The PEARLS Court in San Antonio was founded in 2015 by Judge Renée Yanta, as a collaboration between the Bexar County Civil District and Children’s Courts, Girls Inc. and the Children’s Shelter of San Antonio to create a space of acceptance and support for girls, ages 14 to 18, who were placed in foster care. By providing therapeutic care and case management, life skills training, and mentoring, PEARLS (Preparation, Esteem, Achievement, Resiliency, Learning, Strength, and Stamina) helps girls overcome adversity in the transition to adulthood.

Barbara Ball, TYPS Co-Principal Investigator, recently interviewed Kimberlee Morrison, PEARLS Court Manager, 408th and 438th District Court, and Judges Angelica Jimenez (408th Civil District Court) and Rosie Alvarado (438th Civil District Court) to learn more about PEARLS and the impact this docket has on the girls that it serves.

The History Behind PEARLS

Five years ago, Judge Yanta started the PEARLS Court and engaged a group of community volunteers who wanted to become a source of support for young women by providing them with opportunities within the community. “It [started with] a group of very strong, passionate women that wondered how we could make change,” said Kimberlee.

Kimberlee has been on the PEARLS project team since its inception. She shared that the desire for change began organically by providing mentorship and programming; bringing the girls to the courthouse, talking about college, and introducing different career trajectories. “However, we learned very quickly from that first year that good hearts aren’t enough. You have to understand how trauma affects the girls throughout their life, how the child welfare system affects them, and so from there we built a model with a trauma-informed lens. After the first year, we knew that we needed to train our mentors in a different way.”

A Therapeutic Foster Care Court

Trauma-informed practice and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a skill-building therapeutic model, provide the foundation for the PEARLS Therapeutic Foster Care Court. As explained by Kimberlee, “DBT is the model that we chose and it is helpful in that it is all based on real-world experiences that the girls are going through: how you interact with friends, with peers, with family, with foster-family, and so you can discuss your feelings around it and practice skills.”

The girls gather at the courthouse twice a month for meetings with their mentors, judges, and program staff, a group therapy session, informal presentations and a community dinner. The group setting helps to normalize the experiences that the girls share by enabling them to talk about what they are going through, like how much harder it is being a foster youth in a school system. “Skills are being built in therapy, but the extension of it is through our staff, our judges, and our mentors,” shared Kimberlee. “We train our mentors continuously throughout the year so that when a youth calls their mentor in a crisis and says, ‘I am so angry, I’m gonna get into a fight,’ or ‘I’m gonna run, I don’t want to be here anymore,’ the mentor can say, ‘Remember one of the skills you have worked on in DBT. What if we try that, let’s try that breathing technique and see if it works.’ And our judges can follow up in their hearings and can ask, ‘Were you able to use some of your skills? Did that affect the outcome, in a positive or negative way?’ There is this follow-through on all levels. So that’s how we integrated the therapeutic approach, DBT and the trauma-lens, into every side of the program, not just providing therapy.”

The Benefits of PEARLS from the Perspective of the Judges

Participation in the PEARLS program is transformative for many girls, and program staff and judges are excited to share their observations  Judge Alvarado described the girls’ progress: “When they come into the program, they are often very unaware of how they are portraying themselves and how their behaviors are being received by others. When you see the girls coming into the program at the beginning of the year, they are in a tight shell.  And it’s literally peeling back layers and layers and it is an amazing metamorphosis that you see from the beginning of the year to all the way at the end of the year. All their beauty shines out, all their confidence shines out. It’s an amazing process.”

Judge Jimenez pointed out that, “One of the benefits of PEARLS is building the trust with the girls. At the center of what works for our girls are the relationships we are building. They build relationships, not only with their mentor, with an adult that they trust, but also with other girls that are in the same boat as they are, and with their judiciary, so that we can take care of the needs as they arise.”

When girls feel like they have a pre-existing relationship with their judges, Judge Alvarado shared that “…they feel like they can open up more during their hearings, and sometimes they say, ‘Judge, can I talk to you in private?’ I am not just the person in a robe on the bench.” And by knowing the girls better, their judges and mentors are then able to pick up when things are not going right. “In building trust with us,” said Judge Alvarado, “They also become advocates for themselves.”

Our insights from observing the court and talking to Judges Jimenez and Alvarado and Court Manager Kimberlee Morrison, affirm the findings of our 2018 TYPS Pilot Study:  What matters are the authentic and trusting relationships between girls and the professionals involved with their case. To learn more about PEARLS, visit their website.


Edited by Allie Long