MARTINEZ -- Sometimes locking the doors is what it takes to get troubled girls moving in the right direction. That's the idea behind Girls in Motion, the first in-custody treatment program in the East Bay for female juveniles who have run afoul of the law.

Launched three years ago, the program inside juvenile hall replaced Contra Costa County's 20-bed Chris Adams Girls Center, an unlocked group home nearby that many girls had run away from before finishing treatment.

The irony of Girls in Motion is that it's designed around the idea of keeping girls in place, at least for a time.

By providing treatment and support services inside a locked facility, county probation officials believe it's helping to ensure teens receive the help they need, though others question whether locking them up is the right approach.

Girls in Motion "doesn't work in every case, but when it does work, it's astounding," said Lois Haight, presiding judge for juvenile court. "I just had a young girl who never dreamed she would make the changes that she did. It's like they tapped into every good part of her."

It seems to have worked for Elena, who joined a gang when she was 15. Nearly three years later, she had been arrested several times for offenses that included assaults, drugs and probation violations.

A judge sent her to an unlocked treatment group home in Oakland last year.

"I loved that group home because it showed me a lot. But one thing about me, when I get close to success, I run," said Elena, whose real name is not being used to protect her identity.


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Elena turned herself in after running away from the Oakland group home, and a judge sent her to Girls in Motion.

"I can't run, and I don't want to run because I feel this is a step closer to getting where I want to be. I can't wait to be home," said Elena, now 18, shortly before she graduated from the program this month.

While in the program, each girl meets weekly with a therapist and participates in group therapy. Other components include anger management, problem solving, life and workplace skills, family therapy and the improvement of self-esteem.

"The girls see how they are wired and how other people are wired. It really helps with their ability to communicate and understand where people are coming from," said James Rivers, the program manager who helped develop its components.

But some argue juvenile offenders are better off receiving treatment in a community setting such as a group home. Group homes can be effective, but some have problems with runaways because of inadequate supervision, according to Michael Harris, senior attorney of the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law.

"Before (starting Girls in Motion), they should have done a very careful evaluation and examination of why the girls are running away," he said. "There are other consequences of putting them in juvenile hall, in a locked institution, which is that they will be in an environment with kids who have potentially a much greater criminal history and that exposure is a risk."

Rivers said Girls in Motion participants cross paths with other girls in juvenile hall whose cases have not been decided by a judge during lunch, breaks and school classes but do not share a room.

But he said mixing has turned out to be a positive.

"What's happened is since Girls in Motion (residents) are in there for a longer period of time, they have set the precedent for what is acceptable behavior," he said.

The program lasts four to six months, depending on the progress made by the girls. ¿A similar in-custody approach, the 5-year-old Youthful Offender Treatment Program, exists for male juveniles.

Most of the girls in the court-ordered program have violated terms of probation after a judge placed them in an unlocked group home or home-based electronic monitoring. Their misdeeds include property crimes such as burglary, resisting arrest, drug-related crimes, prostitution and gang-related violence. About one-third have been sexually exploited.

Girls in Motion's predecessor, the Chris Adams Girls Center, also provided therapy and support programs before its closure in November 2009 because of reduced funding and a cutback in referrals.

"It had the potential to be a great program, but you could not keep the girls there for very long. ... It's the power of the streets," said Brian Lindblom, a retired law enforcement professional who resigned in January from the county's Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission.

About 100 girls have completed Girls in Motion, and about half have stayed out of trouble. While comparable statistics for girls placed in group homes and home-based monitoring are hard to come by, chief probation officer Phil Kader said success rates for those placements are poor.

Like Elena, many of the 14 girls in the program have run away from the group homes where they were initially placed.

Jenny, 16, ran away from a group home where she was sent after being arrested on drug charges. She was placed in Girls in Motion after turning herself in to authorities. "The skills they teach us go from self-control to understanding the feelings of others," she said. "They just make us more empathetic, they make us more mature."

Betty, 19, graduated from Girls in Motion in December 2011. She was placed in the program after getting arrested for going outside the range of home-based electronic monitoring. She now attends a community college while working part time as an intern at the Hall Closet thrift store run by the Juvenile Hall Auxiliary.

"If it wasn't for this Girls in Motion program," she said, "I don't think I'd have the mind-set to want to do better."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her at Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.