At age 13, Janette Tarango never got along with her peers, often acted out in school and was in danger of failing many of her classes.
Now the Santa Paula 15-year-old is getting A's and Bs, easily makes friends and is on track for college.
Janette--who recently won a community award for her turnaround--gives a large amount of credit to the Santa Paula Family Resources Center, where she spent two years getting free counseling and mentoring.
"If this place wasn't here, I'm sure I would have fallen into [the wrong] footsteps," she said.
As the hole-in-the-wall center faces the loss of its state funding because of California's slowing economy and rising energy costs, that could become an unfortunate reality for dozens of other at-risk youth in Santa Paula.
They are among more than 36,000 youngsters and parents in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and other counties who could be affected by the demise of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Program, begun in 1996 as a pilot project to provide constructive activities for low-income children and their families.
About $9.7 million was included in the governor's January budget proposal to keep the 12 centers operating for two more years. But in the April budget revision, that funding was eliminated.
California's suddenly weaker financial health, affected by a combination of surging energy expenses and softening revenue, is beginning to be felt even on playgrounds, said legislators and other state officials.
State Focusing on Other Priorities
"There had to be some hard choices," said Blanca Barna, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services. "It was important that resources be focused on programs that are currently a priority." Those priorities for the department include child welfare, adoptions, foster care and independent living, she said.
Supporters are mounting a vigorous effort to have state funding restored to the juvenile program.
"It's a tough year," acknowledged Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, which is considering such a restoration proposal. "The economy nationally and in the state has shifted now. But I'm personally pushing for [the program] and trying my best to protect it throughout the entire process."
The committee's vice chairman, Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster), however, noted that the Legislature has already approved a separate $121-million juvenile crime prevention package to be funneled through the state Department of Corrections and said the threatened program could be included in it.
"If other funding is available, I'd like to see why it can't be folded in," Runner said.
Supporters laud the program for its focus on strengthening the community. In addition to the after-school activities, it includes efforts to improve the bonds between families and schools, help single mothers keep their 10- to 14-year-old sons out of gangs, and counsel families with youngsters already in the juvenile justice system.
In Santa Paula, the center is one of very few social service resources for the city's low-income residents. Community leaders--including police and educators--say it is invaluable, and parents whose kids benefit from the center have already begun circulating petitions.
"They fill a hole, and with them gone, the hole will be back," said Steve Colvard, principal of the K-8 Community Day School. "A lot of these kids need another adult in their lives to help guide them through these problems."
Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales said he believes the center has helped curb juvenile crime in the city and said eliminating it would be "a step in the wrong direction."
"If you ever want to break the cycle in the family, you have to do it at the early ages," he said. "Losing that center would definitely create a void."
Study Shows Program Is Effective
An independent evaluation by Philliber Research Associates of a sample of families enrolled in the Juvenile Crime Prevention Program found that it helped to significantly decrease delinquent behavior, substance abuse, arrests and citations and improve family cohesion, social adjustment and school achievement.
Martin Hernandez, director of the Ventura County program run by Interface Children Family Services, said that was why he and the other 11 program directors were in Sacramento this week meeting with elected officials.
Until the state cutback, the Santa Paula center was expected to receive an $800,0000 grant from the program to keep tutoring and counseling services previously paid for by the county.
If the state funding is not restored, Hernandez said the programs only recently launched--including those targeting single working mothers, at-risk elementary school students and first-time juvenile offenders--would go away.
Interface may still keep up the physical center, but it's uncertain what services it could offer.