SAN FERNANDO — Years of working with tough juvenile offenders have taught veteran Los Angeles County youth probation officer Lillian Cosme an important lesson: Early intervention can keep a troubled child out of jail.
Two years ago, on a mission to help at-risk kids, Cosme started a program in this tiny city of about 25,000 mostly working-class Latinos.
Though there are about 75 youth crime intervention programs in Los Angeles County in which school districts or municipalities contract with probation officers like Cosme, San Fernando's is unusual because it targets kids as young as 8, said Jitahadi Imara, county chief of juvenile specialized services.
"These are 8-year-olds who have seen guns and shootouts, not on TV or in their imagination," Cosme said. "I mean they've seen it! They've lived it!"
Stephanie Levinson, a third-grade teacher at San Fernando Elementary School, said Cosme's program has helped many of her students.
"Many of these kids are forming gangs at this age," Levinson said. "They've already been exposed to guns and drugs."
San Fernando annually contracts with the probation department to have Cosme run the program, which targets minors who have been identified by school officials or police as at-risk. The city of San Fernando and the county each contribute $47,000 a year to operate the program.
It's working, city and county officials said. Of the children in the 200 or so families who have participated, Cosme said, only six minors have gone into the juvenile justice system.
San Fernando Police Chief Dominick Rivetti credits Cosme's program as a major contributor to reducing crime in the city, where the violent crime rate dropped more than 50% in the last five years, according to data released earlier this month by the FBI and California Crime Index.
Though he couldn't provide statistics for juvenile delinquency before and after Cosme came to town, Rivetti said he believes many children she works with would have ended up in the juvenile justice system.
"We are getting these kids back into a positive lifestyle, to stay in school," he said.
Cosme, 50, a charismatic woman with short-cropped hair and glasses, works closely with San Fernando Middle School and four elementary schools.
Her full-time job includes visiting the five campuses weekly and maintaining close contact with teachers and administrators on the lookout for students who might be displaying perilous behavior.
Children Are Exposed to Real-Life Violence
Actions that have landed youngsters in Cosme's file range from middle school kids with excessive absences or who have been found with drugs to elementary students exhibiting disruptive, often physically threatening behavior.
The children she works with are exposed to so much real-life violence that most people would be shocked, said Cosme, a Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx.
The majority of the children she works with live in low-income, single-parent homes or in families where substance abuse--mainly alcohol--and domestic violence are prevalent, Cosme said.
She meets individually with a child and the family, often following up with home visits and later scheduling appointments with the appropriate social services agency for the entire family.
She also refers children to after-school sports, counseling or academic programs that may help keep them out of trouble.
"When kids get in trouble at the third- and fourth-grade level, it has to be a lot of family issues," said Cosme, a graduate of City College of New York who raised her son, now 30, by herself. "At the middle school, it's a whole lot of other stuff, like peer pressure."
Cosme's workload includes monitoring 19 juveniles on probation, running a group session at Las Palmas Park for troubled teenagers, teaching a parenting class for adults involved in domestic violence or child custody cases, and regularly visiting kids who have been placed in special schools for such things as anger management.
She meets weekly with elementary school classes and holds a counseling session for parents, run in Spanish by psychiatrist Jose David Cohen at Morningside Elementary School.
Many in the adult program were referred because one or more of their children got into trouble, said Norma Leticia Cruz, director of the Morningside parents center.
Recently, 20 parents--mostly mothers--talked about how to best discuss sex with their children, how to prevent them from getting molested and the difficulty of being a single parent.
Program Leader Also Meets With Parents
Cosme shared a few personal stories and encouraged the group to discuss such topics openly with their kids. Many mothers have also sought individual counseling with Cosme. With an office in the San Fernando Police Department, she is accessible to students, and their families, every weekday.