“And before you leave today, make sure you get the clerk’s notice of the next--.”
Kristin stopped her colloquy and glared as the door to the courtroom swung open. She was annoyed when people came late to Girls Court. It was important that everyone hear every word of explanation in the experimental court for at-risk girls. Then she smiled, because it was Skip tip toeing through the door, finger to his lips to silence the visitors he had brought with him: his wife, Karen, and Jordan, who still wore a long sleeve sweatshirt. All three smiled back at her.
“I see we have some visitors in Girls Court today,” Kristin said. “Dr. Visconti and I are always happy to have visitors and we welcome your comments, after we have gone through today’s calendar. Please sit where you can see and hear the girls as they take their seat in the witness box and they tell us how things are going at home, in school and on probation.
Witness box? Jordan wondered. This looked like regular court with a table for the state attorney, public defender and guardian ad litem. But no kid had to sit in the witness box in regular juvenile court. The poor girls. She would have died. It was bad enough to stand at the podium and talk to the judge. But to sit in the box and talk to the whole courtroom…well…ugh!
Mary took over where Kristin left off. She turned to face the audience.
“Judge Dahlen and I created this court a few months ago to give girls on probation, girls with family violence problems, and girls who were chronically truant from school an opportunity to speak up, tell their stories, paint a picture of the successes and failures they were experiencing, and listen to other people important to them do the same–without the time constraints of juvenile delinquency court and its crowded docket.
“So as we call each girl up to the witness box, she can look out at us and know that she is listened to and cared about, for as much time as it takes. We require all the girls and their parents or caregivers, as well as the probation officers, to stay for the entire two hours, and if we go past five o’clock, which we usually do, we have refreshments in a conference room downstairs. That way we can get to know each other better. We are very relationship oriented.”
Kristin saw one of the state attorneys smirk while Lee Ann, the public defender, looked nervous. She was probably worried that one of her clients would blurt out something incriminating on the stand.
She and Mary had to make a lot of concessions. For example, nothing the girls revealed from the witness box would lead to a new charge or a violation of probation. Short of murder, she thought to herself. The purpose of the dialogue was a full discussion of the girls’ problems, family and school interactions, and a search for solutions.
Jordan watched as girl after girl took the witness box. Their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, probation officers, therapists and–on two occasions–boyfriends stood at the podium as they hashed out their differences and grievances, guided by Dr. Visconti and the judge.
“School don’t mean nothing to me,” one sixteen year old girl said. “My grades are terrible. My family can’t afford to send me to college. I’m gonna end up working at Burger King, so I might as well start now. I can earn money there to buy some good clothes, go to a few concerts. I haven’t broken the law again. I don’t see why skipping school is violating my probation.”
“I hit my mother because I see her boyfriends do it,” said another. “That’s how they get respect, so that’s how I get it. It’s never that hard. I always apologize. Momma doesn’t want to call the police, so I don’t see why you all here care so much about it.”
“I’m doing better, Judge, really I am,” one tiny little girl who looked about ten years old said to Kristin.
“My boyfriend was the one that got me to slide into those windows and take things from those houses. I haven’t done that since I was charged with felony burglary and home invasion. Now I wait on the sidewalk and just look out for the police if he does something like that.”
Kristin hid a small smile and peeked at the lawyers, both of whom were shaking their heads. She expected the Chief Judge to get an earful of this session.
Mary skillfully led the family members, probation officers and therapists through a dialogue with the girls on the stand, exploring the causes for their behavior and solutions that might work. For two of the girls, she recommended Pace, an alternative day school where girls could receive drug counseling, family therapy, credit recovery, small classes and empathetic teachers.
“It’s one stop shopping,” Kristin chimed in, “and Florida is the only state in the country fortunate enough to have nineteen Pace Centers. Let’s make use of them.”
Angela,” she said, turning to a very pregnant girl in the witness box, “Pace would be perfect for you now and after the baby is born. The teachers and staff are very compassionate. They will work with you.”
Jordan looked at Skip, and saw that he and Karen were enthralled with the process. Jordan was starting to think her life wasn’t so bad. She’d never committed a crime. She’d never appeared in delinquency court. She had people fighting in court to adopt her. Then she saw someone she thought she knew take the stand.
