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Tough Leader Earns Respect at Youth Prison


The California Youth Authority's Ventura School locks up a younger, harder breed of juvenile delinquent than it did 20 years ago, when Vivian V. Crawford was the school's psychologist.

But today, at 45, Crawford is wiser, more experienced and more powerful. Now she runs the place.

Named superintendent of the Camarillo-based juvenile prison 17 months ago, Crawford oversees more than 900 young murderers, assailants, robbers and thieves--almost a third of them female.

Rising sexual abuse, gang violence and poverty have made tougher criminals out of the youths sent there, Crawford said. Some, she added, have so many problems and are so stubbornly resistant to treatment that they are doomed to lives of crime.

But Crawford said: "We never give up."

"Over the years," she said, "I've found some of the ones you think were not going to make it have made it. And others, you put all kinds of resources into them, and they come back into the system."

As a strong administrator and the first African American woman to run a youth authority institution, Crawford has won almost universal respect from employees and supervisors, who praise her as tough, attentive and fair.

And while some wards at the coeducational institution gripe that Crawford is overly serious and refuses to allow the regular boy-girl social events they once enjoyed, others praise her.

"I think she's a great role model to us, especially because there are so many females in here that are minorities," said Antanette Durr, 19, of Carmel Valley, who is serving time for murder.

Crawford has fought hard for the chance to earn that respect.

Born the eldest daughter of a tile-maker and a maid, she grew up in a poor family of seven children, living in the house her father built in segregated Palestine, Tex.

"I went to schools with all black folks, my neighborhood was all black folks--I didn't really see other people except to go out to stores, or people that my parents dealt with in their jobs," she said.

When she turned 15, the family moved to California. Crawford traded the calm Texas town for East Los Angeles, arriving on the scene just as the 1965 Watts riots were about to explode.

She also found herself trading concerned, demanding teachers for a sprawling metropolitan school system where many students encouraged mediocrity and many teachers were, at best, indifferent about her future.

"It was kind of a culture shock," she said. "In Texas, just about everybody studied and tried to do well. It was just the opposite in Los Angeles."

But in her senior year at Theodore Roosevelt High School, one teacher took note of Crawford's grades and encouraged her to try for college.

Crawford was reluctant at first, but then she seized the opportunity and packed her final high school year with courses that would enable her to apply for college.

"I had to fight to take biology, I had to fight to take chemistry," she recalled. "I had to fight my counselor."

After earning her bachelor's degree in sociology at UC Santa Barbara, she moved on to the graduate school to pursue a master's degree in counseling psychology.

Crawford volunteered for a taste of her future life's work with a semester-long internship counseling inmates at Lompoc Federal Prison Camp.

"I wish I had a picture of it," she said. "I was this little, young person in a room with about eight to 10 cons."

She admitted feeling a little lost at first. But she said her charges, whom she calls "gentlemen," caused her no problems as she learned how to counsel them.

After earning her master's degree, she studied an extra year to earn credentials as a school psychologist, and began applying for work. She signed on as a school psychologist for the California Youth Authority and started her work at the Youth Training School at Chino.

After several months, she moved to the Ventura School, and then to the Fred C. Nelles School in Whittier, where she worked on a training team that developed special programs at five CYA schools.

"I found it rewarding," she said of her work counseling wards and training staff. "It's a challenge, but when you see a positive change taking place, it is very rewarding."

Wanting to have a stronger impact on the wards' lives, she pursued an administrative career. She worked her way up from an administrative assistant's post in Sacramento to a three-year stint overseeing educational programs back at the Ventura School.

In 1985, she further bolstered her skills at the CYA's Preston School of Industry in Ione, overseeing programs for intensive treatment, counseling, substance abuse and forestry.

By the late 1980s, she was promoted to assistant superintendent, and then superintendent, of the 439-bed O.H. Close School in Stockton.

She then went to serve a two-year stretch as superintendent of the Southern Reception Center and Clinic in Norwalk, the gateway to the youth authority system for all young offenders. She returned to Ventura for a third time in February, 1993.

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