Government and Law

Kent County launches state’s second girls court

Program of ‘intense’ trauma therapy, social experiences and parental involvement aims to rehabilitate 15- to 17-year-old female offenders.

April 21, 2017
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Kent County has launched a program to help troubled girls become law-abiding and productive citizens.

Judge Patricia Gardner and a team of female probation officers, attorneys, surveillance staff and community mentors have teamed up to create the 17th Circuit Girls Court, a four-month intensive program that accepts up to 12 female offenders at a time between the ages of 15 and 17 years old.

The court launched the program with a group of four in February. The girls will “graduate” in June, and eight more will start in July. Gardner expects the third group at the end of the year will be at full capacity.

“We didn’t have a lot of services in place for young girls coming on probation who are not serious offenders,” Gardner said. “So, we helped develop this program to help deal with the girls in the community who have these complex and difficult needs.”

She said the court’s existing system for dealing with juvenile delinquents largely was geared toward boys, who make up the majority of teenage offenders.

Female juvenile delinquency is a growing trend, Gardner said, but the crimes committed by girls tend to be different from those committed by boys.

Girls are more likely to commit crimes that hurt themselves, such as running away, truancy, substance abuse and public disorder. These female offenders often return to their schools and homes without adequate resources to cope with underlying issues and have a higher probability of committing repeat offenses.

Marcela Moralez-Morris, juvenile probation supervisor at the 17th Circuit, said the girls court program starts with a risk assessment and trauma evaluation, as many of the girls have suffered sexual abuse, including trafficking, prostitution or rape.

The girls who are eligible for the program must agree to participate in trauma therapy with a court-appointed therapist from Wedgwood Christian Services, mentoring from a community member, surveillance in their homes and schools two to three times per day, bi-weekly to monthly court visits and social experiences like college tours, dinners to teach etiquette and other cultural events.

A key part of the program is parental involvement at every stage of the process. Parents must come to the court dates, attend trauma-informed parent groups and, in some cases, go to activities with the girls.

Gardner said parental involvement is essential to help reduce the girls’ recidivism rates.

“We try to effect change in the home environment with the mother, father, guardian or grandparent,” Gardner said. “You want to make sure you offer support, so the home changes for the parent and child are longstanding.

“We don’t want a revolving door — they will return to past patterns that are not healthy or supportive. You want to make sure you are creating systemic changes in the kid or family system.”

Another aspect of girls court that differs from regular community probation is the girls are required to self-report during their court appointments.

“They report themselves on what has been required, where they have succeeded, where they have failed and how they will have a positive probation experience in the next two weeks,” Gardner said. “It’s like you are talking to a college kid. They are really insightful.”

In the first two months of the program, Moralez-Morris already has seen signs of success with the girls and their families.

“One of the girls said she thought she would do better if she could come to court more often and see the judge more often. That, to me, was a sign we are moving in the right direction,” Moralez-Morris said.

“(Also), a lot of times, when the parents go through the trauma group, they find out they have some trauma that hasn’t been dealt with in their own lives. Now, they’re getting the help they need.”

Gardner added: “We’re seeing remarkable change in these girls, and we’ve added an after-care component.”

Following successful completion of therapy, court dates and community education, the girls will graduate to a less-intense set of requirements for 30 to 90 days.

“They would continue to be on probation, and we continue to monitor them to make sure they maintain change in the community,” Gardner said.

The court is using its existing budget to run the program, rearranging probation officer, judge and attorney caseloads and drawing on the already-established partnership with Wedgwood.

“It isn’t taking any extra money out of our court budget,” Moralez-Morris said. “It is saving a tremendous amount of money, because I surveyed the probation officers about how many girls would be in placements out of (their) home if they weren’t in this program. Not needing to do residential placement for kids saves $250 or $350 a day.”

Gardner and Moralez-Morris estimated the 17th Circuit will save between $500,000 and $750,000 in residential placement costs this year because of the girls court.

A $20,000 community-based resource grant awarded by Network180 in October is paying for girls court programmatic funding — for activities such as a day at Michigan State University attending a girls’ conference, a series of self-defense classes, a documentary screening at Wealthy Theatre and training for and participating in the Gazelle Girl run in downtown Grand Rapids.

The Network180 grant will increase to $40,000 this October and run through October 2018.

Moralez-Morris said there is just one other girls court in Michigan — in Genesee County — and she and a 17th Circuit probation officer sat in on one of their sessions a year-and-a-half ago to get a sense of how it could work in Kent County.

“They were very inviting to let us sit in and see what was working well,” she said. “Also, we did a lot of research in looking at other courts nationwide.”

Gardner and Moralez-Morris said the program is built on the notion of creating better connections for the girls.

“When young ladies feel like they belong, have a support system and have a connection to the community, that’s when they’re going to succeed,” Moralez-Morris said. “This is probation at its best.”

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