New Kent County Girls Court tackles root causes of juvenile offenders' behaviors

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Though she is calm and well-spoken, a hush comes into Judge Patricia Gardner’s voice when she talks about the new Girls Court recently launched in the 17th Circuit Court.

“I feel like I’m a brand new judge again,” she says. “It’s very exciting to be involved in this innovative project for girls.”

The Girls Court is an intensive approach to the problem of increasing numbers of young female juveniles entering the system, as well as an attempt to counteract treatment modes which fail to recognize gender differences.

A 2015 report called Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls reported that, while juvenile arrests as a whole are in decline, interaction with the system across all categories has increased for young girls.

The report, which was written by Boston College Law School clinical law professor Francine T. Sherman and former National Juvenile Justice Network employee Annie Balck, both attorneys, also cites a 2014 study of traumatic experiences of youth in the juvenile justice system. 31 percent of girls reported a personal experience of sexual violence in the home, 41 percent said they were physically abused, and 84 percent reported experiencing family violence.

Judge Gardner recognizes these factors not only from the years of study that went into developing the Kent County program, but from direct experience.

“Girls who enter the system are typically very complex cases. They may be children who have difficult home environments where they’re not provided for. There may be sexual abuse or victimization that lead them to some type of criminal behavior,” she explains.

“Juvenile justice has really grown up to be a male-dominated intervention, since the vast majority of the youth referred for probation have traditionally been males,” Judge Gardner adds. “This program is instituted to acknowledge that with girls, the programming for boys doesn’t fit very well. It’s like putting a square peg into a round hole.”

That contributes to the fact that females’ offenses tend to be those in which they hurt themselves, such as truancy, substance abuse, or being disorderly in public. The common response to such acts has been to downplay them, without trying to figure out what the girls might be trying to call attention to.

“It’s like unpeeling an onion – they may have sexual offending behavior because of victimization and complex issus in the home — deliberately imposed trauma. With most girls there are elements of sexual victimization but it looks different for each child and how it shows in her behavior,” the judge continues.

Judge Gardner will preside over the Girls Court, but in keeping with that complexity, she will be joined by a team which includes the court’s juvenile probation supervisor, Marcela Moralez-Morris, and a probation officer solely dedicated to the Girls Court, Khristine Westmoreland, as well as an attorney who represents each teen.

To enter the program, girls must be 15 to 17 years old, have a history of unsuccessful treatment, and be willing to work with a mentor and to attend therapy. There is a cap of 12 participants, though there are only four girls in the first class.

“These girls will be given the opportunity to have a community-based support system for them moving forward,” said Moralez-Morris. “They will also be given the treatment to deal with their past trauma. The parents are also required to go through a trauma-focused parent group to help them understand and work with their daughters while building a healthy relationship.”

And Westmoreland adds, “In the process of working with them, I hope to build positive relationships between them and their families.”

The girls will have opportunities to broaden their skill-building and cultural experiences. “The girls are going to a self-defense class tonight and tomorrow they will attend a women’s conference at MSU!” Judge Gardner reported last Thursday.
They will also participate as a group in the Girls Gazelle Run in a couple of weeks.

As a result, they are building friendships which act as a further defense against the temptation to give in to peer pressure, according to Moralez-Morris.

Patricia Gardner became a judge at the beginning of 1997, after receiving both her undergraduate degree and J.D. from University of Michigan and practicing mostly family law with Kozera, Brown and Gardner. She has been Presiding Judge of the 17th Circuit Family Division since 2010.

She recognizes that, with such a broad range of challenges facing the girls, there is a need to evaluate and continually improve, but she feels that already she has seen some successes.

“Already in the first six weeks of the program, we see very good results with immensely challenging cases. I think the process is good, but we continue to review how we can make it better. But we’re most optimistic that the group process, the wrap--around process of therapeutic contact, parental supports, positive peer activities and community supports, is going to help these young women to be more grounded, successful and invested in good future plans that will keep them out of any future juvenile justice or criminal involvement.”

Moralez-Morris agrees. “I see a lot of successes even now. Actually one of our girls’ issues was that she was  estranged from her mom. I was just at their home last week and I saw a significant change in how they react to each other. The girl was just beaming,” Moralez-Morris observes.

In the planning stages the group looked at girls courts around the United States, finding that there are not many, at one reporting only about a dozen. Some deal exclusively with victims of human trafficking.

“One model is in Flint,” Judge Gardner said, referring to the Genesee County Girls Court begun in January 2015 which is the only other in the state. “The first model was in Hawaii,” she continues. “It’s now 20 years old. We looked at what girls courts look like around the country, but we knew we’d have to combine the best of them for ours. We wanted to create a model that keeps the girls in the community,” she adds.

The court’s generous funding partner is Network 180, which supplied a two-year grant.

“We’ve made an effort to ask the community to be part of this and the response has been incredible,” Judge Gardner says. “It’s an ‘Aha’ moment for the girls when they realize that somebody cares and wants them to be successful.”

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