Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Carol A. Kelly came to the Oak Park Public Library on Friday to announce that the court system is expanding its outreach programs for adolescent girls.

At a gathering of about 30 people at the library’s Veterans Room, Kelly and several County probation officers talked about a new library program created by the county’s Juvenile Justice Division for teenage girls who are on probation. The program offers the girls an opportunity to further their learning while in the system.

At least 100 books-with titles ranging from the Harry Potter series to The Color Purple-have been collected for the program. Donations continue to pour in, thanks to the efforts of Oak Park resident Mary Bird and other villagers.

Bird launched the book drive after learning that a friend, Peter Newman, who works with the Juvenile Justice Division, was writing a grant for gender-specific books for Project RENEW, a unit of probation in the juvenile court system. Bird set up book collection points at local coffee shops and at Loyola University’s Law School where she teaches. A colleague, Oak Parker Barbara Hausman, M.S.W., director of the Family Law Center at DePaul University, hosted a forum to kick off the book drive there.

“Since Project RENEW serves girls, our primary source of book collection was female,” says Bird. “It gave some women the chance to reflect on good books and to shop for them.”

Ultimately, the books are intended to provide inspiration to the girls who are on probation to encourage them to surmount the obstacles they face in their lives. The books tell stories about people who have endured hardships in their own lives as a reminder to the girls that they are not alone in their struggles.

The library program is the latest of a series of outreach programs developed by the juvenile court system over the past several years to address the special needs of adolescent girls in the system.

“Some years ago, the probation department recognized the girls were entering the Cook County Juvenile Court system at a higher rate than before. They also were aware that girls needed to be dealt with differently than male adolescents who were on probation,” said Kelly, who, as judge, handles the specialized court calls for girls. “With girls, there is a lot of drama in the courtroom.

“A lot of girls come back to the courts, not necessarily for criminal activities but for issues that they brought with them when they entered the system, such as sexual abuse and violent relationships,” Kelly said. “Some are actually scared to leave probation because the people they have met in the court system are the first ones who have reached out to them and have been a constant support to them.

“We have an amazing group of women probation officers who volunteer to work solely with adolescent girls,” said Kelly. Seven years ago, outreach program for girls were developed in several police districts on Chicago’s Southwest Side and soon expanded to include more districts. Today, the Cook County Juvenile Court system is a model court nationwide, offering programs to prepare adolescent girls to re-enter school, to visit the County Jail, and talk with adult female inmates (as a deterrent) and to talk with other victims.

Many of these programs are quietly carried out on a daily basis, unnoticed by taxpayers. “A lot of innovative programs that the County Probation Department has come up with save money,” said Kelly. “If we can reach the girls at this stage, not only do they not commit further crime, but they don’t end up in the adult system and they can become productive citizens.”

If you would like to donate books for this program, contact Mary Bird at birdmurphy@sbcglobal.net and put “Project RENEW” in the subject line.

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