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Program Offers Teen Offenders a Detour From Road to Prison

Services: Goal of city-funded diversion is to ensure youths' first crime is their last.

November 15, 2001|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after winning a fistfight at San Fernando High School, SantanaMarie Flores was arrested on suspicion of assault, handcuffed and on her way to the police station.

The parents of the 16-year-old were summoned. At the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill Division station, an officer was left with a judgment call: Should the teenager be put through the justice system, or could she be salvaged?

Each year, the city-funded Youth Advocacy Program gives kids like SantanaMarie a chance to prove they are not on the road to prison. Instead of going to court, SantanaMarie, like 120 other San Fernando Valley boys and girls ages 8 to 18, was sent to see Manny Velazquez.

Velazquez, 43, is a counselor for the El Nido Family Centers in Pacoima, which administers the local Youth Advocacy Program, one of 11 citywide. His objective: to make SantanaMarie's first arrest her last.

While many of the city's diversion programs for first-time offenders offer field trips, educational films or sports programs, Velasquez focuses on what got the kids in trouble.

Much of his 15-week program attempts to debunk the myths of gang culture, such as the fear that any member who tries to leave the gang will be killed.

"That's just not true," Velazquez said.

And many teenagers still foolishly believe that they're safe from gangs just because they're not gang members, Velazquez said.

"A lot of kids ask me why can't they hang out with their friend who they've known since kindergarten," he said. "I tell them he might be your friend, but he's a homeboy and his rivals are just as likely to shoot you as him when they see you together."

SantanaMarie said that much to her surprise, she enjoyed the program.

"I thought it would be boring, but it wasn't," she said. "Manny explained a lot of things, like how it's just not worth getting into fights."

Arrest Record Remains on File

Not everyone completes the program. Those who fail are sent through the juvenile justice system. In the most recent course, 20 of the 24 offenders passed and "had their eyes opened to their knucklehead actions," said Velazquez, who was raised in Pacoima and was a counselor for 17 years with the city's Community Youth Gang Services.

Once a youth completes the class, the case is closed, but the arrest record remains on file.

Velazquez is blunt when he tells first-timers they are on the verge of ruining their youth.

"I tell them they might continue to mess up, but to remember they had a chance to clean up," said Velazquez. "It's like they are in a hole and I give them a shovel. They can use it to get out or to dig themselves deeper."

Many of the youths have used drugs, and most say stress was the main reason.

When Velazquez tells that to parents, the adults are flabbergasted. But stress, Velazquez said, is very real for many of his young charges.

"Imagine little Johnny walking to school," he said. "He has to cross four or five different neighborhoods before he gets there. At school, there's probably another dozen gangs represented. Then he has to walk home. That's a stressful day."

LAPD Officer Teresa Curtis had high praise for the program, which began in 1987.

"It's fortunate we can offer this good program rather than send them to court," said Curtis, who works the juvenile detail at the Van Nuys Division.

Throughout the city, 11 such programs counsel 800 youths a year. According to the Community Development Department, 73% of those who complete the program don't repeat. Police officers decide who gets in.

"Depending on the situation, we talk to the parents and the kid and see where they're heading in life," Curtis said. "Sometimes we end the case by recommending counseling. But if they don't complete the program, we find them and send them to court."

During the first week of the program, the youths meet with a therapist who determines whether individual or group counseling is best for them.

"If we get them young enough, we can work with them and they can help themselves to make better choices," said family therapist Kathy Lynch, the coordinator of the Youth Advocacy Program in Pacoima. "There's often a lot of anger in these kids, especially when the father is not around."

Velazquez said his students come from throughout the Valley.

"There is no accurate profile for a first-time offender," he said. "I've had kids from upper-middle class homes with two parents and kids from the projects with no parents. The one common denominator is they all committed crimes and got caught."

Every now and then, Velazquez gets a gratifying phone call from a kid who went through the program.

"They don't have to call, but they just want me to know they're doing all right," he said.

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