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From victims to survivors, Maricopa County court helps young sex trafficking victims

Court judges, advocates and others work together to help juvenile victims of sex trafficking to become survivors and stay safe.

MARICOPA COUNTY, Ariz. — Maricopa County has an entire team of people working together to help youth sex trafficking victims stay safe and overcome the traumas they’ve experienced.

The STRENGTH (Succeed Through Resilience Empower New Growth Through Hope) court program, implemented in Maricopa County since 2018, has focused on helping using a victim-center trauma approach.

“These young people are among the most traumatized that we see. They typically have complex trauma and they often have had trauma in their homes with their families. And once they are trafficked, it just gets exponentially worse and so they have a lot of high needs,” Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Dunne.

Judge Dunne added that part of the services the victims receive are trauma therapy, mental health counseling, and substance abuse counseling if needed.

“One of the key components of the court was the formation of a strong collaboration with the youth’s supportive team to ensure optimal decision-making, timely support as needed, identifying gaps in services, and referring the youth to appropriate resources to support their success,” said STRENGTH Unit Supervisor Paula Coe, a juvenile probation officer. 

The special units within the Maricopa Juvenile Probation Department implemented STRENGTH to be able to “take a more active role in the problem-solving court”.

Judge Dunne has participated in the program since it started and doesn’t discuss trafficking on the record to avoid labels or shame. She said she tries to get to know them personally.

"I try to find ways to get them to trust me and have faith in me and it can be a slow process because a lot of these young people are quite guarded,” said Judge Dunne. “Their trafficker has told them don’t trust the police, don’t trust the courts, don’t trust anyone and so sometimes it’s hard to break through but I find that they just want someone to care about them and not for the wrong reason."

The STRENGTH Probation Supervision Unit with Maricopa County was recognized in 2023 with a National Association of Counties Achievement Award (NACo) for their work with this specialized unit and their dedication to supporting the youth suspected of/identified as victims of trafficking. 

Nearly 300 children in Arizona were confirmed victims of sex trafficking between 2017 and 2020, according to a report by the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.


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