Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at UTHSC changes name to Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being

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The Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center has changed its name to the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being.

Launched in 2015 in the UTHSC College of Medicine, the center aims to raise awareness for better behavioral health services in the community for young people and their families, and to coordinate delivery of those services to ensure the community’s youth have the best chance to succeed. The new name continues that work, but sharpens the focus on improving mental health and well-being for youth in Shelby County and the region.

The center continues to offer trauma-informed services and referrals to appropriate community partners with a focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), trauma or violence experienced early in life that negatively influences mental health or behavior in the future and can contribute to a cycle of violence, chronic poor health, and decreased life expectancy.

“Over the last six years, we have developed quite a strong reputation for being a resource in the community and also for securing significant funding to support and sustain what we do,” said Altha Stewart, MD, director of the Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being.

Dr. Altha Stewart is a longtime advocate for better behavioral and mental health services for young people in the community. The newly named Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being aims to provide them.
Dr. Altha Stewart is a longtime advocate for better behavioral and mental health services for young people in the community. The newly named Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being aims to provide them.

Dr. Stewart founded the former Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth with a $200,000 allocation from the state. She and her team have grown that funding to $2.5 million to sustain the center’s operation.

“In six years, we have done a very good job of creating a path to sustainability and developing a relationship and a reputation in the community to be considered one of the go-to places for those families whose children have complicated psychological issues,” she said.

A psychiatrist and senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine, Dr. Stewart advocates that exposure to trauma and violence in childhood starts a cycle that can lead young people to academic and behavioral problems in school and in their lives, may alter a young person’s emotional responses, and set the stage for future challenging behaviors that put them on the path to involvement with the child welfare and justice systems.

The center aims to promote a trauma-informed culture that focuses on preventing violence and trauma to children, providing help to children exposed to violence, offering peaceful options for resolving conflict, and creating a climate that supports children and fosters collaboration among area service providers. Referrals to the center come from schools, parents, community organizations, and youth groups.

“The name change is meant to encompass all of the things we now have as our portfolio of programs and resources for the community for children and adolescents up to the age of 21,” Dr. Stewart said. Goals for 2022 include establishing a workforce development program to train local family members and caregivers as state-certified Family Support Specialists, and forming a youth advisory group to participate in a community governance board for the local System of Care wraparound program.

Laurie Powell, MA, LCSW, CEO of Alliance Healthcare Services, a local service provider, said the UTHSC center has been a good partner.

“I think the missions of Alliance ‘to promote wellness in our community’ and UT Health Science Center ‘to improve health and well-being of Tennesseans’ align to meet the behavioral health needs of children and families in Shelby County,” she said.

“Evidenced-based practices that are trauma focused are critical to making a positive impact on these families’ lives, and are something that Alliance and UTHSC do together through our community partnership.”

The Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being will continue several initiatives already in place including: 

  • UTHSC Building Strong Brains: Tennessee ACEs Initiative (BSB/ACEs), which connects students at-risk for chronic absenteeism and disciplinary action to services and supports through trauma-informed partners in the community. The program focuses on students at risk for more than 10 unexcused absences.
  • Integrated Care for Child Wellness (ICCW), which connects youth with chronic illnesses and traumatic injuries to trauma-informed wraparound, community-based resources and supports to improve health and school attendance. ICCW works with intervention specialists, youth and families to create individualized health care plans to better manage their health and school attendance. 
  • Gang Intervention Focusing on Families and Trauma Supports (GIFFTS), which works to reduce youth violence in targeted neighborhoods through an enriched gang intervention and prevention model that uses trauma-informed community resources and evidenced-based family supports. GIFFTS works by identifying risk factors, such as truancy or bullying, and using protective factors, such as family and community supports, to reduce the influence of trauma and violence in the lives of youth and their families.
  • South Memphis Gang Intervention Model to Prevent Adverse Child Trauma (IMPACT), which works to prevent and reduce youth gang involvement or violence in South City/South Memphis area. Partnering with trauma-informed community providers, the program addresses risky behaviors by providing opportunities to learn coping and conflict resolution skills and gain experiences that contribute to more positive life outcomes, including resisting gang involvement.
  • Shelby Connects Network (SCN), which coordinates services and supports for youth with serious mental health needs and exposure to trauma. Youth and their families work with mental health providers, community support systems, schools, and other community agencies, to implement individualized plans to help youth and their families achieve positive life outcomes and thrive in their homes and communities.

The Center for Youth Advocacy and Well-Being will have a component to engage young people in the community as members of an advisory board and to train them to advocate for themselves. “This is a response to what the young people in the city have told us time and time again, that they want to lead in advocating for their needs, not just to have adults advocating for them,” Dr. Stewart said.