Colorado Launches Trauma-Responsive Pilot in Juvenile Justice System

One of the rooms at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center where the Aspen Pilot has just been created for adjudicated youth. Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Human Services

In July, the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) Division of Youth Services (DYS) launched a pilot program to provide adjudicated youth trauma-responsive, therapeutic care in a home-like environment.

The Aspen Pilot is being tested at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center thanks to Colorado lawmakers providing $333,000 in funding through Colorado House Bill 17-1329.

The program is currently serving 24 youth at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, which provided existing infrastructure that could easily be modified to meet the program’s needs, according to Nourie Boraie, deputy director of communications for CDHS.

“By creating a trauma responsive environment where kids feel more safe and supported in a community setting, we can help each youth learn the skills they need to succeed when they re-enter their community,” Boraie said, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “We know that if a youth feels safer, they are more likely to benefit from treatment, helping to reduce aggressive behavior in DYS.”

The Aspen Pilot was modeled after Missouri’s well-known reform of its secure juvenile facilities, which replaced large training schools with small, dorm-like settings built around positive youth development principles. The Missouri Youth Services Institute, founded by former Missouri juvenile justice head Mark Steward, assists other states in replicating parts of the model.

This pilot project is part of continuing efforts by the state to move from a “corrections-focused approach to youth services to a system based largely on providing a continuum of treatment options to help youth in custody successfully transition back into their communities,” according to a press release from CDHS.

The program will serve 35 youth this year, with the length of stay depending on their length of commitment from the court, security level, behavior and progress in treatment and education programs. While in the Aspen Pilot program, staff will work with youth on a variety of skills that will help them transition back to their communities.

“While the treatment plans for kids in the Aspen pilot are the same as youth throughout the facility, the Aspen pilot’s structure is built to focus on honing in on additional skills through an emphasis on community group processes,” Boraie said. “These group settings can include daily problem solving groups, daily community meetings, and weekly goal setting groups.”

The RAND Corporation will conduct an evaluation of the program to determine its effectiveness, assessing things like the frequency of fights or assaults, use of seclusion or restraints, length of stay and recidivism.

The Aspen Pilot also identifies additional objectives that will be implemented across all DYS facilities in the state. Among the objectives are creating home-like environments at all secure facilities and integrating trauma-responsive practices.

“Over the past few years, our DYS leadership team has worked closely with legislators and community leaders to strengthen our approach to understanding the youth in our care by asking not what they’ve done wrong, but what they’ve experienced that translates into the behavioral choices they’re making,” said CDHS Executive Director Reggie Bicha, in a statement issued about the launch. “We want to make sure we provide youth their best chance at a fresh start. By codifying the objectives of the Aspen Pilot throughout the Division, we can really demonstrate Colorado’s commitment to changing the way we approach youth services.”

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