Division of Juvenile Justice, Rehabilitation

DJJ Psychologist talks mental health, rehabilitation

Mental health professional Deborah Leong with brick wall behind her.
DJJ Psychologist Deborah Leong is a 20-year veterans of the department.

Deborah Leong has worked with youth for 20 years

In honor of May as Mental Health Professionals Month, Inside CDCR caught up with Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Psychologist Deborah Leong.

The mental health professional has worked with juveniles at the California Youth Authority and DJJ for more than 20 years. She’s worked in seven facilities, with the most recent being Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo. Leong shared some insights on her mental health career with us.

Q&A with Leong

What do you like about your job?

There’s a lot of variety. I was permitted to implement creative programs and activities within the job. Working with youths is a live wire. You have to be flexible, creative, a people person. The youths are typically spontaneous, witty and smart, so it helps to be fluid.

What creative projects were your favorites?

There was a project called Successfully Dressed. It was a major collaboration with staff and administration to get youths to think about change differently. By getting a visual of themselves as ‘successfully dressed’ with professional attire, demeanor and values. Youths would get a suit—a really nice suit—to wear during classes and at Board, and to take upon release. We held two-and-a-half hour classes for 16 sessions, followed by a graduation. There were more than 30 volunteer staff to teach each cycle. Youths learned facets of communication and presentation to get and keep the job. That was one creative project.

Another example was Clean Arms for Community. I had a lot of support for it, and many staff volunteered their Saturdays to staff a program of 15 youths at a time, while the youths talked about giving back, and what it meant for them to get their tattoos removed. It was unstructured time, hanging out, letting kids talk about the future. And I think stuff like that, that unstructured time, is really impactful. I’m really proud of that program, and it was featured in Vibe Magazine.

Other favorites are The Changing Lives Book Club at Ventura, which came out of a suggestion from a youth, and several community service projects. There are other current activities like Toxic Masculinity discussions (another youth idea) to help break the cycle of recidivism.

What’s your superpower?

Maybe to inspire staff to volunteer and donate their suits? Yeah, that may be one of my greatest accomplishments in encouraging so many staff to volunteer their weekends and evenings. I’ve made some lifelong friends with some amazing staff volunteers.

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