State-backed program enables YouthZone to provide support to teens facing detention
Renewal of state contract grants funding, structure to program for local kids
For 27 years, YouthZone has partnered with the state of Colorado and law enforcement officials to provide intervention and support for local youth caught violating the law through an initiative established in Colorado’s Senate Bill 94, also known as the Colorado Youth Detention Continuum program.
The organization has maintained that contract since the program began in 1994 — and they’ll continue to do so for at least another five years. The partnership was officially renewed on Jan. 20 after a rigorous review process; the state provides funding and structure to YouthZone to serve Colorado’s 9th Judicial District (Pitkin County, Garfield County and Rio Blanco County). YouthZone has locations in Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Rifle.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how important this is,” said YouthZone Executive Director Lori Mueller. “This is an integral part of helping kids get back on the right track.”
The program aims to keep youth out of juvenile detention and prevent them from committing a second offense. Referrals come directly from local law enforcement via a 24-hour hotline that connects them to YouthZone. Most involvement occurs between the time of the offense and the time of sentencing, though YouthZone will still offer some support after that court date.
According to Mueller, that early connection is crucial to mitigating the negative impacts of youth detention.
“Once a youth identifies themselves as a criminal, and starts taking on that persona, if you will, then they’re going to continue in the system. That’s what’s so harmful about having kids go through any kind of the criminal justice system is that some kids start identifying as a criminal — and they’re not,” Mueller said. “For the most part, these kids are just struggling, they’re trying to grow up. They’re making poor choices, but with the right help … they’ll be just fine.”
The contract with the state enables YouthZone to provide a wide range of services to meet the complex needs of struggling youth in the community, Mueller said. Substance abuse intervention, mental health counseling, family mediation and restorative justice are among the initiatives, with support catered to the individual.
“But if they don’t get that intervention, we’re looking at a cost to our communities that’s huge,” Mueller said.
That cost is a literal one: supporting a youth in detention at the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center in Grand Junction for 180 days costs $45,000; the cost of supporting that individual through the CYDC program instead totals roughly $1,600 over the same six-month period, Mueller wrote in an email.
Airen Goodman, YouthZone’s CYDC coordinator for the 9th district, is often the one fielding the call; she then conducts a thorough assessment to determine the support the youth may need and evaluate whether they will be safer for themselves and the community at home or in a detention center. Most participants are between the age of 13 and 17, Goodman said.
But the program does more than keep kids out of trouble: it provides a pathway to success in the future, too, Goodman said. Though the program began as a program focused on public service, it now incorporates a curriculum of life skills for participants as well: “communication, self advocacy, (and) job skills” are part of that curriculum, Goodman said.
Often, she asks youth about the change they hope to see in their communities and teaches them effective ways to speak up for themselves.
“It’s talking them through the process on how to create positive change and then letting them know that their voice matters,” Goodman said.
Vocational services are a component of that initiative, providing resume advice, organizational tips and time management skills. But so too are emotional services part of the plan, teaching participants strategies to regulate their emotions and overcome challenges without turning to the outlets that landed them in the program to begin with.
Brandon Juarez, a 15-year-old from Rifle, is among those who have benefited from the support of the program. He said he had fallen in with the wrong crowd in middle school and landed in the program after an offense when he was 14.
He’s now a freshman in high school looking forward to getting his drivers’ permit. But if he hadn’t received support from YouthZone, he said he would likely be spending his days in a youth detention center instead.
“After a while, If you keep messing up, people are just going to give up on you,” he said. “You don’t want to get to that point where everybody’s like, we don’t want to be around this kid.”
Juarez said the staff at Youth Zone were with him through moments good and bad alike — and inspired him to work hard to reach his goals.
“Just because it’s bad right now doesn’t mean you should give up, It will get way better and you’ll see it will pay off at the end of the day.”