Laura McGuire, a third-year Drake Law School student, contributed to the founding of the first-ever Girls Court in Iowa.
Girls Courts are specialty courts designed to address the gender-specific needs of young women. Rather than placing female delinquents in the formal court system, Girls Court participants enter a program emphasizing mental health, family, and substance abuse counseling.
“Female delinquents have different needs than male delinquents, and those needs aren’t really being met by our current juvenile justice system,” McGuire explains. “So people have started to realize that they need a different court for women.”
The first Girls Court was founded in Hawaii in 2004. Since then, a handful of other Girls Courts have opened across the United States to help young women at risk, particularly those who are victims of sex trafficking.
McGuire, who comes from a family involved in law enforcement, recently became interested in the topic of sex trafficking in Iowa. She wrote a Note on sex trafficking in the Drake Law Review titled “The Time to Act was Yesterday: Local Reforms to Confront the Tragedy of For-Profit Sexual Exploitation and Provide Victim Assistance.”
“You don’t think of sex trafficking in Iowa,” McGuire says. “But it is a significant issue. Because of the intersection of Interstates 80 and 35, it’s very easy to travel through the state with trafficking victims.”
In the Note, McGuire covered sex trafficking laws and recommended Iowa-specific solutions, including resolving the deficiencies in Iowa’s sex trafficking code. She also proposed implementing Iowa’s own Girls Court and outlined the steps and necessary components, including funding and structure of the program.
She explained in the Note that Girls Courts address some of the unique challenges that victims of sex trafficking present: drug addiction, distrust of law enforcement, flight risk, trauma from sexual and emotional abuse, and pimp-loyalty.
“The birth of Girls Courts is the result of a fundamental change in thinking about the way prostitutes and other victims of sexual exploitation should be viewed,” McGuire wrote in her Note. “The solution to the trafficking crisis cannot be realized unless states help victims reclaim their lives through trauma-informed therapy and gender-specific services.”
Before it was published, McGuire sent her Note to Colin J. Witt, an associate judge for District 5C in Iowa, to review. In response, Judge Witt set up a meeting with McGuire and invited Susan Cox, also an associate judge for District 5C, and Lori Rinehart, a juvenile court officer.
“When we got together to talk about it, they all said they were excited about making a Girls Court happen,” McGuire says. “They took the idea from there and put together a proposal.”
Thanks to McGuire’s inspiration, Iowa’s first Girls Court, called Too Good to Lose (TGTL), opened in Polk County in early March.
TGTL’s mission is to empower young women, connect them with the community, develop educational opportunities, and decrease recidivism. The program determines each individual woman’s needs and assigns her to a primary care advocate. Bi-monthly group meetings are also organized with other TGTL participants.
The goal is to enroll eight participants in the program by mid-summer.
Although the idea of Girls Courts is relatively new, initial studies find them to be successful. One study comparing the Hawaii Girls Court to the state system found that women in the Girls Court had 88 percent fewer violations of law, 98 percent fewer status offenders, and 75 percent fewer shelter admissions.
“I think the most important indicator of success is whether or not the girl actually leaves 'the life,'” McGuire says. “If they truly leave their pimps and learn how to prosper on their own – then they’re successful.”
Read McGuire’s Note in the Drake Law Review online.