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Girls Court connects vulnerable girls to social services

Posted Jan 31, 2014 6:40 AM CDT
By Molly McDonough

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Carved out of existing juvenile court systems, Girls Courts are popping up across the country to connect the most at-risk young women with social services.

In an article this week, the New York Times notes that while the half-dozen or so statewide programs from New York to Hawaii are in their early stages, "the system is showing promise."

A court in Hawaii, which includes a program that sends girls and parents to counseling for a year, is leading to decreased detentions. And a program in Orange County, Calif., which targets girls in long-term foster care, is showing that participating girls are getting better grades and fewer placements.

“It’s a unique alignment between adversaries,” Laurel Bellows, past president of the ABA, tells the Times. Bellows, who created the ABA's Task Force on Human Trafficking, added that, "These are not easy victims to deal with."

Most states continue to charge young prostitutes with crimes, even as a growing consensus is emerging that minors engaging in sex for pay are victims. Figuring out ways to address the problems remains a challenge. But Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, a professor of pediatrics and law at Vanderbilt University, tells the Times that training lawyers and judges to identify the problem is a start.

"What is really needed is a collaborative approach that directs people to services rather than prosecution,” she is quoted saying. “It’s an enormous problem we’re only beginning to get the scope of.”

The Times tells the story of Jasmine, who grew up watching her mother beaten by drunken boyfriends, and turned to prostitution to get away. "I was on the run from my mom,” she is quoted saying. “I felt money was the only way.”

Judge Rhonda Burgess, of the Alameda County Girls Court, sent her out of state, to a program designed for exploited girls. The Times reports that Jasmine now has a job and ready to move into her own apartment. Talking to the Times about the Girls Court team, she says, "I felt a lot of support from those ladies. Even though we sometimes had problems with each other, I see why they did what they did."

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