ELIZABETH – Darren is a 16-year-old with his entire life ahead of him. Yet not too long ago he balanced on the precipice of a downward spiral into trouble. After committing a crime Darren was ordered by the court to enter the Union County Youth Shelter rather than into the county detention center.
Today Darren is back from the edge.
The Union County Youth Shelter serves as transitional housing for youths aged 13-17, up to four at a time. While at the shelter a staff of 13 plus a teacher provide independent living skills, counseling, on-site schooling by a state-certified teacher or at the youth’s home school, family counseling and, if necessary, intervention, according to Julia Leftwich, a director at Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which runs the shelter for Union County.
After their stay at the shelter the youths are directed by the county Family Crisis unit or the courts into residential housing, treatment if there is a substance abuse issue, home or, if deemed necessary by the court, the Union County Juvenile Detention Center.
The court considers the shelter a positive option to detention, according to Union County Superior Judge Robert Kirsch.
“Routinely, I refer at-risk youths to the facility in an effort to avoid the constraints of the far more restrictive detention facility,” Kirsch recently stated. “(T)he work of the Youth Shelter contributes greatly to enabling the otherwise vulnerable juveniles in (the court’s) care to lead independent lives and be productive members of society.”
Darren and his mother, Kathy, believe Darren will become just that. They also believe his time at the youth shelter played an important role in making that possible.
“(The court) felt it would be an environment where he could be watched 24 hours a day,” Kathy said. “I work and my husband works. They felt until he could be placed in a residential program it would be best he was placed there to keep him out of trouble.”
Kathy visited the shelter and came away knowing her son was in good hands, she said.
“I thought it was a great environment,” she said. “They were very welcoming. I felt like if he could not be home this was the next best thing.”
While living at the shelter Darren learned ways to stay out of trouble, he said. In fact, he felt so comfortable at the shelter that, after leaving, he asked to return when he faced a delay in transitioning into a residential program.
“I felt the shelter was a better place for me than at home at that time because I was afraid I was going to violate (probation),” he said.
Darren now lives in a residential program and looks forward to returning home for good. While at the shelter the staff helped him stay current with his schoolwork and after finishing high school he plans to become a barber.
He knows his two stays at the Union County Youth Shelter played an important role in putting him on that path.
“It’s better to go to the shelter because it’s better for you,” he said. “It’s safe, the counselors are good and the food’s better (than in detention).”
“No parent wants to see their child in either facility,” Kathy said. “But since there was no choice, I preferred the shelter for a number of reasons. From my understanding Darren complied with everything he was asked to do. I thought it was a great environment for him to be in. He’s great now.”
Darren’s story is not unique, according to Leftwich.
“They want to be here as opposed to being in detention,” she said. “They’re grateful the shelter is here for them.”
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