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
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