HOPE program in DC Superior Court takes a different approach
“Here Opportunities Prepare you for Excellence,” more commonly known as HOPE Court, was launched last year and is DC's version of a type of court program that is starting to be implemented in courts across the country. These programs are designed to recognize and treat juvenile victims of commercial sexual exploitation rather than to prosecute them for underlying offenses.
HOPE Court hearings are not typical court hearings, with attorneys on either side debating one another, the defendant sitting quietly at a table and the judge listening and ruling. While always being mindful of representing their clients’ rights and wishes, in HOPE Court, the participants' attorneys team with the government attorneys, probation officers, mental health providers, the judge and other members of the HOPE Court team to help their clients create a better environment and better future for themselves.
With a background in clinical social work, law and more than 12 years on the bench, Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook is committed to working with the youth who come into HOPE Court to enable them to develop the skills and identify the resources they need to recognize and avoid exploitation, advocate for themselves and avoid risky and dangerous behavior. The goal is that successful completion of HOPE Court will not only end participants' involvement in the juvenile system, but will also start them on a successful path to adulthood.
The most recent graduate of HOPE Court is a wonderful example of someone who went into the program with goals in mind of how she wanted to change her life. The entire HOPE Court team described her as an inspiration and she was asked to come back and speak to others who are currently going through the program.
Another unique aspect of Judge Rook’s courtroom is that there are multiple large stuffed animals to comfort the participants and help ease the anxiety of being in a courtroom. Recently the judge started handing out little stuffed animals because the youngsters wanted to take home the big ones. The Court anticipates the addition of a “real” assistance dog in the coming weeks.
The one lesson that Judge Rook would like people to take away from HOPE Court is that the young people she sees before her each day are no different from other youngsters. Rather, they have just had some unfortunate circumstances in their lives and need the support and assistance that HOPE Court offers. Tragically, any young person can become a victim of sex-trafficking.
HOPE Court provides the guidance young people need to make choices that will lead them towards a safe, happy and productive life. Even though the program has been around for only a year, it five of its participants have already graduated, and many other participants well on their way.