded two and a half years ago and carved out of the existing juvenile court, the Girls Court is for young women considered most at risk, especially those forced into prostitution. It is part of a network of a half-dozen or so Girls Courts around the country, each with a different emphasis. The results have been encouraging: The court in Hawaii, a program where both parents and girls attend counseling for a year, has led to a marked decrease in detentions, according to a 2011 evaluation. The Orange County Girls court, which was started in 2009, intervenes in the lives of teenage girls in long-term foster care, with preliminary studies suggesting better grades and fewer placements.

“It’s a unique alignment between adversaries,” Laurel Bellows, a Chicago lawyer and co-chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s anti-trafficking task force, said of the court’s collaborative approach. “These are not easy victims to deal with.”

Read more at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/us/a-courts-all-hands-approach-aids-girls-most-at-risk.html

Photo credit: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

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