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A Finishing School Behind Bars

Times Staff Writer

Girls in trouble with the law in Orange County are being taught how to act, dress and even salsa as part of an ambitious project to boost their self-esteem and provide them with the basic social skills and support they will need to lead productive lives.

The Orange County Probation Department, in concert with a coalition of nonprofit groups, on Tuesday announced the launch of the “Mission Possible” program, which authorities and advocates hope will stem the rising crime and recidivism rates among girls ages 12 to 18.

“It’s an exploding population,” said Thomas G. Wright, the chief deputy probation officer in charge of the county’s juvenile facilities.

Wright estimated that there had been an average of about 200 girls in custody at any given time over the last year. And although the population dipped to an unusually low 117 this week, he added, it’s still a big jump from the 20 or so girls he was handling five years ago. The majority are accused of burglary and car theft, followed by prostitution and drug offenses, he said.

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Probation officials also unveiled the newest unit for girls at the county’s Juvenile Hall: Unit Q, one of three facilities across the county where girls are housed. On the grounds of the county’s central juvenile compound in Orange, Unit Q can hold up to 60 who are awaiting trial. The unit opened about a year ago but, like most juvenile facilities, has been off-limits to the news media and public.

A typical room is about 7 by 15 feet, with cinderblock walls, two bunks, a toilet, a sink and a two-way ceiling speaker sensitive enough to capture the sound of a girl’s breathing while she sleeps. The rooms line two floors and face a central lounge, giving the unit the feel of a college dorm.

Mission Possible is modeled partly after a similar program for boys, but is more of a composite of several programs that have proved successful in the past, Wright said. Partners of the Probation Department include the Tustin Boys & Girls Club, the Orange County Department of Education and Girls Inc., a national nonprofit dedicated to inspiring girls, particularly those in high-risk areas, to be “strong, smart, and bold.” Seed money was provided by the private Weingart Foundation, which helps meet the needs of underserved Southland communities.

Funding has been provided for a year, but probation officials say they hope to make it a permanent program. Estimated annual cost is about $300,000.

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One of the project’s primary missions is fostering a sense of home and community for the girls. For example, in preparation for Tuesday’s tour, the residents of Unit Q had strung up homemade Halloween decorations and baked batches of cookies for invited guests.

Other initiatives are designed to address the girls’ body image, including lessons in fashion, yoga, sex education and diet. Salsa dancing has also been thrown into the mix, because it can empower “somebody to want to be someone, and it’s an outlet,” said project leader Jim Perez, a specialist for the county Education Department.

Among the most critical parts of the project are providing the girls with emotional and financial support, mentoring, and career and educational opportunities after they are released.

Perez said some of the ideas may seem fundamental, but many of the girls who end up in the juvenile system have not been taught how to act or dress, or have been deprived of the simplest of childhood experiences. He and other officials said 45 girls who participated in a test run this year showed they were very receptive, and more so than boys, to correcting their behavior.

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“I was blown away” by their progress, Perez said. “I can’t believe how much passion and willingness there was to change.”

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christine.hanley@latimes.com


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