Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 8:18 am | Fair 45º

 
 
 
 

Santa Barbara County Probation Program Aims to Change Custody Environment for Female Juveniles

UCSB, county agencies collaborate on pilot program focused on gender-specific interventions — with positive results so far

UC Santa Barbara research indicates that female juvenile offenders often have significant histories of trauma and abuse that they may be running away from, whereas male juveniles typically develop behavior challenges related to falling in with the wrong crowd. An innovative program at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall is aimed at creating positive intervention strategies for young women in an effort to improve their outcomes. Click to view larger
UC Santa Barbara research indicates that female juvenile offenders often have significant histories of trauma and abuse that they may be running away from, whereas male juveniles typically develop behavior challenges related to falling in with the wrong crowd. An innovative program at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall is aimed at creating positive intervention strategies for young women in an effort to improve their outcomes. (Richard Ross photo / Juvenile in Justice)

In an old part of Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, where young offenders used to be kept before the population declined in recent years, a unit has been transformed into a safe haven for females who find themselves in trouble.

Peace signs and posters with words of encouragement line thick walls, softening a communal space that also features comfy pink couches and colorful cupboards.

The unit has been re-purposed to provide Santa Barbara County females with their first-ever gender-specific space in a juvenile justice system that historically and nationally has been directed toward males.

It’s no surprise, then, that for the pilot program to work, multiple agencies had to get involved.

A team of researchers from UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education signed on to collect data on the new intervention strategies. The county Department of Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services provided the innovative curriculum. The county Probation Department secured the space and loosened its security measures. And the county Education Office offered assistance.

Ten females were part of the “therapeutic girls group,” which met in the renovated unit at least twice a week to practice wellness activities like journaling, hip-hop dance, brushing each others’ hair and talking while drinking hot tea — formerly a huge no-no.

They were even given nice-smelling shampoo and soap.

With one year down — UCSB researchers observed outcomes throughout 2014 — the collaboration and an accompanying report of the university’s findings suggest the officials might be on to something.

Jill Sharkey and her team of researchers from UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education have been tracking data from an innovative probation program tailored toward female juvenile offenders. 'Some of the pathways girls take to be on probation are different,' she says. (UCSB photo)
Jill Sharkey and her team of researchers from UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education have been tracking data from an innovative probation program tailored toward female juvenile offenders. “Some of the pathways girls take to be on probation are different,” she says. (UCSB photo)

“Some of the pathways girls take to be on probation are different,” explained Jill Sharkey, who led UCSB researchers.

The idea was to provide another option for girls on probation, since they typically re-offend less than boys and used to be less violent.

Local boys can opt into Los Prietos Boys Camp, where they have access to curriculum that teaches carpentry and other skills. But girls were either sent to juvenile hall or placed in out-of-area group homes, where many of them choose to run away.

While boys typically develop behavior challenges related to getting in with a delinquent crowd, Sharkey said, “girls in the system have had significant histories of trauma and abuse. They may be running away from those homes.”

UCSB’s findings supported that fact, along with demonstrating that girls were more likely than boys to have a mental-health diagnosis for depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety (in that order of prevalence), and that a diagnosis for alcohol abuse, drug dependence and conduct disorders were related to recidivism.

By focusing on positive intervention instead of punishing sanctions, girls were actually behaving better to be allowed access to the new unit, said Brian Swanson, probation manager for Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.

Juvenile hall averages 10 to 15 girls in custody at a given time, which means most of them can participate.

“We’ve had a very favorable response from the girls,” Swanson said. “I think it’s mostly the environment. They appreciated being treated like girls once in a while. We went a very long time (over two months) without any fights with other girls.

“They face very unique problems. When they come here, they come here with a great deal of baggage. Our mental-health folks have really kind of gotten creative.”

Swanson said the probation program is ongoing, but UCSB is waiting for its next round of funding to begin collecting another year of data to validate effective curriculum. New funding is expected April 1, and 2014 efforts were paid for under the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act.

“Our goal ultimately was to have a self-contained living unit,” Swanson said. “We’ve been slowed some by resource challenges. It’s kind of a long-term vision.

“We should make every effort to try to reach them to have the greatest impact.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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