Affirm Keeps Teenagers on the Straight & Narrow
by Martha Sadler
Girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system, according to recent national statistics, but a small local program called Affirm is leading the way to doing something about that. Not just any old thing: The program has so far kept teenage girls on probation from re-offending. It is the brainchild of Jennifer Rothman and Mariah Messer, both recent college graduates with degrees in anthropology — Rothman’s from UC Berkeley, and Messer’s from UCSB — who met while walking their dogs at Elings Park. Most of the 16 girls with whom they have worked came to the attention of the juvenile court system via Santa Barbara County’s truancy program. All have spent time in juvenile hall, and all have been in the system for at least two years.
“I was an adolescent girl not long ago myself,” said Messer. What has made the program effective is that it is all-female and “There’s simply a uniqueness to women’s issues,” added Rothman. There is a correspondence between the girls’ acting out and their traumatic experiences. “There’s a sense of commonality, a sense of solving the same problems,” Messer said. Also, boys are simply distracting. When they started, the girls showed up with tons of makeup, investing hours every day in grooming. After a while, they tend to put aside that armor and focus on a broader sense of self.
Messer and Rothman hand-crafted Affirm using local funding to ensure that they are in charge rather than some remote bureaucracy. They turned down a grant from Medi-Cal because it had too many strings attached. They also held their ground when the county’s probation office urged them to move their students out of the program more quickly so more girls could come in. The founders insisted on keeping the girls until they were off probation, with plenty of follow-up.
They keep the program small — only 11 teens at a time. Trained mentors from the UCSB Women’s Studies department make that adult/child ratio even cushier, which translates into plenty of “one-on-one positive support from someone who cares about who you are in the world, who wants you to do a good job, and is reliably on your side,” Messer said. She speaks with each girl at least once a day, and they all meet in a group three times every week.
The girls themselves direct the curriculum, which is why the pictures in the above photo are focused on the abductions and killings of prostitutes in Ciudad Juárez. This was just one of the dozens of women’s issues Messer introduced to the girls. “They kept asking and asking about it so I did a whole lesson on it,” she said. Other projects the girls chose to work on were autobiographies, voter registration, and putting together hygiene kits for the homeless.
Seed programs for girls on probation, driven by federal monies, pop up and disappear across the nation. Rothman and Messer hope that Affirm, with a grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara and space donated by La Casa de Maria, will have staying power — growing slowly, and eventually seeking state and federal grants — but only on their terms. Meanwhile, Rothman and Messer are also raising funds to take on the challenge of working with 18-year-old female wards of the court returning from out-of-county secure facilities, who have less than four months to prove that they are successfully rehabilitated — or else they get placed on adults probation. Good luck.