FUERTE: Strength, Healing and Empowerment for Youth on Probation


By Molly Lautamo

Anyone who works at FUERTE (Families United in Respect, Tranquility and Hope) can tell you the partnership between Encompass and the Santa Cruz County Probation Department is a rare but powerful example of how community collaboration can change lives and the juvenile system as we know it today.

“FUERTE,” explained Program Supervisor Bree Bode, “is striving for a systemic shift that the juvenile justice system must effectively serve youth with mental health needs in order to avoid the unnecessary use of detention.

That systematic shift can’t come soon enough. Today about 70 percent of youth in our country’s juvenile justice system have a mental illness and are often only first diagnosed with a mental health issue after they end up on probation. When released, the youth and their families are inadequately prepared to manage the mental health issue, leading to high rates of recidivism and often placement in out-of-home care.   

Valerie Thompson, Assistant Chief Probation Officer for Santa Cruz County, also supports this systemic shift. “We’ve seen a lot of kids go to placement with unmet mental health needs,” said Thompson. “We needed to offer the court more alternatives to out-of-home placement for our kids.”

It Takes a Village

Funded by the Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction (MIOCR) grant, FUERTE looks to close the gap in community services for youth on probation with mental health issues.

The program provides counseling and treatment services to 10 youth on probation, ages 14-20, over a period of 4-6 months. The counseling services are provided by two Encompass staff, a mental health clinician and a transitional specialist, who continue to work closely with the youth’s probation officer. This collaboration between mental health specialists and the referring probation officer is not the norm.

“Usually, a line is drawn between the two departments but this is a very collaborative program,” said Oscar Hernandez, FUERTE mental health clinician.     

The treatment provided to FUERTE youth draws upon multiple community groups and services and involves the entire family. The FUERTE transitional specialist educates the youth’s family about how to connect with a variety of community services such as mental health advocacy groups, therapeutic groups, and outpatient substance use treatment.

The mental health clinician provides Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the youth and educates the parents about coping with mental illness. Providing parents with the tools to help their child through a mental health episode can keep families together and keep youth out of the juvenile justice system.

“We work as a team to support the family as a unit,” said Hernandez. “We support the kids and the parents to seek out resources in order to educate themselves on how to better support their children.”

Empowering Youth and Their Families

This strength-based approach also empowers the youth to navigate their own healing process. By connecting them to resources and helping them understand and embrace their diagnosis, they can manage their mental health not only throughout their childhood but into adulthood as well.

FUERTE staff work hard to get to know the youth and their families, meeting them at their homes in order to better understand what types of services will provide the most support.   

“This is not a cookie cutter program,” explained Thompson. “We adapt and shift [our services] based on the needs of each individual family because everyone’s needs are different.”  

Goals for Expansion

Although new, this program is already proving to be a model alternative to relying on the juvenile justice system to treat youth with mental health issues. FUERTE has the potential to greatly impact our community by reducing recidivism, keeping families together, and helping youth be more productive and participatory in our community. All of these outcomes will create a safer, healthier community as a whole.

Although FUERTE currently only works with youth on probation, the goal is to serve all youth with unmet mental health needs in Santa Cruz County.

“It is our hope that FUERTE will be replicated in other parts of the county,” said Bode. “The strong collaboration between the probation department and Encompass has the potential to increase our community’s capacity for treating youth with mental health needs.”

Thompson too shares this vision for FUERTE. “One of our goals,” said Thompson, “is to expand this program beyond probation so we can work to keep these kids out of the juvenile justice system and keep the community safe at the same time.”

Fortunately, other community agencies are already looking to expand the program based on its promising results. These results are what inspire FUERTE staff, like Hernandez, to work their hardest to connect with the youth and their families.  

“Each FUERTE youth is an inspiration because they’ve somehow managed to move forward despite all their setbacks and past traumatic experiences,” said Hernandez. “It’s great to see when a kid opens up about this particular moment in his or her life that has deeply affected them and changed who he or she is. When these youths are ready to look back at their trauma, that’s when good things will happen.”

For more information about FUERTE, contact Bree Bode at (831) 688-8856 x3853.