The way she giggles when she meshes the sound of a monkey with the movement of a fish defies the life she's lived.
Natalie throws her hands over her face and doubles over with laughter as she realizes she must go to the imaginary swamp - again. The sound of her unrestrained joy infects the other girls sitting in the circle with her and the game stops briefly as they revel in their moment of childish pleasure.It is a game and a moment that most children know. But for children like Natalie, this game, this feeling, this freedom is foreign.
A fifth-grade dropout who got involved with drugs and alcohol shortly thereafter, she's dealt with the death of friends, watched a suicide and beatings and has even been asked to dispose of the body of her girlfriend's murdered mother.
She was initiated into a gang with a beating when she was 12, a year after she first ran away from home.
"When I started running away, I just wanted to be with my friends," she said. She joined the gang for companionship and protection, even though that road had only brought her older siblings sorrow and pain.
"I thought I wouldn't get in trouble like my sister and brothers," she said. "I thought I'd be more sly. At first, I thought it was cool to be in detention. After a while, it wasn't cool no more."
Three years and many painful memories later, Natalie hopes to go home.
Natalie is one of six girls in a new youth corrections program designed specifically for teenage girls. It is one of only two such secure care programs in the division. Previously, girls have had to make do in programs designed for and dominated by boys.
The problem with that, according to Michelle Johnson, who runs the Observation and Assessment program, is that girls get lost in a coed setting.
"They seem to be really superficial (in a coed group setting)," Johnson said. "They go inward."
And that tendency to hide how they feel and defer to others' opinions is what gets girls into trouble in the first place, she said.
"Most of our girls just lose focus on who they are," Johnson said. "They're trying to please everyone . . . They fear not being loved."
Until August of last year, youth corrections tried to evaluate and treat young women in a diagnostic program designed for boys. There are 16 beds in Salt Lake County for the popular program, and the highest number of girls at any one time was four.
The girls, according to counselors, acted differently if they said anything at all during group sessions or discussions. A task force set up two years ago looked at the issue of gender equity in youth corrections and the overwhelming feeling was that girls need different kinds of treatment and they don't do well sorting their feelings out in the presence of boys or men.
Johnson, who's worked in the system nine years, said a program specifically for girls is long overdue.
"We have a waiting list," she said. "I think that the need has been there, but judges just haven't had that option."
One of the major differences is in the crimes girls commit versus boys. Most girls tend to victimize themselves more than the community. They commit crimes like prostitution, they try to kill and mutilate themselves, they run away.
"The dynamics of providing a gender-specific program provides an environment that allows girls personal safety, removal from those who depend on them and removal from the demands of adolescent boys," she said.
In the past, programs might not have recognized gender differences, but the judicial system has. The girls in the program say judges are more likely to impose serious penalties (like out of home placement) sooner for girls for less serious crimes (like running away or contempt), but they're not as harsh on them once they become seriously delinquent.
"The system doesn't treat boys and girls fairly," Natalie said. "We're all the same; treat us equal."