Florida group that helps at-risk girls gets $350,000 from state lawmakers to open in SC

July 22, 2021

COLUMBIA — A Florida-based nonprofit is getting $350,000 from state lawmakers to expand into South Carolina this fall and hire therapists to help middle- and high-school aged girls who have experienced trauma and are at risk for juvenile delinquency.

Some factors that may put girls at a greater risk of dropping out of school and getting involved with the criminal justice system or the child welfare system include grieving over a loss of someone significant, experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or having anxiety or depression.

The Pace Center for Girls was founded in 1985 and currently has more than 20 locations across Florida and Georgia.

With the money from the S.C. General Assembly, the Pace Center for Girls is beginning to hire a local project manager and two therapists to go into schools in Darlington and Florence counties.

“I think it’s particularly important, especially now, in this post-COVID world, because particularly girls of color were really disproportionately impacted by COVID in terms of its impact on their education, the financial impact on their families, and the impact on their mental health,” Pace Center CEO Mary Marx said in an interview.

Pace is evaluating which schools in Darlington and Florence counties have the greatest need to get therapists first. Pace is planning a site visit in August, and wants to begin providing services to South Carolina by October.

The idea for expanding to South Carolina began three to four years ago when the state Department of Juvenile Justice contacted Pace after identifying Darlington and Florence as counties with a need for additional help for girls, Marx said.

“We are excited to welcome Pace Center for Girls to South Carolina,” S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican who helped win $350,000 for Pace in the state budget, sent in a text message. “They have a long track record of transforming the lives of marginalized girls in Florida and Georgia and will be a welcome asset to our Darlington and Florence communities, as we work to help all girls reach their full potential.”

The state funding will pay for two therapists and a project manager. Pace is trying to raise additional money, Marx said.

Vicki Burke, a South Carolina native, founded the Pace Center for Girls after recognizing the prominence of physical and sexual trauma on girls, Marx said. She said she realized that “we, as adults, should be able to do better than just locking up girls, especially since they are primarily in the juvenile justice system for traumas that happened to them that they never asked for.”

What drives girls into the juvenile justice system, like past traumas, is different than what drives boys into those systems, Marx said.

Currently, 30 percent of juveniles arrested are girls, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Up to 78 percent of women reported sexual abuse prior to going to prison, according to a study first published in 2008.

About 20 percent of Pace’s girls have prior juvenile justice system involvement, Marx said. Pace Centers offer different levels of help.

With one service, which serves as a school and provides therapy, girls come to centers five days a week for six to seven hours, and typically stay for one to two years, Marx said.

“It’s a very high-touch, very intensive set of services in an environment that really is a holistic approach,” Marx said.

The girls get to continue their education and work to graduate high school: “Education is the secret. Education is the most important thing we can do with any of our kids,” Burke said.

Pace’s also can send therapists into schools, which is the plan in South Carolina. Therapists see girls once or twice a week for up to nine months.

“That unresolved trauma … has a significant impact on girls’ overall health and well-being. That’s what Pace is set up to do — to help those girls on a path to success for the future,” Marx said.

The Pace Center for Girls also conducts research with other organizations to figure out gaps in the community. Darlington and Florence counties were identified as regions that could use Pace by research the state Department of Juvenile Justice conducted.

A more specific gap in the community that Pace identified is that many girls did not understand that if they failed to appear in court, they faced arrest, Marx said. Pace set up lectures and handed brochures to girls and failure to appear in court dropped 27 percent in the following year.

While schools, probation officers, law enforcement, juvenile judges, and girls and families themselves can also refer girls to the center, the programs are completely voluntary.

“And that’s really important, because in a gender responsive approach, you know, self agency is really important and the ability to make decisions on your own,” Marx said.

Pace would like to continue to expand in South Carolina, and hopes to show results in the state before the start of the next legislative session.