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Gender and Juvenile Justice: New Courts, Programs Address Needs of Girls

By Thomas Carroll

Judge Carolyn Kirkwood

Judge Carolyn Kirkwood, presiding judge of Orange County’s juvenile court and the head of the county’s new Girls Court.

Juvenile justice systems around California are awakening to the needs of a new population: girls.  As girls enter the delinquency system in ever-increasing numbers, several California counties have established new delinquency courts and treatment programs tailored specifically to girls and their unique issues and needs.

By the end of 2009, four California counties will offer girls treatment and therapy programs, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, Orange, and Alameda counties.  The treatment programs will focus on problems particularly acute among girls, like truancy and trauma related to sexual assault.

The programs emphasize consistency in the courts and treatment programs; collaboration among agencies, treatment providers, the girls and their families; flexibility so that programs can change to meet girls’ needs; and engagement of the girls in their own treatment.  Gender-sensitivity is key, and all cases will be heard by a woman judge and handled by a dedicated set of female attorneys and caseworkers.

This new sensitivity to girls’ issues coincides with a rise in the number of young women involved in the juvenile justice and corrections systems.  All of these programs have been spearheaded by women judges.

“I realized that there was an underserved population,” said Judge Carolyn Kirkwood, presiding judge of Orange County’s juvenile court and the head of the county’s new Girls Court.  “Particularly teen girls I thought were at very high risk.”

A Population at Risk

Statistics surrounding girls in the juvenile justice system reveal the urgency of their needs.   For example, Alameda County saw a 44.5 percent increase in the number of females entering its juvenile justice system between 1998 and 2007.  In the same period, the district also found a 49 percent increase in the number of girls who were in the system for non-violent offenses, such as theft and truancy.

In the face of such statistics, counties are looking at the specific problems and challenges that underlie and exacerbate recent increases in female delinquency.  In doing so, counties have identified several areas needing special attention.

The prevalence of sexual trauma represents a major factor separating girls from boys. Whether girls enter the system as  delinquents or prostitutes, almost all girl offenders are victims of sexual assault or exploitation. These new girl treatment programs in California recognize and attempt to deal with this reality.

In San Mateo’s GIRLS  (Gaining Independence and Reclaiming Lives Successfully) program, a history of sexual exploitation is one of the most common factors qualifying girls to enter the program, along with drug and alcohol abuse.  This history might include molestation, rape, or exploitation as a prostitute.  Alameda County is developing a diversion program specifically for girls who have been adjudicated for prostitution offenses.

Another issue unique to females in the system is the rise of runaway girls.  According to Gene Howard, Executive Director and CEO of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, Orange County’s new Girls Court will specifically address truants and runaways.  Julie Posadas Guzman, a consultant hired to develop curriculum for the diversion program in Alameda County, said that girls run away at a much higher rate than boys, particularly from group and foster homes.

Different Genders, Different Reactions

Ropes course at Margaret Kemp Girls Camp

Ropes course at Margaret Kemp Girls Camp

These new girls programs also realize that girls often react differently than boys to trauma and entry into the juvenile justice system, even when the triggering factors are the same.  By taking into account these differences, the programs are able to devise better treatment models for girls.

For example, girls not only run away more frequently than boys, but they also act differently once they’ve fled.  Multiple counties have observed that boys often run away and re-enter the juvenile justice system after committing further crimes.  Female runaways, though, tend to stay outside the system.  A girl may find a man to take care of her and end up trapped in an unsafe, exploitative relationship, according to Lorri Caprista, the supervising probation officer in San Mateo County’s GIRLS program.

Girls also react differently to trauma.  In a 2004 study of incarcerated youth by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, girls were 50 percent more likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder than boys.  This is despite the fact that boys were over 10 percent more likely than girls to report having a traumatic experience, according to the same study. The disparity between these is one of the driving factors behind the development of gender-responsive treatment programs.

Even when girls’ problems are the same as boys, how girls internalize these problems is different from boys. For example, for both boys and girls, drug and alcohol abuse and school failure often lead to criminality. Yet unlike boys, when girls get into trouble with the law, they often react by blaming themselves, according to Ms. Caprista.  She also points out that girls are more likely to engage in self-harm. Whereas male offenders are often detained because they present a danger to the community, female offenders are more likely to be detained because they are a danger to themselves.

Why Now?

Alarming statistics of the increased number of girls in the juvenile justice system has sparked interest in girls’ offender issues. Yet other factors also play a role in the emergence of these girl-specific programs, such as better gender equality in society, more women in the corrections field, and heightened political awareness of girls in the juvenile justice system.

Recognition of girls’ problems has grown along with the number of girls in the juvenile justice system.  Though formal statistics are hard to come by, Ms. Caprista noted that in her 26 years working with San Mateo County, she has never seen as many girls involved in the system as now.  Alameda County, too, reports large increases in the number of girls in its juvenile justice system, as illustrated by the statistics above.

Why these numbers are on the rise is a matter of debate.  Some attribute the change to the progress of society as a whole towards gender equality.  In discussing San Mateo County’s GIRLS program, which opened the Margaret Kemp Girls Camp in late 2006, Ms. Caprista pointed out that the county had been operating Camp Glenwood for boys for more than a decade.  Camp Glenwood houses boys who run away from the county’s juvenile hall.  Previously, girls committing the same infraction were sent directly to the California Youth Authority (“CYA”), for a high-security placement.  The new Margaret Kemp Girls Camp acts as a “stopgap,” Ms. Caprista said, so that runaway girls, like boys, now have a less drastic option before being referred to CYA.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Margaret Johnson, head of the county’s Girls Drug Court, also sees her court’s advent as a byproduct of women’s growing equality.  She credits the growth of girl-specific treatment programs partially to more “women on the bench and in the probation department.”

“I think the impetus has been just a lot more women in professional jobs who are interested in these girls,” Judge Johnson said.

In addition to social factors, the gender-responsiveness movement has been aided by the attention of politicians. In 2008, California Assembly Bill 499 authorized Alameda County to develop its new girls’ diversion program.  AB 499 charged Alameda County with developing a pilot program to address the needs and treatment of underage “victims of commercial sexual exploitation.”

 Summary of Girls Court Systems




San Mateo

Santa Clara

Program Description

  • Treatment program for girls adjudicated of prostitution offenses
  • Designed as a “diversion program,” an alternative to detainment at juvenile hall
  • Girls remain in their communities while attending treatment in addition to school
  • Successful completion will allow charges to be erased
  • Court for delinquent girls, especially truants and runaways
  • All cases heard by Judge Carolyn Kirkwood
  • All cases handled by dedicated set of female attorneys and caseworkers
  • Treatment program aimed at girls in the foster care system
  • Girls Court presided over by Judge Marta Diaz
  • Girls in the program are housed at the Margaret Kemp Camp for girls, a minimum-security facility
  • Camp treatment program offers individual and family counseling, Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, counseling for rape and sexual trauma, and regular visits by a speaker from SAGE, an organization for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, plus yoga classes for anger management
  • After 180 days at the Camp, girls transition to two-phase residential program, including counseling and other services
  • Girls Drug Court presided over by Judge Margaret Johnson
  • Girl-specific treatment program consists of three phases, 6-, 8-, & 12-weeks long
  • Treatment program offered as an alternative to incarceration


Expected to start by end of 2009

First participants entering program in October 2009

Opened in 2006; court hearings are held every two weeks

Active since 2006

Consistency, Collaboration, and Flexibility

Girls rafting at Margaret Kemp Girls Camp

Girls rafting at Margaret Kemp Girls Camp

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.