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‘Girls court’ under consideration in Wisconsin

To combat the effects of child sex trafficking, a small movement of so-called “girls courts” is starting to take hold in parts of the country.

And while there are no immediate plans for such a court in Milwaukee, there is a group discussing the effects on the courts of children being sold into prostitution.

Girls courts now exist in counties in several states — including Michigan, Hawaii and California — and are seen as a way to address female juvenile delinquency issues. The courts are not dissimilar to treatment courts that have popped up for adults in Wisconsin, such as ones tailored for veterans, or people struggling with drugs or alcohol.

According to an article on MLive, a newly established court in Genesee County, Mich., “would flag girls coming through the juvenile justice system … (and) then court officials would work to set the girls up with a network of resources and counseling tailored to steer them away from the sex trade.”

In other words, it’s more about therapy and finding better role models than it is about incarceration.

Much like those struggling with addictions or the effects of serving in combat, it’s not unusual for victims of trauma, which can include sex trafficking, to become repeat offenders in the system, said Claudine O’Leary, a child sex trafficking victim’s advocate and founder of Rethink Resources, Milwaukee.

“Even retail theft can be specifically encouraged or directed by a trafficker,” she said.

An informal Milwaukee County committee that meets monthly to discuss child sex trafficking has discussed the potential for a Wisconsin girls court, as well as other possible solutions related to the problem. The committee currently includes prosecutors, defense attorneys and children’s advocates, though Children’s Court Judge Mike Dwyer said he and Judge Rebecca Bradley have expressed interest in being included, as well, since the issue of trafficking is “weighing on our minds.”

And while sex trafficking is often named as the main issue, experts say the courts’ special focus is geared toward helping girls who experience any type of trauma.

Stephen Gilbertson, a psychologist and program coordinator at the county-run children’s treatment provider Wraparound Milwaukee, said the benefit of a girls-specific court could go far beyond victims of sex trafficking.

“Most girls that come before the court are coming because of status offenses,” he said, “… runaway, drug offenses, misdemeanor theft; survival-type behaviors once kids have experienced a lot of abuse. (They) end up on the streets and end up doing stuff just to survive.”

A girls court potentially could “deal with that with a more informed fashion,” Gilbertson said.

But if girls courts are coming here, it is not going to be for a while. O’Leary, who is on the Milwaukee County committee, said girls courts just started to be discussed at the meetings. It’s just one of several ideas that have been brought up, she said.

Gilbertson said if the county did look to implement a girls-specific court, it would likely require one or multiple judges to undergo training to learn how to specifically deal with troubled juvenile females.

And while Dwyer said he is not very familiar with girls courts in other states, he and O’Leary noted that different programming is needed to help girls making their way through the courts system. O’Leary said the Juvenile Cognitive Intervention Program, a national model of assessment and treating juvenile offenders that is used in Wisconsin and focuses on behavioral modification, does not focus on trauma and relationships, two key areas that need to be addressed when girls are the victims of child prostitution.

Dwyer agreed.

“It’s fair to say girls think differently than boys,” Dwyer said. “The JCIP, the cornerstone treatment for boys, doesn’t really work with girls.”

About Eric Heisig

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