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The girls sat around a few tables, chatting loudly. One made a sly comment

about a girl's hair, and then rolled her eyes at another.

It could have been a school cafeteria. But these girls were serving

court-ordered stints at the county's Sierra Youth Center in Santa Rosa, where

they receive treatment for drug issues and other problems that led to their


They also take part in yoga classes, art workshops, talking circles and

Girl Scout troop meetings.

``Chuck E. Cheese?'' one girl repeated back to another with a smirk. They

were suggesting ideas for group trips. The other girl looked down,


But by the time they finished going around the group of 19, several others

also wanted to go to the pizza place.

The talking and counseling approach to girls' issues began two years ago,

when a criminal justice expert suggested the county's rehabilitation center

adopt treatments tailored for females when it converted its program from co-ed

to girls-only.

Today the juvenile probation system is midway through a three-year,

$500,000 federal grant that has helped it introduce a ``gender-responsive''

approach to rehabilitation, said Kim King, director of the county's Juvenile

Hall detention center.

For girls, that includes confidential, facilitated discussion groups at

Sierra and some county nonprofits. It is based on a ``Girls Circle'' national

curriculum that aims to boost self-esteem and positive behavior.

Girls entering the justice system have different needs than boys and often

share family, physical or mental health issues, said Sierra director Maria

Lopez. Most often, they have experienced sexual or other physical abuse, she


``Ninety-five percent of our girls are victims of sexual abuse,'' Lopez


With that in mind, punitive measures such as isolation have been replaced

with a time-out-style method, Lopez said, where problem girls are sent to

their rooms for short periods.

They discuss the issue with a case worker before being allowed to return,

she said.

Of the girls at the camp -- most are white and a few are Latina or black --

many were expelled from schools or have few credits, Lopez said. They get help

to eventually return to school or earn a GED and apply to a community college.

A 16-year-old girl who splits time between her divorced parents' homes in

Sebastopol and Guerneville said studying for the GED has given her hope. All

she needs once she gets out is ``a job to keep me busy so I don't have to

steal,'' she said. ``I can have my own place, I can get a car.''

Like many at the camp serving from six-to-12 month terms, one 15-year-old

was court-ordered there after being arrested for drug problems.

But that's just one of the issues she faces on ``the outs'' in Santa Rosa,

she said. Family troubles and drama with girls follow her, even in the camp.

She's been at Sierra a bit longer than expected, six months with one more

to go, because of ``some troubles,'' she said.

Now she's training a quiet yellow labrador -- which sits at her feet -- to

assist people and planned to bring him to court to show she's reformed.

But it's hard to avoid the ``basic female drama,'' she said.

She's learning to be the ``bigger person'' through the treatment programs,

she said. ``In here every day is like Girl's Circle. We talk and talk and


But even in the camp, instincts can take over.

Another 15-year-old said that in her Sonoma high school she often fought

with other girls over their gang affiliations. Her brother is a Sureno, she

said, and she often confronted Norteno girls who signaled their affiliation by

wearing red.

She's been at the camp only a month and has already brawled with another

girl she was gossiping about, she said.

``She got mad and came up to me when we were eating dinner and started

yelling at me,'' she said. When the fight ended, they each had a bloody face.

When she gets out, she plans to ``have a better life'' -- the programs in

Sierra have helped ``deal with my anger,'' she said.

But will the fighting stop?

``Probably no,'' she said with a sheepish grin, twirling a gold necklace

with a Virgin Mary charm around her finger.

``A lot of girls don't like me.''

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