“Mikayla Wright,” Dr. Visconti said, “has shown remarkable resilience and strength following her mother’s tragic death late last year.” She smiled at the thin girl with the beaded dreds.
“Frankly, Judge Dahlen, there’s not much worse that can happen to a teenager than losing a parent. Mikayla is making heroic attempts to keep it together. Maybe a little too heroic. She is having trouble opening up to her probation officer and to her counselor,” the case manager said.
Wow, Jordan thought. Mikayla was the girl who had been in court with her just after Christmas when the judge told the whole courtroom that Mikayla’s mother had died, from an overdose. She looks a lot older today, and tougher, Jordan thought. Her lips weren’t really curled, but she looked unhappy and, maybe, mean
Jordan nudged Skip and pointed at Mikayla. “Shhh,” he said. “I know who she is. She was in court the last time you were.” Skip’s wife, Karen, couldn’t take her eyes off Mikayla.
Someone from the group home talked about Mikayla breaking curfew and running away overnight. Mikayla’s therapist mumbled something about early trauma and concerns about Mikayla being lured into prostitution, but Judge Dahlen cut her off.
“You can talk about trauma,” Judge Dahlen said, “but we don’t use the word prostitution in this court as underage girls cannot consent to sex and therefore cannot be prostitutes. They are victims.”
“Mikayla,” Kristin said, turning to the girl with the springy dreadlocks whose face was hard as stone, eyes unblinking. “It’s your turn. What would you like to say?”
Mikayla looked around the courtroom before speaking. Her eyes seem to sear into those she met. People stopped whispering or taking notes. Even Dr. Visconti sat down.
“No one here really knows me,” she said. “Everyone is doing their job, but no one here deep down really cares for me. My momma did, but she was messed up on pills and now she’s dead. One of my foster momma’s cared for me, but she moved away and I was put in a group home. Now I’m there again, fighting with the other girls and trying to fit in.
“Don’t cha think I’d run away? How many of you have ever lived in a group home with a bunch of screwed up girls with no families? And now I’m going to high school with a bunch of losers.”
She looked around the courtroom. No one spoke up or took their eyes off of her.
“I think an orphanage might be better. People come to an orphanage to adopt kids. They don’t come to group homes to find a kid to adopt.”
Dr. Visconti moved towards Mikayla, putting her hand on her arm.
“Mikayla, what you say is true. We are so sorry for what happened to your momma and the situation you are in. But, you’ve put yourself into danger…danger that is harmful to you in so many ways. You shouldn’t be involved, at your age, with an older man. Physically, mentally and emotionally, this will scar you for life. Not to mention that running away from your group home is a violation of your probation. That’s why you are in detention again. No man is worth that.”
Mikayla glared at the doctor. Jordan couldn’t believe what she said next.
“Sometimes I hate him. I know what he did. I know what he’s doing. He is going to pay.” Mikayla’s eyes filled with tears.
“But at least he knows me, knows about me. At least he makes believe he cares about me. That’s good enough right now. I want him to feel my pain, but I don’t want to give him up. Don’t worry, doc, it’s going to be over soon, one way or another,” Mikayla said, vacillating between defending and crucifying Germaine.
She tried to wipe away the tears before anyone would see them.
When Girls’ Court was over, Jordan walked out with Skip and Karen, who was wiping her own eyes. Mikayla was the last case, and the three of them couldn’t forget her. Jordan stopped as soon as they got out of the courtroom. That got Skip’s attention.
“Skip,” she said, tugging his sleeve. “The time we were in court with Mikayla, just after her mom died?”
“Yes,” he said, looking down at her.
“Mikayla dropped a pill bottle out of her purse when she went up to the podium with the judge. I forgot to tell you about it. I picked it up, along with her purse, and left it for her on the bench so she could get it when she came back to her seat.”
“So?” Skip asked.
“The pill bottle had some white tape wrapped around it and there was a phone number written in ink on the tape.”
“Um,um…I wonder if Mikayla has called that number….”
Skip frowned at her, puzzled, but Jordan’s thoughts were far away. They were at Aunt Erin’s house, with Luke and the amulet he wore around his neck and the cell phone he kept close by that Jordan called him on to arrange visits when Aunt Erin was at work.
The pill bottle. Luke’s phone number on it. Still her secret.