In a low-ceilinged courtroom crowded with juveniles charged with crimes, an improbable scene played out this week.
A teenage girl stood before a judge as the entire courtroom applauded her — prosecutors, probation officers, public defenders, even other teenagers slouched on benches awaiting their own cases.
And on this first day of Girls Court in Hillsborough County, it happened more than once.
The girls are in flip-flops and combat boots, some demure, some tattooed. They look too adult. They look too young to be here.
This particular teenager wore her fast-food uniform (work after court) and told the judge she could soon make manager. And maybe they could ease up on her court-ordered curfew for night shifts?
Judge Barbara Twine Thomas agreed — but only for work, she said, her meaning clear. "She's going to earn the right to have that curfew changed," she said, dangling a carrot.
The girl and her mother were getting along much better, the girl reported. What's more, she just passed the test that would pave the way to taking her high school equivalency exam. At that, Twine Thomas peered over her glasses and smiled.
"Is this an applause?" she asked the room, and everyone did, the girl ducking her head. Someone from the school district (part of the support system for Girls Court) piped up that they could pay the girl's GED fee. "Excellent!" the judge said.
Why a court for girls? Ralph Stoddard, juvenile delinquency administrative judge, will tell you they see girls who have been sexually abused, girls under pressure from older boys, girls acting out "because of some trauma in their past that no one really wants to scratch the surface of." Their needs — and solutions — are different.
They commit crimes like battery, theft and fights, some of it serious. This day, many girls come with their mothers, fewer with fathers as well, one pushing her grandma in a wheelchair. One girl came with no one.
Pinellas has run a Girls Court since 2007. Another is up and running in Jacksonville. It's meant to be a support system gender-specific and tailor-made, a wedge shoved in a revolving courthouse door. "A beginning," Twine Thomas says of day one.
Most of the girls here are finishing sentences that include community service, counseling for anger management or other issues, letters of apology, and fines and costs.
Probation officers sit in the jury box to answer specific questions on each case. Program providers are there to talk available options — counseling, employment training, life skills, education. People from the school system tell the judge the last time a girl was in class and where she's headed in the fall, or not. Two pregnant girls are steered to parenting classes and Healthy Start. "The tools in the toolbox," Stoddard says.
As the first-day docket rolls on, two more get applause with the news they have graduated high school. Then the judge looks over her glasses at a girl who has veered off course a bit. Stay on it, the judge says. "You're not going to let me down, are you," she says, more statement than question. The girl says she won't.
As the judge said: a start.