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....

(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.”

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