Gwen's Girls participants in an out-of-school laboratory activity. Photo courtesy of Gwen's Girls.

Data revealing that Black girls in Allegheny County are referred to the juvenile justice system 11 times more than white girls “was a shock to our system,” says Kristy Trautmann, executive director of the FISA Foundation, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that promotes equity for women and girls. 

Those sobering statistics — contained in the 2016 State of the Girls Report underwritten by FISA and The Heinz Endowments — pushed FISA to dig deeper into racial and gender disparities in the juvenile courts. 

The foundation joined a coalition of community partners including judges, police and school officials that for several years has worked to reduce the number of youths who end up with juvenile records. 

A result of their efforts is Caring Connections for YOUth, a new initiative that aims to intervene in non-criminal juvenile offenses — like school fights, chronic truancy or repeated dress code violations — before citations are issued or court dates are set.

Caring Connections runs a 24-hour call center that refers school administrators, police and parents to a network of professionals who can help resolve problems and divert youths from ending up at a police station or magistrate’s court. 

“We envision prevention and intervention,” says Kathi Elliott, who spearheaded the initiative.

As executive director of Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit that provides programs and resources for at-risk girls ages 8-18, Elliott says many children who end up in the juvenile system come from troubled families or abusive situations.

The call center can now be accessed through the 2-1-1 helpline operated by United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services will fund Caring Connections with a contract awarded to Gwen’s Girls totaling $800,000 per year for two years. 

Besides the hotline and a website, text and chat options are also available. 

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judges Kim Berkeley Clark, left, and Tiffany Sizemore, with microphone, appear with members of the Gwen’s Girls Emerging Leaders Initiative at the Equity Summit. Photo courtesy of Gwen’s Girls.

Here’s how it works: Say a student is sent to a school principal’s office for fighting with classmates. Instead of calling 9-1-1 to summon police, a school administrator can dial 2-1-1 for the Caring Connections hotline. They will be connected with behavioral or mental health counselors, case managers and others who can address circumstances that led to the disciplinary action and who can explore challenges in the student’s home life that aggravate behavioral problems. 

“We’re trying to understand the aggression and delinquent behavior,” says Elliott. “We need to understand the whole family unit, not just the youth. Far too many children, especially Black children, continue to be referred to the juvenile justice system for something as small as disorderly conduct in school. [The system] should not be used as a catch-all … for those experiencing extenuating circumstances who would otherwise succeed if alternate support systems were available.”

Caring Connections will track calls, compile data on referrals and follow up on individual cases.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who co-convened the coalition that provided input, says Caring Connections is not designed for youths who commit major crimes

“We’re not talking about kids shooting other kids,” says Clark. “If we can get low-level offenders out of the system it will free us up to really work in a better way with high-end offenders who present a danger and safety risk to the community and who have a high risk of recidivism.”

A 2019 report from the Black Girls Equity Alliance, a Gwen’s Girls initiative, shows that juvenile justice referrals in Allegheny County fell over 15 years, but there are still significant disparities in referrals by gender and race. 

That report finds that Black girls are referred 10 times more often than white girls while Black boys are seven times more likely to be referred than white boys. 

The report — based on data from Allegheny County’s Juvenile Probation Office and Department of Human Services, and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — also reveals that Pittsburgh Public Schools are the largest referral source for Black girls in Allegheny County. 

The majority of student arrests in the city schools “are for minor offenses that are not safety related,” the report states, and many citations went to students with disabilities that qualified them for special education services. 

Others who served on the coalition to develop Caring Connections included Judge Dwayne Woodruff of Allegheny County’s Family Courts Division, as well as representatives from Mayor Ed Gainey’s office, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Allegheny County Police, the city’s Department of Public Safety and local school districts. 

In March, Gwen’s Girls purchased a former post office in Wilkinsburg where it will consolidate its offices and services. Photo courtesy of Gwen’s Girls.

Erin Dalton, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, says Caring Connections will be a “one-stop way to access help” for youths.

“But it’s just the beginning” of ongoing efforts to reduce court referrals, Dalton adds. “We’re going to have to make sure there are sufficient services and supports” available for youths to get assistance, she says. 

Before the countywide rollout on Dec. 1, Caring Connections was introduced last month to school districts in low-income areas with “high rates of referrals to the juvenile justice system,” says Elliott. The districts include Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, Woodland Hills, West Mifflin, Steel Valley, McKeesport Area and Clairton. 

Gwen’s Girls, which works with girls in many of those school districts, celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year and was founded by Kathi Elliott’s mother, the late Gwendolyn J. Elliott, a commander with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. 

Kathi Elliott, who holds degrees in nursing, psychology and social work, served on the nonprofit’s board for eight years before becoming executive director in 2015.

In March, the organization purchased a building in Wilkinsburg where it will consolidate offices and services — though it still plans to have a presence in other communities where programs are offered, including the North Side, Clairton and McKeesport. The new Gwen’s Girls headquarters is housed in a former post office at the corner of Ross Avenue and Hay Street across from the newly-restored Wilkinsburg Train Station

Gwen’s Girls purchased the structure for $1.05 million using a $500,000 grant from the Hillman Family Foundation. Grants totaling $875,000 from The Heinz Endowments, Eden Hall Foundation and FISA Foundation are being used to renovate the building.

“I’ve aspired to have a permanent home for Gwen’s Girls,” says Elliott. “I wanted our own space so that mom’s legacy continues.”

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.