Maricopa County STRENGTH Court uses empathy over judgment for sex trafficking victims

Sep 15, 2023, 4:25 AM | Updated: 9:58 am

Photo of gavel....

Destiney Rae Montoya, 22, was sentenced to a year in prison for her role as a social media recruiter for human smuggling. (Pexels Photo)

(Pexels Photo)

PHOENIX — A courtroom can be a scary place to be, especially for children who are victims of sex trafficking who end up standing before a judge, but one Maricopa County court program is using empathy, not judgment to get them the help they need.

It’s part of the non-traditional “STRENGTH Court,” which stands for Succeed Through Resilience Empower New Growth Through Hope. The team is made up of judges, advocates, and juvenile probation department workers, which solely handles juvenile dependency and delinquency cases of children who are the victims of sex trafficking.

“It’s a therapeutic, victim-centered court,” Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Dunne said. “The juveniles are treated as the victims they are, so they are not charged with any prostitution-related offenses.”

What is the STRENGTH court working to accomplish?

Dunne is one of two presiding judges serving on the STRENGTH Court, and she has been involved since its inception in 2018.

“What we’re trying to do is just focus on them. What do they need to stay safe, to heal going forward, and what services can we give them to help in that process,” Dunne said.

She said that could include services such as trauma counseling, substance abuse treatment, or educational support.

Learning what those needs are involves creating a more relaxed courtroom experience for youth who have already been through too much trauma.

Is there a process to earning a victim’s trust?

Dunne said earning the trust of these children can sometimes be a challenge. Some of the victims have been conditioned by their traffickers to not trust anyone, especially those in the legal system.

“We want court to not be intimidating, or scary, or frightening. We want them to know we are there for them—that we’re all part of their team,” Dunne said.

“That’s part of the reason I come down off the bench. I want to sit directly across from them, look them eye to eye. I want them to know that they matter. They’re not just another case on the court’s docket.”

Fellow Maricopa County Superior Court and STRENGTH Court Judge, Amanda Parker, said she also comes off the bench during the proceedings and values the chance to get to know the children, such as their hobbies or interests.

“They’re very resilient, so some of the most rewarding conversations I’ve had aren’t necessarily even the legalese or the court procedures. It’s more just getting to know the girls and the kids on the calendar better,” Parker said.

“It really has been both eye-opening, encouraging to me and meaningful to me to see the team of professionals really coming together for something that’s so important in our community, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

A 43-year-old man died after driving his vehicle into the bottom of a dry canal in Phoenix on Feb. ...

43-year-old man dead after driving vehicle into canal in Phoenix

A 43-year-old man died after driving his vehicle into the bottom of a dry canal in Phoenix on Tuesday evening, authorities said.

5 minutes ago

A dust storm rolled through metro Phoenix on Feb. 28, 2024. (ADOT Photo)...

Dust storm rolls through metro Phoenix during evening rush hour

Metro Phoenix drivers headed home during evening rush hour had to fight through a dust storm on Wednesday.

46 minutes ago

A student was found with a gun at Youngker High School in Buckeye on Feb. 28, 2024. (Google Maps Sc...

Student found with gun at West Valley high school

A student was found with a gun at a West Valley high school on Wednesday, authorities said.

2 hours ago

The front end blade of an Arizona Department of Transportation snowplow...

Kevin Stone

Here’s the scoop: ADOT reveals results of name-a-snowplow contest

After tallying more than 9,500 votes, the Arizona Department of Transportation revealed three winners for its second name-a-snowplow contest.

4 hours ago

A sign reading "for lease" is seen in the foreground with a house behind it...

Kevin Stone

Arizona AG accuses landlords of illegally conspiring to raise rents in Phoenix, Tucson areas

Arizona's attorney general filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing multiple companies of illegally conspiring to fix rent prices in Phoenix and Tucson.

5 hours ago

A Frontier Airlines plane can be seen on the ground, casting a shadow, in a file photo...

Kevin Stone

Frontier Airlines adding nonstop service between Phoenix and Montana city

Discount carrier Frontier Airlines will launch new nonstop service between Phoenix and Montana this spring.

6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Maricopa County STRENGTH Court uses empathy over judgment for sex trafficking victims