YouthZone column: Case managers are first step to reconciliation, redemption

Lori Mueller

When a young person gets caught vaping, vandalizing public property, shoplifting or worse, that moment of excitement or self-satisfaction can quickly turn into a dark and dismal parade of consequences.

With state and local support, YouthZone case managers coordinate with other community programs to guide young offenders down a path to amend their transgressions.

Instead of incarceration, these teens are given an opportunity to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to others and to themselves and given the space to change the direction they’ve been running toward.

The first few days can feel overwhelming. Senior Case Manager Jennifer Hawks said people often feel vulnerable, anxious and scared on their first engagement with YouthZone. There is a preconception that YouthZone is where bad kids go, and the youth and their families are embarrassed to be here.

Tina Olson, clinical supervisor and senior counselor, said YouthZone’s role is to be genuine with the families.

“Coming here is not a bad thing. Instead it is an opportunity for parents to have conversations with their child and open doors of understanding,” Olson said.

“It is important to make sure families understand that we all make mistakes and those mistakes don’t define us,” Hawks added. “We remind families and youth that this is not a permanent place.”

YouthZone provides court case management for 15 county and municipal courts in Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. The case managers also manage school-referred substance assessments, school-referred and court-referred Restorative Justice Circles, community service probation, and self-referrals. Each case is unique and each family is unique.

Each offender completes an intake assessment that discusses the incident of their charge and the concerns of the family. The survey includes questions about employment, school, family, hobbies, activities and goals.

This assessment allows case managers to get to know a juvenile’s strengths and risks in a short amount of time. Case managers also take time for a one-on-one conversation with parents. At the conclusion of the assessment, an individualized, strength-based contract is developed for the young offender.

Often, the problem that brought the youth to YouthZone is part of a much bigger picture. Some of the things that surface during an assessment are problems that parents are unaware of, including thoughts of suicide, school bullying and sexual abuse. The case managers will help teens find ways to share this information with their parents.

In 2018, Youth Zone had 306 intakes. Case managers average a workload of 45 to 50 clients each year. The case manager advocates for the youth at their court appearance, and they check in regularly with the client and their family over a three-month period to get clients to complete their contracts in a timely manner.

Parents are an important part of the process and need to be heard too, Hawk said. Their child’s experience and its discoveries are difficult for parents to wade through. YouthZone case managers provide tools to open communication between parent and child. This starts with asking parents to think of three positive things about their child. Case managers sometimes need to spell out the responsibilities of the parents.

Case managers take a collaborative and individualized approach to ensure kids are successful with resolving their case. Depending on the circumstances and initial referrals for each case, a teen could possibly access the Restorative Justice Circle, classes like Seeking Safety, community service opportunities, the drug and alcohol group, or individual counseling.

Other community resources that may come into play include working with the Department of Human Services, the District Attorney’s staff, school district resources or local police. It is the YouthZone case managers who have the back story to each kid, and they can reinforce the human element wherever it is needed in each case.

Lori Mueller is executive director for YouthZone, a Glenwood Springs-based organization providing criminal justice diversion and youth advocacy programs from Aspen to Parachute.

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