For Dr. Kyla Armstrong-Romero, the new year marked the start of the latest chapter in her lifelong journey of service, as she began her tenure as the director of the Department of Community Justice’s Juvenile Services Division.
But in looking back at the many twists and turns that her life has taken, it’s clear that she didn’t fall into this meaningful opportunity by happenstance. Rather, the adversity she went through as a young child, to endure and escape it, have helped to shape her and guide her toward a field of work where she knows she’s truly making a difference. It was those experiences that helped her discover and develop her strengths and passion for education, social equity and justice.
Growing up, it was hard to call one place home. Born in Chicago, Illinois, she criss-crossed the country with her mother, moving to places like Washington, Georgia and Tennessee.
At the tender age of 9, she witnessed her stepfather’s attempted murder of her mother. She wound up providing key testimony that led to his conviction.
Between the experience of that traumatic event and constantly being on the move — “I went to 14 different elementary, middle and high schools,” she recalled — Armstrong discovered a way to cope.
“Through my childhood trauma, I always saw learning and education as an escape. I found that education was one of my passions. I had goals for myself. I realized that being immersed in different subjects was like an escape for me.”
Armstrong’s experiences as a young child helped her discover and develop her strengths and passion for education, social equity and justice. She graduated from high school in Aurora, Colorado, and then enrolled in a rural college in the northern part of the state. She later transferred to the University of Colorado at Denver to pursue degrees in Spanish and sociology.
Her path, as winding as it has been, has always intersected with service to others.
While in college, she volunteered at Denver’s Rape Assistance and Awareness Program, which helps victims of sexual violence heal while raising public educating about sexual violence and its prevention.
She also used the Spanish language fluency she’d honed in college while serving as an advocate for the Spanish Crisis Hotline.
“Working with underserved and vulnerable populations to navigate complex systems in their native language to get the resources they needed was immensely impactful to me,” Armstrong said. “Trauma creates barriers to communication in any language, and communities of color also experience intergenerational trauma which is an added layer of complexity.”
During her college years, Armstrong also worked to expand her horizons, studying abroad in Mendoza, Argentina. She eventually graduated with honors. Later, she moved to Chihuahua, Mexico, making the drive from Colorado to the southern border on her own.
“I met with the heads of the organization where I was going to work at the El Paso border and we drove to Chihuahua, where I taught English at the Honeywell factory and a school in the community,” she said.
Her next stop was Houston, Texas, where she worked for the Gulf Coast Community Services Association, an organization dedicated to strengthening the educational, social and economic well-being of Houstonians as they transition from varying stages of poverty to financial confidence. There, Armstrong-Romero helped support justice-involved community members with re-entry services and taught introductory Spanish as a trade skill.
Though the work was fulfilling, “I felt a calling to go back to Colorado to be around family and begin graduate school,” she said.
As she worked toward her master’s degree, Armstrong also served as the only Spanish-speaking victim advocate for the Aurora Police Department, a job that required her to respond to crime scenes. She served as a first responder on July 20, 2012, the evening of the massacre at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora. Armstrong-Romero says she will never forget the day.
“I was called into the hospital that day and I’ll never forget the number of people in the hospital. I’d never seen anything like that before. Anyone who was involved that day had this trauma that was a very hard process,” she said.
Armstrong-Romero was among the many heroes recognized for her actions that night. She was even named a “Community Hero” by Viva Colorado, a publication of the Denver Post newspaper aimed at the Hispanic community.
While completing her doctorate, Armstrong-Romero continued to work as a counselor, advocate and social caseworker for children, adolescents, parents and victims of crime — making it her personal mission to stand up for children and families who may be labeled as “disadvantaged.”
Even her capstone project delved into what neighborhood watches look like in “disadvantaged” neighborhoods.
She also had the opportunity to oversee a juvenile release program through the City and County of Denver.
“I went to do social casework with youth in Denver and loved that work. We really collaborated with a variety of stakeholders on ways to reduce the lengths of stay for pre-adjudicated youth,” she said.
Their work reduced the average length of a pre-trial investigation from 40 days to two days.
She also partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation on a continuum of services that focused on prevention and intervention.
In January 2017, after completing all requirements for her doctorate program in Human Services at Capella University with a 4.0 GPA and successfully defending her dissertation, Armstrong-Romero became Dr. Armstrong-Romero.
Since then, she has served on the Colorado Department of Human Services' senior executive management team, where she oversaw staff development and training, as well as the operation of six state-run juvenile detention facilities.
Considering her personal and professional experiences, it’s no surprise that Armstrong-Romero was drawn to Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division and its national reputation for work to transform juvenile probation.
“I want to uplift the work of the division and lift up our evidence-based programming, and work alongside the community and strengthen relationships,” she said. “I also look forward to working with schools.”
As director, Armstrong-Romero’s focus is ensuring that the decisions and programs of the Juvenile Services Division are rooted in the community it serves. She looks forward to becoming more involved in youth-centered community initiatives like the Community Healing Initiative. She recently participated in the Community Healing Summit organized by Lines for Life, which highlighted the need to focus on violence prevention and intervention services for youth.
The division is also currently working on the “Transforming Juvenile Probation” initiative with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and many local stakeholders, the goal of which is to move juvenile probation practices toward a more developmentally appropriate strategy.
“There’s work that crosses over between Juvenile Services and the Department of Community Justice’s Adult Services,” she said. “I think there's an opportunity where we can collaborate more and build.”
Also among her priorities as the new director is building on the work of curriculums such as Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability, Therapy (H.E.A.T.), a program tailored for African American men and women leaving the criminal legal system that was expanded for use in Juvenile Services.
“I truly believe in the vision of safety, trust and belonging — embodying those values and creating a culture that is inclusive, responsive, and safe,” Armstrong-Romero said. “We’ll keep building on our accountability and compassion and partnership.”
She says that she is committed to bringing a servant, transformational approach to the leadership she brings to the division, inspiring others to achieve shared goals through accountability, transparency and empathic communication.
Armstrong-Romero lives with her husband, 2-year-old twin boys, 1-year-old son, and 13-year-old bonus son. She enjoys traveling, reading, and spending time with her family. She is currently reading “You Can't Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson.