Courting Kids at Risk
by Mary Ann Littell
For kids in trouble, going through the juvenile justice system can be frightening and confusing. It helps to have Evelyn Orozco in your corner. She has devoted her professional life to helping young people at risk get back on track.
rozco directs a juvenile
justice program, the Youth Incentive Intervention Program (YIIP), which provides
services to 11- to 18-year-olds in Middlesex County with severe
behavioral problems. Some are chronic truants. Others pick fights, steal, miss curfews, or exhibit anti-social behavior, what therapists call “acting out.” Some have been arrested.
Imagine the heartbreak of a child, pregnant at the age of 12 and thrown out of her house by disappointed parents. Or a pregnant teenager who has attempted suicide. Or a 17 year old who dislikes his stepfather so much that he moves out of his home into an apartment with a brother who’s only slightly older. To Orozco and her team, these scenarios are all too familiar.
She is quick to point out that her clients are the children themselves: “Our mission is to protect the children and help the moms and dads be the best parents they can be.”
Evelyn Orozco, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at University Behavioral HealthCare (UBHC), UMDNJ’s provider of mental health services. As manager for the UBHC’s CARRI (Children at Risk, Resources and Intervention) services, she directs six state-funded programs designed to help children at risk.
Many of her clients are dealing with serious mental health and family issues. “The kids we see face all kinds of challenges,” she says. “Some are from transient families, others deal with poverty, substance abuse or domestic violence. If your parents can’t provide you with what you need, how can you as a child learn those skills? That’s where we try to help — through therapy, mentoring, social skills building and other support systems.”
Young people are referred into YIIP by probation officers or others in the juvenile justice system, DYFS or even parents seeking help. For kids who are already in legal trouble, YIIP is often an alternative to incarceration. Youngsters are first evaluated along with their families, and everyone must agree to participate. “It’s not enough for a parent to refer an unwilling child,” Orozco says. “We need both the parents and the child to make a commitment to treatment.”
Once in the program, the adolescents receive intensive therapy. Orozco explains that two evidence-based models are used: FFT or Functional Family Therapy and ART, Aggressive Replacement Therapy. FFT is highly structured, one-on-one therapy which also involves the entire family, while ART is group therapy. Many adolescents do well in ART, but not all children will fit into such a format. “We are very creative in providing whichever modality fits the family,” says Orozco. She adds that they are the only providers in New Jersey using the FFT model.
The work requires specialized training and a unique set of social skills. “You go into someone’s home for the initial visit, and sometimes it’s not pleasant to be there,” explains the psychologist. “The homes may be unsafe and less than desirable. The family may be angry and defensive. You have to know how to de-escalate anger and turn the situation into something positive. But we keep in mind that many of our families want and need our help.”
A judge who refers many young people into the program, the Hon. Roger W. Daley, says, “We are very pleased with the YIIP program because it combines two evidence-based blueprint models that have demonstrated effectiveness. It’s a unique combination of therapies with a holistic approach to treating children along with their families.”
Orozco is sympathetic to her clients, whose problems are often beyond their control. “We provide services to diverse populations, including African-Americans, Latinos and Asians,” she says. “The parents frequently work around the clock to support their families, leaving little time for parent-child interaction. In many cases, there are language and cultural barriers.”
Orozco speaks from personal experience. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who left Puerto Rico and settled in Ohio, where she was born. Orozco was married at 17, and had a son. She was later divorced and raised her son as a single parent, working as a secretary for the Legal Aid Society in Cleveland. Her supervisor recognized her potential and encouraged her to follow her dream and complete her formal education.
Orozco attended school at night while working full-time and caring for her son. She earned an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and her first master’s degree in school psychology. “It took me 17 years to finish my schooling, but I did it with determination and my family’s support,” she says. “I am proud to say that I’m the first one in my family to achieve this level of education.”
The final stint was a PhD in clinical psychology at Kent State University. She and her son overlapped as students at Kent State for one year: he was a senior, while she was in the first year of the PhD program.
She came to UBHC — and New Jersey — as an intern in 1994. “I was looking for a program with diversity,” she says. “I did some research and found UBHC. It was a perfect fit.” Her commitment was for one year. At the end of that year, she was offered a position in the CARRI program, which she accepted. She relocated, and admits it was difficult leaving her family behind in Ohio. But she is committed to making things better in New Jersey.
A primary goal is to help each child live a better, more productive life. “We stay with the kids as long as we can, until they reach a point of stability,” says Orozco. “We help them learn and dream about vocational programs and college. Many of them think it’s out of their reach, but we try to teach them that they can do it. When it’s appropriate we take them there ourselves.”
Orozco says her work is challenging, but the rewards are great. She tells a few success stories.
One boy was referred to them from juvenile court after he was caught
stealing. He had been in this country for four years, living with his mother. She had come to the U.S. several years earlier, married, and had three other children. The two had a turbulent relationship.
“He started in the ART program as a 14 year old, the youngest in the group,” Orozco says. ”He came twice a week for 10 weeks and never missed a session.
We got him involved with a mentor and engaged him in community activities. We worked with the mother and son to help them resolve their issues relating to reunification and communication.” The boy is now in high school, getting As and Bs. He’s thinking about going to college.
The pregnant teenager who attempted suicide was referred for mental health services as part the Healthy Families America (HFA) program, which Orozco also directs. Started in 1996, it is designed to help adolescents and families cope with teen pregnancy and reduce abuse and neglect. The teen and her family received home-based therapy. The teen was enrolled in the HFA program and received prenatal care and parenting education. She finished high school after her baby was born and went on to college. She recently graduated, and her child, a healthy 7 year old, is in first grade.
“She comes back to talk to our new teen moms,” says Orozco. “She’s a great example of what can be accomplished with the proper resources, support and the ability to dream.”