In order to meet the unique issues with which girls grapple, the new courts and programs will use innovative ideas to organize and provide treatment. Consistency will be a benchmark, along with flexibility in services, and collaboration amongst treatment providers.
To provide consistency throughout the treatment process, counties will use the same court and treatment personnel throughout a girls’ case. For example, Orange County’s new girls delinquency court will consist of a “single court identified for these girls, with this judge, for the term of their dependency,” according to Mr. Howard.
“The idea is to increase their participation in the court process… so that they have a much larger role and say in what’s going on with them in the courts,” said Mr. Howard. All girls passing through the court will be handled by a specific group of social workers and given a “consistency-specific attorney.”
An emphasis on consistency extends to the girls’ treatment programs as well. Judge Johnson of Santa Clara County praises her drug court for bringing girls with similar issues together. This provides a critical mass of girls to start, work through, and complete the drug treatment program together. Although logistics forced her to abandon her previously all-female courtroom model, she still believes that the treatment program is more effective with a unified group of girls. “Treatment should always be gender specific,” said the Judge.
The various programs also focus on collaboration among the court, treatment providers, and families. San Mateo County embraces the collaborative model for its GIRLS program: camp staff and counselors meet for three hours every week to discuss each girl’s case with probation officers. Every second week, the whole multidisciplinary team meets for two hours with the judge, the girls, and their families. Ms. Caprista summarized the importance of having all partners involved: “You are dealing with emotionally charged girls and emotionally charged families… A lot of energy gets put into this.”
Consultant Julie Posadas Guzman also emphasized that Alameda County’s girls diversion program will get support from probation, the District Attorney, and Juvenile Hall.
Another important aspect of the girls’ programs is flexibility — counties are ready to continually adjust and improve their programming to meet the girls’ individual needs. In order to do this, counties recognize the need to gather information and statistics so they know what is working and what should be done differently.
“We don’t really have any sticks so we have to focus on the carrots and [ask] what can we find to motivate them,” said Judge Carolyn Kirkwood, who will preside over Orange County’s Girls Court. She emphasizes the personal nature of the treatment plans to be designed for each girl in the court. “We intend to develop treatment plans and really have the girls’ needs dictate the program.”
Alameda County, too, is taking seriously the need for its girls diversion program to develop in response to clients’ needs. Ms. Posadas Guzman has begun testing her curriculum by teaching classes to girls at Contra Costa County’s juvenile hall and San Mateo County’s Margaret Kemp Girls Camp. She uses the classes as an opportunity to gather statistics and feedback that help her hone her teaching methods and tailor her material to students’ needs. She covers topics like awareness of the girls’ legal rights in detention and how to avoid committing crimes in the future.
Engaging Girls in the Rehabilitation Process
Those heading girls’ court programs said the programs’ success depends heavily on the girls themselves being willing, involved, and active participants in their own rehabilitation, and girls court systems have come up with some unusual ways of ensuring that the girls remain fully engaged. Orange County, for instance, plans on offering a variety of field trips, such as to the opera, an art museum, or a planetarium. By exposing the girls to a range of experiences previously unfamiliar to them, these outings will provide a glimpse of the world that awaits them upon successful completion of their treatment program. The goal is to motivate the girls to engage in treatment.
Girls in San Mateo County’s GIRLS program are encouraged to write down their thoughts in journals, called Passports. Before a hearing, counselors ask the girls to write how they feel about the court, and afterwards Judge Diaz reads their entries.
“[Judge Diaz] can read that and get a glimpse into what’s going on in the girls’ heads,” explained Ms. Caprista.
“I’m always dragging information out of the boys,” said Judge Johnson of Santa Clara County. She agrees that communication with the girls is key to engaging them and enabling their successful treatment.
In another novel effort, San Mateo’s Margaret Kemp Girls Camp includes yoga classes for the girls five days a week. According to Ms. Caprista, yoga provides the girls with physical activity while also teaching them how to deal with anger management issues, a common challenge for girls in detention.
In addition to these innovative services, girls also receive more traditional services catering to their specific needs. The San Mateo’s GIRLS program includes individual and family counseling, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where needed, counseling for rape and sexual trauma, and regular visits by a speaker from SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), an organization for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.
Signs of Promise
Although statistics measuring the success of these new girl-focused programs has yet to be compiled, those involved in the programs report great satisfaction with their results. Ms. Caprista reports that San Mateo’s girls camp has been successful at decreasing runaways among very high-risk girls, and that almost all girls in the camp stay with the program until it is complete. She also says that the curriculum offered to the girls has had the intended positive effects. “When girls leave the program, they are safer and able to make better choices.”
Moreover, the strategy of engaging the girls has also proven successful, according to Judge Margaret Johnson of Santa Clara County. “We’ve seen quite a good success with the girls. The girls bond with each other and the girls talk to me.”
As these programs take root, and other counties adopt similar programs, advocates will be better able to gauge their success. And because flexibility is built into the existing four county programs, the format and strategies employed may change and evolve in response to evaluations of what does and doesn’t work.
“We are really building this airplane as we’re flying it,” Orange County’s Judge Kirkwood said.
Thomas Carroll was a communications intern at NCYL in Summer 2009. He is a senior at Haverford College, majoring in classical literature and minoring in Physics (quantum mechanics). He also writes for The Bi-College News, the student newspaper at Haverford. Upon graduation, Thomas hopes to pursue a career combining journalism and social justice.