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Program Targets Adolescent Female Offenders

The Networks for Girls program started this spring in Springfield and helps troubled adolescent girls turn their lives around. KSMU’s Missy Shelton reports.

More information on Networks for Girls.

The need for a program that targets young female offenders became apparent nearly two years ago when the Greene County Juvenile Office began to notice a new trend. That led to conversations with Dr. Charlene Berquist, Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution at Missouri State University.

Berquist says, “They were receiving many more referrals than they ever had related to juvenile girls and experiences with family, and also a concern that the experience of juvenile girls is very different than that of boys, and wondered if we would work with them to develop a program they could refer to.”

And that was the early beginnings of what is now called the Networks for Girls program and is a part of the Center for Dispute Resolution.

Berquist says, “This program is designed for situations where a girl might offend against a family member, a mother, a sibling, or it might be a situation where there is a behavioral problem and parents throw up their hands and say, ‘We’re just really not sure what to do.’”

The Networks for Girls program is an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. It begins with a family group conference where families, the offender, and a trained facilitator meet to discuss the problem behavior and how they can move forward in a more positive way. The program coordinator, Caryn Saxon says the goal is to empower families.

Saxon says, “We really want these families to leave our program having a lot of confidence within themselves and their own ability to solve their own problems. So, in the first component, in the family group conference, we get them prepped and started, and then leave the families alone to talk about the issues they’re experiencing and work out a plan by themselves. That’s a really important component of our program is that we want these people to leave us with the ability to move forward with their own strengths.”

Following the family conference, Berquist says the young offenders participate in an 8-week program that’s designed to address underlying issues that may be driving poor behavior choices.

Berquist says, “Often times, girls in this situation have low self-esteem, negative body image, may have difficulties communicating, may not manage conflict or even have thought about how to manage conflict more effectively. So, the girls go through a girl’s circle program that’s eight weeks long where they meet with other girls and a facilitator to talk about issues, to develop skills, sharing experiences, thinking through by journaling, ‘What are different choices’ or ‘What are my experiences?’ They even do art and craftwork to provide a different way to express what’s going on for them. It’s a very narrative, experiential process.”

Berquist says she hopes this program will give young women the tools they need to make good choices as they move into the more tumultuous teen years and into adulthood.

Berquest says, “There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that all kids, but young women particularly, if they have a strong sense of self, good communication skills, and then tie that back to having a good family network, they’re far less likely to offend in the future, far less likely to be drug users, engage in early sexual activity. So it really helps and what we hope, and I don’t want to overstate the goals of the program, but that it adds a level of resiliency that these girls might not have an opportunity to access otherwise.”

Families can self-refer to this program. We have a link to more information on Networks for Girls on our website,