By Holland Smith
Ana was in the pipeline to be sex trafficked. She had recently been released from a residential treatment center, recovering from deep depression. She hated school, mainly because she was bearing the brunt of heavy bullying. She’d been bouncing between foster homes, and felt unwanted and inconsequential. Ana was a typical teen girl in the Foster Care System.
The statistics for girls in Ana’s circumstances speak to a daunting hurdle. Increased pregnancy and homelessness rates and decreased high school graduation rates are just a few of the challenges that prevent these girls from growing into strong and empowered women.
Judge Renée Yanta, a former public school teacher, Girl Scout/Cub Scout leader, mentor, and mother of two, is also the presiding judge over the 150th District Court in Bexar County. Three years ago, she decided to take on a new project: a cutting-edge therapeutic court for at-risk teenage girls in the foster care system.
The court, called PEARLS (P-Prepared, E-Esteem, A-Achieving, R-Resiliency, L-Learning, and S-Strength and Stamina), is both an acronym and a metaphor. Like a pearl in an oyster creates something beautiful under intense pressure, PEARLS Court provides counseling, life-skills training, and mentoring to help participants grow into successful women.
Girls are referred to the program through either the court system or their Child Protective Services case worker. Once in the program, girls are paired with a female mentor who serves as both an “older sister” figure and a continual source of love and encouragement.
Judge Yanta believes that the most powerful source of positive change for the PEARLS Girls is the volunteers’ and mentors’ unconditional love. Though the mentors are not being paid for their service, they dedicate a countless amount of time and spirit to making a difference in the girl’s lives. The presence of a consistent and stable force represents a kind of love the girls may not be receiving elsewhere, and has transformed girls from being aggressive and closed-off to open and trusting.
“I don’t feel loved, but then I do feel love when I come [to PEARLS Court],” one foster care teen said in a KSAT interview. “It feels like a guardian angel is around you all the time.”
From August until May, the court program meets twice a month in the Bexar County Courthouse, but to make a real impact, the group also plans events outside of the courtroom. On Quarterly Days of Opportunity and Quarterly Days of Service, PEARLS hosts off-site events which allow the girls to expand their horizons and inspire them to make a difference in their communities.
After three years, PEARLS Court has made tremendous progress in combatting some of the startling statistics. What began as a project personally funded by Judge Yanta is now supported by a grant from the governor’s office which has made it possible for Judge Yanta to hire a therapist to hold closed group therapy sessions. In June of 2017, the first two seniors in PEARLS Court graduated from high school, something that 70% of these foster care teens don’t do. In 2018, five seniors in PEARLS Court graduated from high school, and all are on their way to college. Only 1% of teens in foster care are adopted before aging out, but one PEARLS girl made the transformation from living in a residential treatment center to being adopted. That was Ana.
With the love of Judge Yanta and the community of PEARLS Court volunteers and mentors, Ana opened her heart to receive deep therapeutic care and strong encouragement. She became stronger, pushing aside bullies and confidently developing her own voice and vision. After three years as a PEARLS Girl, Ana graduated from high school on the A/B Honor Roll and was admitted to college. And she found a stable home and loving parents; together, they have a forever family.
“There’s so much resilience in humans when you provide support and care and you try to pull that out of the girls. PEARLS just provides so much hope,” Laura Smothers, a volunteer with the program, said in a KSAT interview.
Today, PEARLS Court is partnered with the Department of Family and Protective Services, Children’s Court, and more than 50 volunteers from the surrounding community. In late August, PEARLS Court worked with similar groups to sponsor a summit of more than 150 individuals from around San Antonio to provide a vision for life after the foster care system.
For Judge Yanta, PEARLS Court is not only an extension of her long service record but a chance to transform the legal system into a place of healing and hope. She believes that with vision, creativity, and energy, courthouses can be seen as a place where positive changes are made.
“People see the courthouse as a place where bad things happen. They think it’s where they go to get divorced, or lose property, or go to jail. If you have someone willing to do the extra work, and who has that vision, we can make sure that the legal system does so much better than just punish people,” Judge Yanta said.
PEARLS Court is just one example of a therapeutic court helping people get back on their feet. Therapeutic courts work by providing citizens with resources and discussions about life stabilization. The model of a therapeutic court is based not on punishment, but on recovery and healing.
“These are not kids to be punished. They are in the legal system because their parents fell short, not because they did,” Judge Yanta said. “There’s no hammer. It’s all about developing a relationship with the girls. Taking away PEARLS would be the hammer.”
While Judge Yanta knows that she cannot fix the entire foster care system, she hopes that her program will inspire others to enact change and to think of the legal system in a different light.
“Investing in our PEARLS Girls is not always easy; our Girls face huge hurdles almost every day. But clearing those hurdles, walking along side, seeing their hearts heal and grow … these are the blessings that confirm the power of PEARLS Court and the power of the great love in our community,” Judge Yanta said.
The courts in Bexar County transform lives and have an ongoing impact on its residents and the community. Go to SupportTheCourtTX.com and learn more about the courts, Judge Renée Yanta, the Republican candidates, and be an informed judicial voter.