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'To Stem This Tide' : Counselors are trying to change kids' attitudes to keep them out of the cross-fire.

CHILDREN & VIOLENCE: Confronting an Epidemic. Second of three parts. Tuesday: Roland Gilbert knows a thing or two about youth violence--and how it might be prevented. According to one observer, Gilbert's violence-prevention program is "just short of miraculous."

July 12, 1993|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cindy Rodriguez, 14, Juan Moreno, 20, and Lonnie Washington, 25, wheeled themselves into Miramonte Elementary School with a message for the wide-eyed sixth-graders: This could happen to you.

Only a few years ago, each of the paraplegics had attended a central Los Angeles school like this one, its broken windows--patched with plywood and sprayed with graffiti--framing the disorder outside. Then, when she was 12, Cindy walked outside to get her mail and was struck by gang cross-fire; at 12, Juan was accidentally shot by a 6-year-old cousin playing with a gun; and at 24, Lonnie was shot in the back running from carjackers.

As members of Teens on Target, a new Downey-based violence-prevention group, they pleaded with the youngsters not to join gangs, not to touch guns, to walk away from fights, to always give an armed robber whatever he wants and to tell their troubles to a sympathetic adult.

But will Teens on Target work? Can any program prevent youth violence? Despite a proliferation of violence-prevention programs, no one knows for sure.

In response to what seems an already overwhelming yet rapidly escalating problem, the number of violence-prevention programs nationwide has grown from 80 to 300 in the last two years. "People are out there on their own trying to do something, attempting to find some answers," said Renee Wilson-Brewer, director of the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, which publishes and evaluates violence-prevention programs for adolescents.

Thus far, few of the programs have been scientifically evaluated. Said Wilson-Brewer: "Their attitude is, 'We need to do something, and we need to do something right now to stem this tide in our community.' "

Clearly, the direction of the new efforts is away from more prisons, stiffer sentences, more metal detectors or curfews.

"Our traditional way was to use a fast law-enforcement response and a penal system to deal with it. Recently, the thinking has begun to change," said Gary Yates, director of California's Wellness Foundation, which this summer begins the largest youth violence-prevention initiative to date in the U.S.

The foundation will fund a variety of programs, including community service groups, and efforts to lobby the entertainment industry to tone down violence in TV and movies. It will also attempt to change public attitudes about youngsters' access to guns, drugs and alcohol. The $25-million initiative aims to show "prevention is the answer, not 911 calls, arrest and incarceration," Yates said. The initiative also created the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco and will evaluate each program it funds.

The new thinking about violence prevention often follows a public-health approach which uses three stages of strategies to prevent disease. Where primary prevention focuses on education to change attitudes before a high-risk behavior like smoking begins, second- and third-level strategies involve intervention such as stop-smoking classes or even lung surgery to respond to the problem after it has begun.

A leader in this public-health approach, Harvard's Deborah Prothrow-Stith argues that violence cannot be prevented by after-the-fact school suspension, arrests or incarceration, just as cancer cannot be prevented by more and better lung surgery.

"We consider violence a learned behavior," she said. If that is true, it can be unlearned. Preventing it, as one would prevent smoking, is a matter of attacking the known risk factors: childhood abuse or the witnessing of violence, excessive exposure to violent heroes in the media, access to guns.

*

Because most homicides and other forms of violence involve people who know one another, many now argue prevention must address early childhood experiences, such as child abuse, that are correlated with anti-social or aggressive patterns. Some of the best documented programs start with infants.

In these programs, which originated in Hawaii, social workers identify mothers in the hospital who are at risk of abusing their newborns--teen-agers, substance abusers, victims of previous violence. Paraprofessionals then visit the homes of those who accept the counseling and other support services. In some cases, courts may mandate the service, but it is usually accepted voluntarily, said Lorraine Lima, director of a similar program, the 4-year-old Bienvenidos Family Services in East Los Angeles.

In Hawaii's Healthy Start program, there were no cases of child abuse among the 241 high-risk families who participated in the first three years of the program, 1985-88. In high-risk families not served, the rates of child abuse were three times higher than in the general population.

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