Where would the teenage girl be safe?
That was the question Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio and the girl’s mother were attempting to answer.
The girl had run away again from her mother’s home. Her mother didn’t like where she was staying.
Teodosio suggested the girl move home, but the mother balked.
“I’m done,” the mother said, standing up. “I don’t want her no more. I have three other kids to raise. The streets might as well have her.”
The mother left the stunned courtroom, leaving her daughter behind, sobbing.
Welcome to a recent session in Restore Court, a new program in Summit County Juvenile Court to help youths who are victims — or in danger of becoming victims — of human trafficking. The program provides participants with services, rewards and punishments to try to steer them onto the right path.
Human trafficking is often referred to as a form of modern-day slavery in which people profit from controlling and exploiting others. Traffickers use “force, fraud or coercion” to lure their victims and force them into labor or prostitution, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Summit court recently became the first juvenile court in Ohio to receive interim approval from the Ohio Supreme Court for a human-trafficking program. Juvenile courts in other counties, including Stark and Cuyahoga, also are considering starting these specialized dockets. Similar programs already exist for adults in municipal courts in Cleveland and Columbus.
Summit County’s Restore Court has served 41 juveniles ages 12 to 19 since January 2015, with 15 successfully completing the program and five going through it more than once. All but one were girls.
Most of the youths are from Akron, but others hail from as far south as Clinton to as far north as Twinsburg. They entered the program charged with a variety of crimes, including soliciting, chronic truancy, possession of drugs, public indecency and assault.
Besides the court program, a community center, dubbed That Place, recently opened in a former East Akron church to give the youths a safe place for activities and services, including counseling and tutoring. Plans also are in the works for a safe house that will give youths without a stable home environment a place to stay temporarily.
Two Summit County sheriff’s deputies escorted another teen girl to the recent Restore Court session, removing shackles from her ankles before she sat across from the judge.
The girl was facing a probation violation for leaving home without permission and new charges for violating curfew and obstructing official business for a recent traffic stop in which she and the other occupants fled after being pulled over by officers.
She admitted the probation violation and entered denials to the new charges.
She and the other Restore Court participants are not named because the Beacon Journal typically doesn’t identify juveniles charged with crimes.
Annette Powers, the girl’s attorney, said she and the girl have talked about getting her on medication to “curb her impulsivity.” The girl tested positive for marijuana in her latest drug test.
“You need to remain sober for the meds to work,” Teodosio told the girl.
“How long will I be staying here?” the girl asked, referring to the youth detention center.
Teodosio said she planned to order a psychiatric evaluation and would rule on the girl’s case within a week.
“I will be looking for a recommendation for how to get you back on track,” she told the girl. “My goal is what’s best for you.”
Restore Court is different from juvenile court, where youths normally are prosecuted for what they do wrong, not treated as victims.
Court staffers evaluate new cases, looking for warning signs of human trafficking — youths who frequently run away, travel to different cities or have unexplained cash or items they shouldn’t be able to afford, such as new clothes, manicured nails or a designer purse.
Most of the program participants don’t see themselves as victims and don’t know what human trafficking is. The court staff uses terms they understand, like “boyfriend” instead of “pimp.”
The program has two tracks, depending on what crimes the youth faces. Certain crimes, such as solicitation, qualify the youths for “Safe Harbor” under state law, which means they are entitled to a nine-month diversion program. If they successfully complete the program, the charges are dropped.
Youths identified as human-trafficking victims who committed crimes that don’t fall under Safe Harbor designation also are given the opportunity to participate. They don’t have a set time frame for completion and may or may not have the charges against them dropped.
The first phase of the program involves the youths getting counseling, drug treatment, mentoring and other services to help them. The second involves continuing those services while also meeting goals, such as attending school, not using drugs or alcohol, staying at home and avoiding contact with certain people. In the last phase, the court relies on a counselor and mentor to prepare the participants and their families to flourish on their own.
Another teenage girl in the recent Restore Court session told the judge she was looking forward to starting school and said her favorite subject is math.
A court employee reported the girl was “trying to see the bigger picture” because she is pregnant, with the baby due in late January. She said the girl has been meeting with her therapist and tested negative for drugs. The girl wants to continue her studies after having the baby and plans to take parenting classes.
Judge Teodosio granted a request from the teen and her mother to terminate children services’ protective supervision and said the girl could petition to move into the third and final phase of Restore Court. She said the girl could pick out a reward.
“You know exactly where to go,” Teodosio said as the girl reached into the goodie bag and chose a package of mini muffins.
A big part of Restore Court is reinforcing positive behavior and replacing negative activities with productive ones.
Rahab Ministries, which also helps adult prostitutes in Akron, pairs a mentor with each Restore Court participant. The mentors take the youths on fun outings, like out to eat or to get ice cream.
The mentors also have the new That Place community center, where they can take the teens and pre-teens to hang out, talk or participate in an activity like dance, art and jewelry making. The community center is located on the third floor of the Well, a former church on East Market Street remodeled to house nonprofit organizations.
Youths identified as victims or potential victims of human trafficking by Children Services or other agencies also are welcome at the community center.
Becky Moreland, Rahab’s executive director, sees the mentoring as a natural extension of her agency’s 14-year effort to help prostitutes, many of whom were human trafficking victims as teens.
“That is why we need to capture these minors and get them out of this lifestyle before they are dead,” Moreland said. “If we opened our own funeral home, we’d be rich. That’s sad.”
A fourth teenage girl in the recent Restore Court session told Teodosio that she has a job and plans to finish high school and go to Kent State University.
“Tell me something you learned from your counselor,” Teodosio requested.
“Decision-making and trusting people,” the girl responded.
Court staff reported the girl has been doing well, had no new charges and was requesting to graduate from the program.
“This program changed my way of thinking and made me a better person,” the girl said in a letter read by a court employee. “I put my family through a hard time. I have things to look forward to. Thanks again to everyone who helped me.”
The girl’s mom said she is proud of her.
“It was rough,” the mother said. “I told her, ‘You have to make mistakes to learn.’”
Teodosio told the girl she also is proud of her and agreed to her graduation request.
“You have done everything we expect,” the judge said. “I have no doubt you will make it to Kent State.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com or on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.