CALIFORNIA
Check out the new California section
OpinionEditorial

Fighting L.A.'s gangs with families

Gang ActivityCrime, Law and JusticeHomicideLos Angeles Times ColumnistsJim Newton

In a large conference room at City Hall East, more than 100 gang-intervention workers gathered last week to hear about a new approach to heading off gang violence and the destruction it causes. They had come to hear a family tell its story.

The mother did most of the talking, guided by a counselor. She was there with two of her children, a son and a daughter, and they'd been through the wringer. An older daughter had gotten in trouble, deeper and deeper. She'd neglected her schoolwork and fought back when her parents tried to discipline her. She ran away from home, got pregnant. "The road she was on," the mother said, "was not good."

As the mother and father became increasingly preoccupied with trying to set their older daughter straight, they had less time to spend with their younger children, and soon those two began to show signs of trouble as well. Their grades dropped; the boy's interest in sports flagged.

Gripped by the sense that they were losing control, the parents called for help. It came in the form of a local organization, whose counselor dove into the life of this young family, escorting the kids to school, arranging for tutors, counseling the parents. Slowly, life settled down. The son got glasses, started doing his homework and brought up his grades; the younger daughter joined a program for future executives and thrived.

Asked to explain what got his attention and turned him around, the boy responded, "Jesus," then quickly added, "and the ladies."

The counselor for this session was Harry Aponte, a nationally recognized gang-intervention expert from Philadelphia, and he patiently waded through the family history as the audience of intervention workers listened, many taking notes.

This family-centered approach represents a new tack in Los Angeles' long quest to divert young people from gangs. The philosophy behind it is that focusing on a single troubled child isn't enough. Schools and neighborhoods surround children, but their families are their core of support and thus the most natural people to help them.

"We're shifting the focus from the individual to the family," Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes explained. "Every family has a problem-solving mechanism that gets jammed. We're trying to address that."

Police and others credit Cespedes' efforts, known as the Gang Reduction and Youth Development program, with making steady progress against gang violence in Los Angeles. Last year, crime overall in the city continued its long decline (though homicides ticked back up by a single killing, from 297 to 298), and the drop in gang crime continued to outpace that for crime generally. Fewer gang members fired shots or were themselves shot, and gang crimes overall fell by more than 15%, from 5,537 to 4,694. (Again, homicides were an exception, though a relatively small one: 170 killings in 2011 were attributed to gang violence, up from 161 the year before.)

So impressed is Police Chief Charlie Beck with the program's contribution to reducing gang crime in Los Angeles that, in an interview with Times reporters and editors last week, he said he's judging the field of mayoral candidates in part by which ones would keep the office structured as part of the mayor's staff. That configuration is useful, Beck explained, because gang crime is not spread evenly throughout the city, and giving the council oversight of the efforts means that there are pressures to spread its resources across 15 districts, rather than concentrate them where they are needed. "If [the program] becomes a council department again," he said, "it's not going to have the focus it has now."

Meanwhile, the approach is continuing to evolve. Driven by the program's determination to fuse research and real-world experience, Cespedes says he and others have concluded that families need to be at the center of the program's efforts. Hence the training last week at City Hall.

During his 90 minutes with the family, Aponte listened carefully as the mother and her children spelled out the elements of their success as well as the challenges that lie ahead. The older daughter has just had her baby and is living in a group home. The younger children still have a long way to go in school, and the temptation of gangs will not recede with just one strong report card.

But Aponte also recognized the family's progress, its emergence from a long stretch of tough work. "You're celebrating life," he observed. "You've gone through a dark alley, and now you're celebrating."

The mother nodded, as did her children. Aponte turned to his audience to emphasize the point: "They will not lose this.... This is their trophy to take home."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Gang ActivityCrime, Law and JusticeHomicideLos Angeles Times ColumnistsJim Newton
  • Newton: LAPD's impound dilemma
    Newton: LAPD's impound dilemma

    A proposal by Chief Charlie Beck to clarify the way police handle cars they impound from unlicensed drivers reopens a larger, historic question: Who's in charge of the city's police?

  • Sowing the seeds of an illogical crop ban
    Sowing the seeds of an illogical crop ban

    Last year's half-baked and unsuccessful proposal to ban genetically engineered crops in Los Angeles has not improved with time. Yet here it is before the City Council again, complete with wild statements about bioengineered food, chock full of inconsistent logic and, just like last...

  • Who's staying in that hotel?
    Who's staying in that hotel?

    This week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of an L.A. city ordinance that gives police easy access to hotel records and punishes hotel managers who don't hand them over with fines or jail time. The justices should agree with a lower court that the ordinance...

  • Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding
    Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding

    In what may be a hopelessly quixotic effort, supporters of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program are trying to persuade Congress to renew its funding almost a year in advance — and in a lame-duck session. Nevertheless, lawmakers ought to heed that call. The program plugs...

  • An Islamic State stalemate
    An Islamic State stalemate

    The United States and its allies are no longer losing the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and in the Middle East, that counts as progress.

  • How big a nuclear arsenal do we really need?
    How big a nuclear arsenal do we really need?

    If President Obama wants to use his last two years to further his agenda, here's something he could do that would both advance the cause of global security and save the country money: suspend plans to develop a new arsenal of American nuclear weapons.

Comments
Loading