SAN ANTONIO – Twice a month the lights burn late into the night inside the 150th District Court at the Bexar County Courthouse.
Inside, Judge Renee Yanta presides over a unique court for teenage girls in foster care called PEARLS.
Just as an oyster produces a pearl in response to an injury, Yanta hopes her program will help transform traumatized teens in foster care into strong, beautiful young women.
"What happens is, over time the oyster not only heals its wound but it creates something that is very, very strong and something that is very, very beautiful and that is a pearl," Yanta said. "That's what we tell these girls, that this is our opportunity together to heal and to build something within themselves that is extremely beautiful and extremely strong."
Every other Thursday during the school year Yanta opens her after-hours court session by delivering an oath to the girls and reading personal notes from each girl that show how they are following the characteristics that make up the PEARLS acronym:
P-Prepared, E-Esteem, A-Achieving, R-Resiliency, L-Learning, and S-Strength and Stamina
Yanta's unique therapeutic court works with girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who will likely spend the rest of their teen years in foster care. Most are referred to the program through the court system or by their Child Protective Services case workers.
"Our job is to provide a space for healing, a place where they find their voice and become empowered," Yanta said. "A place where they learn basic life skills like how to write a check and how to make a deposit and to make sure to have a bank."
Each girl is paired with a female mentor who serves as a mother figure in her life.
"They all have great foster parents but now they have one more set of adults that are kind of nagging the kids, loving the kids into doing the right thing," Yanta said.
Yanta started PEARLS two years ago, funding it with her own money. It's now supported by a grant from the governor's office, which has allowed Yanta to hire a therapist who holds a closed group therapy session with the girls each time they meet.
While all children in foster care face unique challenges, Yanta said this age group is entering a dangerous point in their lives as they begin to age out of the system.
"On a national level, about 70 percent of these kids don't graduate from high school. They don't go to college. They have babies way before they are ready. They go into relationships that are destructive relationships, mainly for three reasons: number one, because they don't have a support group; number two, because they haven't had a chance to fully heal from the trauma they've been in because their mom and dad weren't ready to be parents; and number three, because they really haven't had the same kind of thing that all of us have had from our parents, which are people who nag them to learn how to do the things you're supposed to do in life," Yanta said.
In the short time the program has been active, Yanta said she has seen remarkable transformations, including one girl who went from living in a residential treatment center to being adopted, which is a major accomplishment when you consider only about 1 percent of teens in foster care find a forever family before aging out.
"We were able to help her into a foster relationship that was very strong, and then we stood alongside her and she went from feeling like she was bullied to now she feels like she's a leader," Yanta said. "Sometimes, there are epic fails. We tell the girls they don't have to be perfect but you have to get back up and start all over again. So we don't always have huge wins but we have so many small victories."
While Yanta presides over PEARLS court ,she said it's the dedicated group of women serving as mentors that makes the program work.
Laura Smothers has been with the program since day one. As an attorney, she had come into contact with children in foster care and wanted to do more for them. Smothers said she's seen girls go from being withdrawn and aggressive to open and trusting just by being a consistent, stable force in their lives.
"People in their lives that they can count on, that they know that we're here as volunteers not getting paid to do this. We're not a case worker. We're not even their attorney that's appointed to them. We're simply here for them. I think providing that stable mentor, that stable person in their life, for them to just see a consistency and to realize that we're here regardless whether you want us or not. Whether you like us or not, we're here for you," Smothers said.
"There's so much resilience in humans when you provide support and care and you try to pull that out. It just provides so much hope," she said.
One 16-year-old girl in the program entered foster care when she was 7 years old. Over the past year in PEARLS, she said, her mentor has been a source of constant encouragement.
"I think it's awesome that they're spending their time working on us and giving us the love and compassion of an adult," the teen said. "They have more experience with life in general and just the things like applying to college and getting a job and starting resumes and stuff like that -- we have them there to help us with that."
Another teen said the program has helped her finally experience what love is.
"Because I don't feel loved but then I do feel love when I come," the foster care teen said. "I actually put my full faith in them because they help me a lot in life, even though when I'm down they still care. It feels like a guardian angel is around you all the time."
While Yanta can only help a handful of foster children with her program she hopes it inspires others to help these young adults who will soon be on their own.
"I'm clearly not fixing the entire foster care system, but you have to start somewhere," Yanta said. "There are days when it is not easy around here. It is not easy, but there is not a single day that it's not worth it."
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