A few weeks ago, a small group of people who represent various corners of the juvenile justice system gathered around a table with stacks of case files ready to review.
The files contained the institutional history of girls or boys who were already deep into their victimization of being trafficked for sex or showed the telltale signs of being at risk. Their involvement in commercial sexual exploitation may have been more obvious, such as being caught in a hotel room with an older man and condoms. Or more subtle, perhaps a runaway addicted to drugs and arrested for shoplifting.
The group was looking for the first round of potential candidates to participate in a special intervention court dedicated to providing skills, treatment, education and mentoring to change the destructive and traumatizing path many of the youth are on. It’s called RISE Court, which stands for Resiliency Is Strength and Empowerment.
It took the group — a prosecutor, judge, public defender, probation officer, social worker — a year to get to this point. And on Nov. 6, youngsters — most likely girls — chosen to participate are expected to make their first appearances before San Diego Superior Court Judge Carolyn Caietti in the inaugural hearing.
“A lot of kids have this horrible, nightmarish existence, and it’s going to take a lot to get them back so they’re going to feel they’ve recovered their self-worth and sense of security,” said Robert Trentacosta, presiding judge for the Juvenile Court.
The program will start with just a few at first, but the goal is to eventually enroll 40.
Unfortunately, that probably won’t be difficult, said Caietti.
“It’s my understanding that we will not have a problem long term trying to fill the spots,” she said.
For the girls who intersect the juvenile justice system in San Diego County, the statistics are grim. An estimated 70 percent are either at risk for commercial sexual exploitation or already involved, authorities said.
The special court is the county’s latest weapon against human trafficking, an issue that has grown into one of the region’s leading public safety and social causes.
A study by University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University set out to quantify the problem in the county and estimated an average of 5,000 victims — mostly teenage girls and young women. The average age of entry into the lifestyle is 16, and foster youth are particularly vulnerable, the study found.
The results, released in 2015, confirmed what case workers on the field and in the courts were seeing and launched an energized effort to attack the problem from all angles.
There are several intervention courts already in San Diego County — drug court, mental health court, military veteran court, homeless court — designed to address the underlying issues rather than focus on the crime itself, a major tenant of the restorative justice movement.
While those concepts may still be somewhat novel when it comes to the adult criminal justice system, they lie at the heart of what happens behind the closed doors of Juvenile Court, which are generally not open to the viewing public.
“The goal is to rehabilitate the youth,” said Trentacosta. “With that as the North star, the rest falls into place very, very quickly. What is it that can be done, what does the child and the family need, in order for this kid to be successful and for society to be protected.
“What we’ve found is that a collaborative approach where everybody wants the same thing has proven to be very, very powerful.”
That approach has appeared to pay off in San Diego County and around the state. Here, the number of youths supervised by the county Probation Department has declined by nearly 40 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. The arrest rate and Juvenile Hall population has also plummeted as authorities embrace early intervention and rehabilitative services.
So when Caietti, who spent the past 10 of 11 years as a judge in the juvenile division, suggested a court to address the specific needs of underage sex-trafficking victims, it was not hard to get everyone else on board.
The court is modeled after a mental health court already in operation. Caietti and others also visited similar sex-trafficking courts in Los Angeles and Sacramento, as well as got input from sex-trafficking survivors about what they would have liked to see in such a program.
Jobs, empowerment and improved self-esteem were some of the answers, Caietti said.
The program is voluntary, and having the kid and the family buy-in will be important.
“Most of these folks are living lives of somewhat quiet desperation, and finally when their secret is out, there can be a sense of relief,” Trentacosta said.
“Some of the girls, not so much. Some are so fearful of their pimp they have to be convinced they are in fact going to be protected. Some of the girls, it’s more than they can wrap their head around. They have very mixed feelings; this person may be showing them affection and giving gifts.”
Those who do sign up will be connected with several services as part of an individualized plan. Education and job skills, mental health counseling or trauma therapy, substance abuse rehabilitation, and other programs will be stressed. Participants will be partnered with a mentor who will be a positive role model and a listening ear. There might be special housing needs to remove the child from a negative environment or family counseling.
Progress reports will be given in monthly hearings before the judge.
Graduation depends on the individual, and it doesn’t necessarily mean once they turn 18.
“Case by case they will ease out. Some respond really well and very quickly get squared away, other kids have really, really deep horrific things they have to overcome,” Trentacosta said. “Our hope is to terminate jurisdiction when you’re ready. Seal their record so they get a fresh start and so no stigma is attached to what they’ve been through.”
But challenges are anticipated, especially with this unique population, said Mary Beth Wirkus, juvenile branch chief for the Public Defender’s Office.
“They may be acting a certain way, running away and putting themselves in very unsafe situations. How do you balance protecting them and providing services for them? How do you not judge them or punish them because they are victims, but they are also making bad decisions?
“It’s going to be tricky.”
Deputy District Attorney Fanny Yu, who has worked on sex-trafficking cases for several years, agreed that comes with the territory.
“They are going to violate probation, sure. Going to possibly run away, sure,” Yu said. “It’s realizing that some of those behaviors are stemming from the process of healing. That’s the perspective we have to come from.”