UTHSC Opens New Youth Advocacy Center

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Dr. Altha Stewart cuts the ribbon to officially open the Youth Advocacy Center at UTHSC. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris is in back row, second from right, and College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome, MD, is at the mayor’s right. Kena Vassar, director of Community Initiatives for the center, is at far left. (Photo by Alan Burns/UTHSC)

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center marked the opening of its new Youth Advocacy Center with a ribbon-cutting ceremony August 30.

Located at 66 North Pauline, Suite 233, the center is a collaboration between the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Shelby County Government Division of Community Services.

The center will provide support and community-based resources for at-risk and justice-involved youth, ages 12-17, and their families by providing trauma-informed screenings, individualized recommendations for referrals to community-based behavioral and trauma-related services, and follow-up. The center is voluntary, restraint-free, trauma-informed, family-centered, and independent from juvenile court. Referrals can be made by individuals, parents, law enforcement, schools, and community members.

Trauma-informed services 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. The goal of the center is to reduce further contact or avoid contact with the juvenile justice system.

“We’re going to focus on the children we believe can be diverted from the system, either through a referral from law enforcement at the point of contact in the community, a referral from a school resource officer, a self-referral from a family member or a community organization that works with children who recognize some of the signs of at-risk behavior in that child,” Altha Stewart, MD, told those gathered for the ceremony. Dr. Stewart is the interim senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement, associate professor of psychiatry, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, and chief of Social and Community Psychiatry in the UTHSC College of Medicine. She has led the development of the Youth Advocacy Center.

“We know there is a tremendous need for this,” she said. “I am very optimistic that this is the right thing to do and that we’re going to do it well.”

The Youth Advocacy Center is a program of UTHSC’s Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, which launched in 2015 in the College of Medicine 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 a chance to succeed. The Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth aims to create a trauma-informed culture that focuses on preventing violence and trauma to children, provides help to children exposed to violence, and creates a climate that supports children and their families by fostering collaboration among service providers.

The Youth Advocacy Center is funded as a pilot project with intent to expand. Initially, it will concentrate on young people in the Frayser community, an area with high need and an established and strong network of community resources ready to collaborate in helping young people and their families.

“We know there are kids out there who need help, and we know that this place is poised to deliver that help,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said.

UTHSC College of Medicine Executive Dean Scott Strome thanked the mayor for supporting the center and pledged the College of Medicine’s commitment to improving the community.

“For too long, academic medical centers have looked internally and the goal has been to get grants. Our goal is to look externally, to make our community a better place for everybody,” he said. “We want to be great stewards of state dollars and make sure everybody knows this is their university, not our university.”

The Youth Advocacy Center expects to receive its first referrals this month.