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Juvenile cases grow in complexity

Two youngsters from YouthZone, a youth advocacy group that serves hundreds of kids across the 9th Judicial District, prepare a space for new plants at the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home in Rifle during the summer of 2014.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

YouthZone has for four decades been working with juveniles in the 9th Judicial District who have gotten into scrapes with the law. But in that time youth advocacy has become more complex, and many juveniles are facing layers of mental health or substance use issues.

One in five of Youth Zone’s kids has been abused sexually, physically or verbally, said Lori Mueller, the organization’s executive director. One in 10 has had suicidal thoughts.

The organization works with about 800 kids each year, and many of YouthZone’s cases stem from substance abuse.



Recently YouthZone advocates and counselors have seen a rise in use of hard drugs including heroin and methamphetamine.

At one time a case manager or youth advocate could handle a portfolio of about 50 cases, but Mueller has found that kids are facing more complex issues than in the past. Now 40 cases is considered a high workload.



“Because the kids’ struggles are getting more complicated” YouthZone has become more trauma-focused, hiring more personnel who are licensed social workers and addiction councilors, said Mueller.

“It’s usually not just one thing but several different things going on in their lives.”

These kids come from varied backgrounds; chances are you know someone, a friend or a co-worker, with a family member going through such trouble, said Mueller.

About 68 percent of the kids are being referred to YouthZone through the juvenile court system, but it also works with the schools and sometimes gets referrals from parents.

Across the 9th Judicial District, any juvenile offense more serious than a traffic ticket or tobacco use can be sent to YouthZone.

The organization has a variety of programs to serve these youths.

The district attorney’s office can offer juvenile diversion for adolescents facing their first charges. This is similar to the DA’s adult diversion program, but YouthZone heads up the juvenile diversion, through which it takes about 100 youths per year. YouthZone decides which of its programs best fits an individual youth.

This gives the juveniles the chance to make things right and allows them to move on with their lives, said Mueller. If an adolescent successfully completes diversion, the offense doesn’t go on his or her record.

Cases vary, but most children coming through YouthZone spend three to six months in one of its programs.

The organization has seen changing trends over the last 40 years but has benefitted from staying adaptable and shifting with its clients’ needs.

One of its biggest developments started 18 years ago, when YouthZone developed an intake assessment for each youth.

To give YouthZone an idea of what the juvenile is dealing with, this assessment focuses on five measures: delinquency and aggression; problem-solving and optimism; self deprecation; substance use; and school and community engagement.

Each of these kids will take the same assessment at the end of the program, which also gives YouthZone more data points to evaluate its programs over time.

The behavior that brought an adolescent to YouthZone — stealing makeup from a store for example — doesn’t necessarily reveal the underlying issues causing that behavior, said Mueller.

“A lot of times there are specialized programs you can put kids into, for example a petty theft group,” she said. “But it’s not as simple as that.”

They might be stealing because of peer pressure. Maybe they just had a fight with their parents. Or they’re high. Then the heart of the issue is not the stealing, but the drug use, she said.

“It’s what’s behind the behavior that’s most important,” Mueller said.

For substance abuse, YouthZone has programs for different levels of use. The first is a simple four-hour class in a group setting to educate the youth on substance use and its effects.

Beyond that, YouthZone offers an individual curriculum that the juvenile works through with a youth advocate, some of which would also involve the parents. This is designed for youths right on the cusp between experimentation and addiction, said Mueller.

YouthZone also has an open Seeking Safety program for kids struggling with addiction but who aren’t ready to go into Valley View’s intensive Youth Recovery Center, a 42-day rehabilitation program.

Seeking Safety is held weekly in Glenwood Springs and Rifle. Juveniles are asked to participate for eight to 12 weeks. After that they can keep coming as long as they want, said Mueller.

YouthZone also runs a restorative justice program and draws youngsters to community work through its Saturday Service program. Youth Zone also offers free parental support and coaching. And beyond reactive programs aimed at kids already facing trouble, the organization has a mentoring program serving kids as young as 10.

This is challenging work for YouthZone’s staff, to invest in adolescents with layered, deep-seated problems. The staff is battling for children who don’t have support at home or connections at their school. But seeing the youths’ successes is what hooks advocates into this work, said Mueller.

“When kids have someone that will listen to them, who cares about them, it’s amazing the different direction they’ll start choosing.”


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