CASA expands mission to mental health; prepares for name-change

Carlton Mason, executive director of CASA, checks out youth artwork at CASA's downtown Montrose headquarters July 15, with Sarah Stangebye, clinical services director of the organizations new mental health initiative. (Katharhynn Heidelberg/Montrose Daily Press)

Not all young people start life with the same advantages — CASA of the 7th Judicial District’s staff and volunteers know that too well.

That’s why the nonprofit, which retains its core function as training and providing court appointed special advocates for children (or CASAs) in civil dependency and neglect cases, branched out in recent years, is expanding services for older kids and young adults aging out of the foster system.

CASA opened a Youth Access Center in Montrose; developed subsidized micro-housing with support services at 1st Place on Second Street in Montrose and, more recently, 1st Place on Palmer in Delta. Although it is limited to a handful of participants at this time, that housing provides stability critical for other benchmarks, such as employment and education — but, as CASA Executive Director Carlton Mason said, there’s more to do.

“While COVID has changed things, it hasn’t changed the overall need for young people who have significant needs around mental health,” Mason said last week, in announcing CASA’s new role. With two trained clinicians on staff — and with rapid-fire board approval, followed by grant funding sufficient for about three years, CASA is a mental health services provider for a targeted demographic of 14- to 24-year-olds.

“Our biggest concern was, how do we address the needs for mental health and how do we do it in a manner that is timely, and most sensitive to these young people? We know them. We have relationships with them. They come in our doors. We house many of them. It just made sense that we be the personal provider of mental health,” Mason said.

“It’s all relational. These clinicians have that,” said Sarah Stangebye, who is serving as clinical services director. Stangebye also works full-time as statewide director of clinical services for ATC (Advantage Treatment Centers), the entity operating the community corrections facility in Montrose and other locations. ATC teamed up with CASA to establish the latter’s new Clinical Youth Services program. ATC has experience in providing similar services to criminal defendants who were sentenced to commcorr as a diversion from prison, or who are transitioning back into the community after serving time in prison.

The idea is that CASA can look at what works for ATC and apply it to its own situation and clients. Not all, or even most youths involved in CASA’s overall programs have criminal records, but there is some similarity in how its at-risk young adults clients are positioned in society.

“We recognized there was some natural overlap between the clients held in populations that we served. Coming from the ATC background, we understood high-risk and vulnerable populations, which makes us uniquely qualified, I think, to work in this setting here in CASA,” Stangebye said.

“ … I would say it’s a very uncommon partnership to have community corrections partner with CASA, but it makes it unique and it makes it very interesting.”

The Clinical Youth Services program isn’t a “supplement” to CASA’s services and cannot be treated as a hobby, Mason said, stressing that people gravitate to those they know for help, and the need to maintain trust with young clients.

“We’ve got to get it spot on. We’ve got one opportunity to establish a reputation. The model is kind of unique. There’s a good bit of creativity that needs to occur,” he said.

“For that to occur, we needed a partner that would come in and not simply tell us what they did, but also look at our environment, look at our situation … and customize that approach.”

Trauma is more common among CASA’s demographic than in other groups.

“With this population, we do see a high level of traumatized clients, many of whom struggle with co-occurring disorders which include substance abuse and mental health,” Stangebye said.

“What’s unique about this program and service is the ability to really do a deep dive into those, and help walk alongside these clients to figure out, what do we really have at the table here?”

Quick action

Mason decided to approach his board this past spring to advocate for CASA becoming a mental health provider as part of the wraparound services necessary to help at-risk youths. He won quick approval, followed with grants to help fund the program as CASA transitions to becoming a Medicaid provider.

CASA recently received $80,000 from the El Pomar Foundation for its clinical services director salary. This award was among the $117,500 El Pomar disbursed in the San Juan region.

CASA also received, as a sub-grantee of Urban Peak, money through the state Office of Behavioral Health’s Healthy Transitions grant.

The program was underway by the start of this month, with two clinicians to float between CASA’s Montrose and Delta locations. The two are continuing training to attain dual state licensure for mental health and substance abuse.

Just as with CASA’s Youth Access Center, any young person can come in for help, and there will be no cost.

The services can be requested at the same location as the YAC — CASA’s Montrose headquarters at 147 N. Townsend Ave. (next door to Backstreet Bagel).

CASA will take referrals from any organization and also, parents can approach it for help.

“That’s what we’re here for. There is no correct or incorrect method of engaging with us. Just come in,” Mason said.

In keeping with its growing scope, CASA is changing the name by which it goes. It will retain CASA of the 7th Judicial District for legal and streamlining purpose (and maintain its court advocacy program), but will do business as Youth and Family Advocacy Services.

“It’s youth services. It’s an environment where they can just walk in and perhaps not experience the potential stigma that may come with some kind of therapeutic office,” Mason said.

He and Stangebye pointed to the broader benefit of serving vulnerable young people.

Recall housing? CASA’s program, although limited in scale and funding at present, has reduced participants’ contact with the criminal justice system because they have the stability of at least knowing where they will rest their heads at night.

Mason discussed it all in terms of return on investment, and he brought receipts.

Last year, CASA provided (to multiple tenants), 148 months of supportive housing, yielding an estimated savings of $325,600 to the community, based on average emergency shelter and service cost savings, per tenant, per year.

1st Place on Second street can house up to 12 young adults ages 18 – 24. Providing them with housing helped them obtain and retain employment (when Mason spoke last week, employment of 1st Place tenants stood at 90%), and reduced their contact with the judicial system.

“There is an estimated savings of $147,000 to the community, just by taking this group, providing them stable housing, case management, access to services, and at the end of the year, we ended up with no criminal charges among the group. Normally, it’s six or seven out of 10 who would have,” Mason.

There was a 77% reduction in emergency room visits, compared with national averages.

“That would save our community, at minimum, we estimate, just under $15,000 in costs,” Mason said.

“We’re having really good results. But beyond what our results are, how do we best serve our young adults? I think this move toward mental health is kind of closing the gap. We’re excited about the results, but we can do better.”

The results are not down to luck, Mason added. Instead, they are the result of forging meaningful, consistent contact with the young people in need of help.

Part of the success also lies in treating a population that tends to fall through the cracks on an individual, case-by-case level, Stangebye said.

“These young people can’t be an inconvenience, ever. If they perceive they’re an inconvenience, you lose your ability (to reach them),” Mason said.

The modality entails meeting the young people where they are — an hour-long therapy session is well and good, but a young person who is wondering where he or she will sleep that night might not get much out of the counseling, Mason said. Services, support, and mental health treatment are, he hopes, the recipe for lasting success.

“It’s a real simple model. … And now to add to the relationship, we actually have the (clinical) skills,” Mason said.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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