Circuit Judge David Gooding solves problems. Not just because he is a judge.
When he sees something in his courtroom that is broken, he calls it out, addresses it and makes a change.
The creation of Girls Court is a solution Judge Gooding envisions addressing the specific needs of delinquent female teens.
Stirred by a study published in Georgetown’s Journal on Poverty Law and Policy in 2013, Judge Gooding identified that girls involved in delinquency court have unique needs that, if addressed with unique solutions, could produce more positive outcomes than traditional courts.
Instead of admiring the concept from afar or intellectualizing the benefit of gender-specific programming for criminally involved youth, Judge Gooding conceived the idea, met with like-minded community partners and made it happen.
No multimillion-dollar grants. No fancy public relations campaigns. Just lots of volunteers donating the time necessary to realize his vision: A court where girls can provide input into their own treatment, fulfill their potential and solidify tangible goals for the future.
Why the need for a gender-specific court?
When experiencing trauma such as child abuse or neglect as children, boys and girls react differently.
While boys react outwardly, girls oftentimes internalize the trauma and engage in self-injurious behavior. Pregnant teenagers or teenage mothers are at high risk for having long-term negative outcomes, such as involvement in abusive relationships, drug addiction and continued criminal involvement.
Additionally, other subgroups of teenage girls, such as runaways, victims of sexual assault or victims of human trafficking, also share the same high risks. Therefore, girls who fall into these high-risk categories: who are pregnant and/or parenting; who have suffered a past trauma; who are victims of human trafficking; who have become criminally involved in the juvenile justice system are potentially eligible for participation in Girls Court.
Who are the partners?
A successful Girls Court program requires partnering with key stakeholders and service providers. The Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association, The Jacksonville Bar Association and the Department of Juvenile Justice and Family Support Services are all providing essential components and support necessary to sustain a meaningful pilot court.
Judge Gooding’s initial target number of participants remains small, capping at a total of 10 girls. The participants are selected through a screening process from a pool of female youth facing criminal charges in the juvenile delinquency system.
Is the court really court?
Being accepted into Girls Court isn’t a “pass” from criminal charges. The girls identified as potential candidates are involved in the criminal justice system face the same consequences as other criminally involved children.
A multidisciplinary team, including the public defender, assistant state attorney, child, parent, therapist, attorney ad litem, educational surrogate and preventative services professionals meet to determine eligibility for the program.
If accepted, the girl enters a plea with probation, including a special condition for Girls Court. Participants are expected to attend court each month. They also must attend individual and group therapy.
The Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center provides the Savvy Sisters curriculum and each participant is matched with a mentor. Each month, participants are provided enrichment activities including how to draft a resume, life stories of inspirational public figures, and job-interviewing skills.
Girls can stay in the program until they are 19 or 21 or until the Girls Court feels they are eligible for discharge and their probation is over.
The Hawaii Girls Court served as Judge Gooding’s foundation for Duval County’s small pilot program. Hawaii serves as a national model, being one of the first and one of the most robust girls courts in the United States.
The Hawaii program engages in the same individual and group therapy requirements and also provides opportunity for parent-child bonding activities.
Girls also receive mentors who engage the girls in activities to build confidence, encourage self-expression and provide inspiration for the future. Even though Judge Gooding’s Girls Court is still in its early beginnings, qualitative evidence of its efficacy already aligns with Hawaii’s Girls Court successes.
The growth as a result of the young women’s successful completion of this innovative program will not only be benchmark achievement for the participant, but for all stakeholders involved. This venture gives new meaning to the euphemism, “You Go Girl!”
Professor Sarah Sullivan directs the Disability and Public Benefits Clinic at Florida Coastal School of Law. She is a master in the Florida Family Law Inn of Court, the vice chair of the Protecting Our Children Section of The Jacksonville Bar Association and is an executive council member of both the Family Law and the Public Interest Law Sections of The Florida Bar. Special thanks to Judge Gooding for spending time and providing his philosophy behind Girls Court.