Intervention programs designed to keep these youth out of trouble have traditionally failed because of language and cultural barriers. Now Sacramento County social workers are trying a different approach.
On a recent Monday evening in a Natomas cul-de-sac, Margarita Vidana is checking in on one of her clients. Vidana is a Family Team Assistant or case manager with La Familia Counseling Center’s OASIS program, which stands for Obtaining and Sustaining Independent Success. Her client is a 15-year-old boy who, less than a year ago, was terrorizing his family with violent outbursts and suicidal tendencies.
"This family was in crisis 10 months ago."
Her client Juan says he was depressed, angry and abusive toward his mother and two younger sisters.
"I started getting rough with them, rough with my mom. I wasn’t acting like myself. I was acting like a jerk."
Giovanna, Juan’s 13-year old sister, says the family was in turmoil.
"He would say that he didn’t want to live anymore, that nobody liked him here, he doesn’t want to be in this world."
Juan’s mother Lorena was afraid her son would hurt himself. She says she was desperate to find help.
"He told me that he didn’t want to continue living, so I called La Familia Counseling and they referred me to OASIS and OASIS were there in about half an hour when he was in the hospital and so they have helped me a lot with my son about what he is thinking."
The OASIS program was set up last year by Sacramento County Mental Health officials to help what they deemed to be an underserved population – the children of low-income immigrant families at risk of getting into gangs and drugs. Program Supervisor Lynnaia Keune:
"The parents don’t necessarily speak English, most of them don’t. And so they don’t know how to access services."
A client is usually referred by one of their teachers. When OASIS gets the call they send out a family team assistant or FTA who speaks the same language as the family. Most clients are Spanish-speaking but OASIS also serves families who speak Hmong, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Russian.
"So our Family Team Assistant will go out and meet that family. That’s very different than what our traditional mental health services does. Traditional mental health services you have with MediCal a central agency and it’s called Access so that might be very confusing to them. So this other way we don’t do that, we go out first and we go ‘what’s the problem, what’s happening.'"
The program is paid for with a $1million grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Similar programs have proved successful in places like New York City, San Francisco and Fairbanks, Alaska. In Juan’s case, his emotional problems began when his parents broke up.
"I felt three things: I felt angry, depressed and selfish because I didn’t want them to get divorced. And now I feel less selfish, less anger and less depressed but I still get down every now and then, but they’re under control – I hope."
Juan is one of about 60 youth with serious emotional disturbances enrolled in OASIS. They get help from therapists and case workers who visit them at home. Program Supervisor Keune says they try to help troubled kids before they hurt themselves or others.
"You have epidemic suicides you also have the teenagers that the rates of homicides are huge and you end up having prisons and jails full of kids that should never have gotten there in the first place if we could have helped them out."
And Keune says it can be a challenge to help kids from immigrant families. Parents may be reluctant to get treatment for mental health issues because of the stigma or cultural barriers.
"They don’t know what to ask for help for they just see that their kids get lost somewhere around between 14 and 16."
Those lost teenagers are prime candidates for delinquency. A recent report by the Criminal Justice Research Foundation found that from 1981 to 2003, the number of annual juvenile arrests grew by 21% compared to only 7.5% for adults. Keune says by helping youth early on, when they’re starting to show signs of trouble, and helping them at home where they live, they can keep kids out of the system and save taxpayer’s money.
Back in the Natomas home of 15-year-old Juan and his family, OASIS case worker Margarita Vidana says they’re making great progress.
"Oh this family is much better now, I am so happy because the family can smile."
Juan says working with Margarita and the OASIS therapists helped him realize how his behavior was affecting the family and they’re helping him deal with his emotions now.
"People tried to reach to me in a lot of ways, I had people to talk to and I was grateful to have all those things at my reach and to really feel them and not just to think about them but feel them, experience them. So I was happy for that."
Although he’s made great progress, Juan’s involvement in the OASIS program is far from over. He’s still considered to be an “at-risk” youth. OASIS staff will continue working with him and his family in their home with the goal of getting him the treatment he needs but keeping keep him out of the juvenile justice system.