Local nonprofit works to help girls impacted by the justice system

girls justice system
Andrea Chaney is founder and CEO of UnMask Youth Program.

Andrea Chaney-Lawrence forgot about her arrest as a teenager until she, at age 26, applied for a job with the police department.

“I filled out all the paperwork. I was so excited,” she recounted. “And they reached back out to me and told me I lied on my application.”

On the form, Chaney-Lawrence had checked off that she had never been arrested; however, the department’s hiring manager had discovered she had been adjudicated delinquent. Her juvenile record prevented her from being hired.

The experience motivated Chaney-Lawrence, a former correctional officer who grew up in Philadelphia, to have the charges expunged and inspired her to help girls impacted by the justice system.

Since 2021, UnMask Youth Program has offered an array of programming and resources, as well as case management services, to females under the age of 18 through referrals from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Those enrolled are given an ‘off-ramp’ from the juvenile justice system, diverting them from a detention center. Once they complete the program, participants have their records wiped clean as long as they remain arrest-free for six months – an opportunity that would have proved beneficial for Chaney-Lawrence in her youth.

UnMask was initially a “passion project” for her, she said. Now, the diversion nonprofit occupies its own space, and Chaney-Lawrence was able to resign as an administrator for the School District of Philadelphia to focus on the work full-time.

The organization moved into the two ground floors of a North Philadelphia apartment building in October and held a ribbon-cutting event last month.

On the lower level, mannequin heads line a shelf next to salon-style chairs illuminated by ring lights. In an adjacent area is a “zen space” with foot and body massagers, sound-canceling headphones and a waterfall. Fidgets abound, as do messages with positive affirmations.

“Every piece you see from the racks to the walls is motivation for the young people,” Chaney-Lawrence told Metro during a tour. “Everything that we do, we try to make sure that it’s very intentional.”

girls justice system
UnMask Youth Program recently moved into a location in North Philadelphia.Jack Tomczuk

A high chair sits in the cafeteria area; some of the participants are young mothers. Many deal with other challenges, including food and housing insecurity and relatives lost to gun violence or parents who are incarcerated, she said.

“The needs of the young people in Philadelphia are very specific,” Chaney-Lawrence said. “There’s so many layers of trauma that these young people are dealing with.”

During an intake process, UnMask determines whether the child needs academic assistance, therapy or other supportive services. The nonprofit helps to pay restitution for girls who complete community service hours. Along with the DAO partnership, the organization collaborates with prosecutors in Montgomery County, according to Chaney-Lawrence.

Participants report for workshops on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The sessions incorporate a range of activities, from trauma-informed yoga, focused on building confidence and self-esteem, to classes about processing anger through art.

UnMask partners with other groups to introduce the girls to fields and topics such as construction, music, boxing and cosmetology.

“We just continue to expose the young people to an array of things,” Chaney-Lawrence said. “Our goal is really that, although they’re in a program, they come here for an experience.”

She and others from UnMask conduct home or community visits with the teenagers on Saturdays.

girls justice system
UnMask Youth Program provides space for girls to relax at its new location in North Philadelphia.Jack Tomczuk

At any given time, there may be 15 to 30 girls in a cohort, and they typically spend between eight hours and six months in the program, based on the level of their offense, Chaney-Lawrence said, adding that most were arrested for violent incidents. The period of time can be extended for those needing additional support.

A spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office called UnMask “one of our most successful diversion partnerships.” The DAO, under Krasner “has been actively working on the development, expansion, creation and implementation of non-traditional diversion programs,” the office said in a statement.

Of the more than 2,200 youths charged with a crime in 2019 in Philadelphia, 81% were boys, according to a DAO-sponsored analysis released last year. That report found that, as a result, much of the attention and resources in the juvenile justice system are male-focused.

Having a female-specific space, Chaney-Lawrence said, is important for allowing the girls to open up and become vulnerable.

“I want the young people to see that healing is possible and, where you can’t heal, you can find balance,” she said.