Innovative Court in Houston Helps
Victims of Human Trafficking
By: Katya Glockner-Dow
In 2011, Judge Michael Schneider and Judge Angela Ellis began addressing concerns that many girls in their courts were frequently presenting gender specific issues that weren’t appropriate to be reviewed in an open court model. Many girls in their courts were victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking and the judges were frustrated that they were sending girls away from their court with extensive issues and who needed far more help than what their court provided at that time.
To address these concerns, they began developing a GIRL court, the first of its kind, which would offer intensive supervision and therapeutic services, including placement in a safe community, to protect these victims. GIRL stands for Growing Independence Restoring Lives. Ellis and Schneider created a court model utilizing a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, strength-based approach in working with girls who are actively engaged in or at risk of becoming involved in prostitution/human trafficking.
CKW Luxe magazine had the honor of meeting with Judge Schneider to learn more about GIRLS court and how it is helping victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Photo credit Bob Rosenberg
CKW: How were victims of trafficking treated before GIRLS court was started?
JS: Before 2010 – all kids, even kids as young as 10, could have been liable in the juvenile system for engaging in prostitution. In 2010 the Texas Supreme Ct. said the law is very clear that kids under the age of 14 can’t consent to sex, so it is not fair that we are going to hold these kids liable to something they couldn’t actually even consent to. This sent a clear message that these kids weren’t perpetrators of crimes but were in fact victims. This ruling really inspired Judge Angela Ellis and me to take advantage of this change in how these kids are viewed to do more to try to address the issues these kids face.
CKW: How is GIRLS court funded?
JS: Typically specialty courts around the country like drug courts or veterans courts usually run off of grants. We were very lucky that the probation department agreed to pay for this out of their budget.
CKW: What are some of the issues GIRLS court faces in addressing this population?
JS: One of the big issues in these cases is placement. How do you find a balance between keeping these kids safe without incarcerating them unless you absolutely have to. Many of these kids know how to live on the streets and know how to survive, so it is difficult to strike that balance between detention and freedom to achieve what is best for the child. Also, how do you set these kids up for independent living when they often come from homes that are not functional or might even have driven them into prostitution?
CKW: What kinds of services are individuals given when they are in the GIRLS court program?
JS: Most importantly, they receive a lot of therapeutic intervention. One of the biggest things that has happened is that in 2014, then sheriff Adrian Garcia was approached by Dr. Diana Quintana who informed him that they really needed help with treating individuals in some of the longer-term placements. He found $300,000 in his budget to help us set up a program at Harris County Youth Village, a 24-bed residential treatment center, which, while it is an out of home placement, it is not a secure facility; it is surrounded by wooded acreage, and the participants get 19 hours a week of therapeutic intervention.
Also, in GIRLS court (as well as drug court), we use something called MST, Multi-Systemic Therapy, which is used in cases where the kids are staying in the home they came from to empower and teach the parents how to manage their kids, because a lot of these parents just don’t have the resources they need to do that. What’s especially good is that the therapists providing this service actually come to the homes, which allows these families to receive therapy without having to take off work, make an appointment, drive across town, etc. Many of these families rely on public transportation, which makes it very difficult to travel to receive services. Additionally, they are often not in a position to take off from work without losing their jobs. Once you can accommodate these families in a meaningful way, you can really see them make progress.
CKW: How long is a typical length of participation in the GIRLS court program?
JS: The average length of stay is 333 days. Some of them spend much of that time at Harris County Youth Village, some of them are at home, some of them are in private placements, and some of them might even be in a CPS placement while they’re going through the program. Family placements are, of course, optimal in most cases where feasible. One of the problems with locking kids up in detention centers is that it is such an artificial environment. It’s not necessarily great practice for the real world. Does it prepare them for the life that they are going to live once they leave detention, most likely in the same neighborhood where they came from, with the same stressors? Not really. It has little long-term value.
CKW: Do you follow any of the individuals that come out of this program to see what happens to them later?
JS: The girls are very much encouraged to stay in touch with us and let us know how they are doing and we have many kids that do come back and talk about their lives and their jobs and how they have progressed.
CKW: How many individuals that begin the GIRLS court program actually successfully complete it?
JS: Right at 73%, which is high considering the nature and severity of the problems these kids are dealing with when starting the program. In comparison, kids that come in for the most minor infractions and go through our deferred program have a 90% completion rate, so given the severity of the issues these kids face, it is quite high.
CKW: Approximately how many girls come through the program every year?
JS: One of the strategies in a specialty court such as this one is to keep the numbers relatively small so that you can achieve a more intensive focus; however, as a result of GIRLS court, Juvenile Probation has changed the way they screen and ask questions, which has enabled them to identify several hundred kids that have these issues, and normally we would have never noticed them. So that even for the kids that don’t make it into GIRLS court but who have those issues we now provide services to them in their regular probation. Then the ones who have the most severe issues and are the most in need go into the GIRLS court program. One of the most important factors is identifying which kids have these types of issues because only about 45% of the cases that end up being identified come into the juvenile system through a charge of prostitution. The other
55% are discovered through the screening process which is now in place and can identify when kids are showing “red flags” indicating these issues. (An example of a red flag, for example, is, as we have had, a 16 year old girl mentioning something about her “35 year old boyfriend”.) Now that we are more alert to these kinds of things, a statement like that can be very helpful for a clinician to instruct further investigation. So since 2011, when we started looking for the red flags, over 220 kids have been identified as having these issues. And once they are identified they can either get the appropriate treatment in GIRLS court or through other services.
CKW: Have any other counties or cities adopted this type of program?
JS: Senate Bill 92, which was passed in the 83rd legislature, allowed other counties to create courts like this, and as a result, both Dallas and San Antonio have also created GIRLS courts based on our template.
CKW: What is the age range of the girls entering this program?
JS: The average age is 16, with girls as young as 11, and as old as 17. Once they turn 18, they can no longer be kept on juvenile probation, so they can no longer be kept in the GIRLS court program.
CKW: What can people in the community do to help in this area,
whether it be through volunteering or through financial donations?
JS: One very important way individuals can help is by becoming Child
Advocates. It is a volunteer group where individuals are trained to help
kids in the CPS system. Their job is to speak out for the kids in the system
for what is in the children’s best interest. I have seen so many cases
where child advocates truly make a huge difference in helping the kids
in this system. As far as charities that help kids like this to which people
can contribute, YMCA International does an immense amount of work in
this area. They even go so far as to help either pay for or supplement
kids salaries so they can go work at other places. Also, Children at Risk
has been hugely helpful in working on the legislative side in furthering
bills that help kids in these circumstances. They are on the cutting edge
of most of the big issues where kids are affected, like human trafficking,
education, and school to prison pipeline.