Program takes a victim-centered therapeutic approach during court proceedings

PHOENIX (August 16, 2023) – Nearly 300 children in Arizona were confirmed victims of sex trafficking between 2017 and 2020, according to a report by the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. Many of those victims had a runaway history. 

In Maricopa County, an entire team that consists of the Juvenile Probation Department, Juvenile Court judges, Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA of Maricopa County), Mercy Care, the McCain Institute, Arizona State University’s STIR program, survivor advocates and other stakeholders work together to help them go from victims to survivors.

“We never talk about trafficking on the record, and we do that because we don’t want to traumatize the youth, we don’t want them to feel labeled or shamed or anything along those lines,” said Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Dunne.

STRENGTH court, which stands for Succeed Through Resilience Empower New Growth Through Hope, was first introduced in the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County in 2018 and has since evolved to help victims of sex trafficking using a victim-centered trauma approach, building trust with each juvenile that the program encounters. The STRENGTH Court judges see youth who have a delinquency and/or dependency case.

“These young people are among the most traumatized that we see. They typically have complex trauma and they often have had trauma in their homes with their families. And once they are trafficked, it just gets exponentially worse and so they have a lot of high needs,” said Judge Dunne. “What we are trying to do is give them this therapeutic court, and we are taking a trauma-informed approach on getting them services, like trauma therapy, mental health counseling and substance abuse counseling if they need it.”

During hearings, participants include juvenile probation officers, attorneys, an Arizona Department of Child Safety case manager, a High Needs Case Manager, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA of Maricopa County) and a survivor mentor to address all aspects of the case including counseling, safe and appropriate housing, education and any other barriers to success. 

“One of the key components of the court was the formation of a strong collaboration with the youth’s supportive team to ensure optimal decision-making, timely support as needed, identifying gaps in services, and referring the youth to appropriate resources to support their success,” said STRENGTH Unit Supervisor Paula Coe, a juvenile probation officer.

The Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department implemented a specific STRENGTH Court Unit consisting of probation and surveillance officers to specialize in working with victims of sex trafficking and to take a more active role in the STRENGTH problem-solving court.

“As the STRENGTH Court evolved, it became clear that cases in which youth have been victims of sex trafficking needed specialized case planning and interventions,” said Coe. “Many of the youth participating in STRENGTH Court were originally assigned to a unit designed to effectively manage youth involved in both child welfare (dependency) and delinquency matters. However, youth were assigned among various officers within the unit. To maintain the collaboration and to keep the work specialized, the Juvenile Probation Department moved to create a dedicated STRENGTH Probation Officer. This probation officer handles cases in which the youth have been identified as suspected or confirmed sex trafficking victims.”

Judge Dunne, who has been involved with STRENGTH Court from the inception in August 2018, tries to build rapport with kids by coming down from the bench to make an effort to get to know them personally.

“I sit across from them. I always offer snacks for them to enjoy. I start trying to get to know them as people. I try to find ways to get them to trust me and have faith in me and it can be a slow process because a lot of these young people are quite guarded,” said Judge Dunne. “Their trafficker has told them don’t trust the police, don’t trust the courts, don’t trust anyone and so sometimes it’s hard to break through but I find that they just want someone to care about them and not for the wrong reason. So, we let them know we care about them, and we are here for them and we want to see them be successful in life.”

And success might look different for different youth. However, the team behind STRENGTH Court works to encourage youth every step of the way.

“Success is staying away from trafficking, not going back to the life and staying off the streets. It’s getting an education and finding a healthy career. It is helping them overcome their trauma and any substance abuse issues they may have. Success is seeing them go from just surviving to thriving,” said Judge Dunne.

The STRENGTH Probation Supervision Unit with Maricopa County was recognized in 2023 for a National Association of Counties Achievement Award (NACo) for their work with this specialized unit and their dedication to supporting the youth suspected of/identified as victims of trafficking.