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LOCAL HERO

Making a Difference, One Kid at a Time

July 01, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Division 5 of Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina, Judge Rolf M. Treu presided one recent afternoon over a steady stream of cases, imposing sentences and fines in rapid succession and hearing attorneys' closing arguments in a jury trial for attempted auto theft, all in the space of one hour.

His lunch break earlier had been a different story. In those 60 minutes, in the quiet of his chambers, he met with James, a West Covina 15-year-old who had been ignoring his parents' curfew, and Mark, 13, of Covina, who had drug problems and trouble with authority figures.

With occasional contributions from the boys' mothers, Treu, 47, asked about their grades and offered tips for more productive study habits. When Mark said he kept forgetting to take his homework to school, Treu countered with, "Do you remember when your favorite television show is?"

He talked about the youths' potential for success: "You both have an advantage over me," said Treu, who was born in Bremen, Germany. "I can't be president. There's nothing you can't do in this country if you put your mind to it."

He then accompanied the teens to the courthouse lockup, where, giggling nervously, the two saw inmates in a holding cell. There was also a visit to a glass-enclosed interview room for prisoners and their lawyers. Outside the detention room, the duo held the heavy chains used to shackle inmates. On a previous visit, they had observed shackles on defendants in Treu's courtroom.

Back in Treu's chambers, Mark said, "Watching those guys in there made me realize that I don't want to have a trashy life, living off of welfare, living in a cheap apartment."

"Seeing a lot of people in chains, getting busted for stupid things, scares the heck out of me. I don't want to be in chains," said James.

Making such an impression is one purpose behind Treu's time spent with youths in a program called One to One that seeks to help troubled kids and their families, in part by giving the youngsters an unvarnished look at the realities of the consequences of illegal behavior.

The program was created in 1993 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy, who met with more than 200 kids ages 10 to 15 in Los Angeles and Pomona. He asked Treu to take over last fall after he was transferred from criminal to civil court in Los Angeles.

*

Since then Treu has met with teenagers and their parents once or twice a week. After discussing specific problems--truancy, disrespect for authority or running away from home--he meets privately with the children and teenagers, drawing them out and talking in confidence about lifestyle choices, friends, meeting challenges and the effects of negative behavior.

"This program is a springboard, not maintenance or supervisorial," Treu said. "It's to get them thinking about where their life is headed and what the possibilities are.

"Rarely they'll say, 'This is my life. I want it to be this way.' I believe then they're being defensive. One girl, 15, refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. But when I talked to her, tears were streaming down her face."

Treu and McCoy believe the program is working. "I get letters back from kids, and all indications are that they are doing well," McCoy said. "When kids start to move away from criminal influences, it positively impacts everything else in their lives--grades, relationships, the ability to deal with setbacks. Some people think this is 'Scared Straight.' I say it's 'Loved Straight.' For early adolescents, lectures don't do much good. What touches their lives most are the realities."

Parents are also pleased with the results. "One thing you taught me is that consequences have to stick," James' mother told Treu, referring to his belief that parents should enforce what they tell their kids. "I didn't used to do that, and now I do."

Also pleased is Josie Meza, school community liaison for the Healthy Start program in the Pomona school district who has referred four youngsters to Treu. "He's had a big impact on those kids," she said.

When kids see the judge's success, Meza said, "they realize that there's something else, that they don't have to use their physical force to make money. The judge told one boy who was starting to ditch school that he needed to stay in school if he wanted to be like him. He hasn't ditched since."

"They see that I'm a person who at one time was just like them, with the same fears and anxieties every teenager has," Treu said. "I still put my pants on one leg at a time. We're all human beings, here to help each other, whether we're judges, police officers, butchers or bakers. If we can help each other on a one-to-one basis, that's how problems can be solved."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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